I know it's beyond cliché to begin ones film review with a quote from the film you're reviewing, but the 2019 live action re-make of Aladdin was also the last place I expected to find a quote that was compelling enough to open said review with. While, at this point, I guess I won't technically be "opening" the review with the's close enough. "The more you gain by pretending, the less you actually have," is the quote in question by the way. As this is said by Will Smith's much discussed and often much maligned interpretation of the Genie it immediately became more evident that not only was this new iteration of Aladdin not completely tone deaf to the world in which it exists, but that it also works as something of a meta-commentary on how these live-action versions of these classic animated stories work or not depending on how much of a creative endeavor they are in and of themselves. The Jungle Book, for example, shouldn't have worked because the story was as thin as a wafer and the original was more or less a series of musical numbers, but by default of digging more into Kipling's narrative and creating this immersive environment with photo-realistic characters the film came to feel like something of an endeavor worth rewarding even if the final product wasn't as exceptional as the individual parts would lead one to believe. This is also why Beauty and the Beast didn't work and why Cinderella lands somewhere in the middle of the pack. Alice in Wonderland is the exception given that one had much the same level of investment as Jungle Book, but for one reason or another didn't work. Guy Ritchie's Aladdin only plays pretend for long enough that it warms the audience up to the idea of this new version before beginning to carve its own path and therefore making it its own thing-peaking its head out from under the legacy of the original. In other words, it doesn't gain its credibility by being a carbon copy and therefore amounting to nothing more than a flash in the pan money-maker, but there's surprisingly enough here to give 2019's Aladdin strong enough legs to stand on its own. It actually has a fair amount to offer. I'm as surprised as the next person about this revelation given the trailers and TV spots were more indicative of a train wreck than a triumph and while Ritchie's Aladdin isn't necessarily a triumph in the boldest sense of the word it is a triumph in the sense that it made this 90's-raised thirty-something dude who viewed the original animated film as something of the holy grail of animated films appreciate this new movie not just as an entertaining distraction that honored the original, but as an entertaining endeavor that both honors the original and finds new purpose in its own existence.         

Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) and Aladdin (Mena Massoud) explore the streets of Agrabah in Disney's 2019 Aladdin.
 © Disney Enterprises
In many ways it's easy to say why Disney's 1992 animated version of Aladdin was so special; whether it be Robin Williams' performance or the quality of the musical numbers with those classic Alan Menken, Tim Rice, and Howard Ashman songs. I'm certainly not one to argue with how high Aladdin ranks among Disney animated features as it was one of those nineties Disney renaissance films that played on a constant loop through my childhood and continues to endure as it's one I'm more than excited to share with my own children-I mean, the songs really are the best. What's not so easy to pin down is what was it beyond these things that made this movie and this story in particular so endearing? And further, without Williams and with the same songs-could this new experience be just as magical? The short answer is, "No, no there isn't," but it's been really easy-too easy-to assume the worst about this live-action re-make as it seems every piece of promotional material was met with the harshest of criticisms with everyone was ready to pounce as Disney ran the risk of ruining many a generations fondest childhood memories by re-configuring them into what the mouse house cynically hoped would at least be another Jungle Book or Alice in Wonderland situation where the money prints itself and all they're doing is continuing to go back to the well that has provided for them before. Sure, it's easy to see why people would be quick to jump on the negative train in regards to this new, live-action Aladdin and it's admittedly difficult to look past these expectations and assumptions and simply accept Ritchie's take on the narrative for what it is and not compare it to this thing that has meant so much to you for so long, but in attempting to try and see the film as something that, did it not have this animated predecessor, would likely be regarded as maybe not the best example of a movie musical, but a fine achievement and a really fun endeavor that brings you into this world and introduces characters who each seek to overcome the obstacles set out for them at birth-it works more often than it doesn't. Yes, it's easy to appreciate the animated Aladdin as we largely see it through the lens of nostalgia and it's even easier to jump on the pessimistic train in regards to the live-action take, but for the most part these two exist in the vein of a genuine original and a re-make where the re-make is both paying homage to its inspiration while adding enough of its own flavor to split the difference in terms of favor and quality. As with all things in life, balance is key and like it or not, 2019's Aladdin balances expectations and reality pretty well delivering a fun, entertaining, colorful, involving, and maybe most importantly-a sporadically moving experience.

More than anything, what made me personally cautious, but also rather curious prior to seeing this new Aladdin was the fact Ritchie was making a family film. This is the guy known for his grimy, British underworld crime films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, and RockNRolla, while handling more than his fair share of big studio movies in the two Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (which you should definitely see if you haven't already), and 2017's King Arthur. It's not that it's unexpected for the filmmaker to want to make family films (he does have five children after all-I'm sure he sees a lot of them), but the bigger question was would Ritchie be able to translate his style into a family film in a way where the comedy worked for a younger audience and the technique matched the tone. It's typically easy to tell when a Guy Ritchie movie is a Guy Ritchie movie whether it be the camera work, the use of narration, the type of characters, but no matter what genre he's operating in the tone tends to carry over from one film to the next; that is to say, Ritchie has a very distinct perspective. And going into Aladdin I largely hoped this unique perspective wouldn't be lost as it would seemingly be to the benefit of a "re-imagining" of a story we've all seen a thousand times before to have a largely fresh take slathered over it (Ritchie gets a co-screenwriting credit with John August), but that caution still crept in given there was no distinct way in which I could see Ritchie's style and approach adapting itself to the nature of Disney in a cohesive manner. It was either this or the man would simply succumb to the beast of what children's entertainment is supposed to look like. Much like the verdict when it comes to how this new take fairs in the shadow of the original-it splits the difference. Yes, Ritchie clearly uses his past experience with crime movies and "street rat" characters to influence the early sections of the film where we're introduced to Mena Massoud's title character on the streets of Agrabah-the city of "mystery and enchantment"-but Ritchie also seems to go the way of the more visual effects experienced second unit director when it comes to executing sequences such as the one in the cave of wonders or-and perhaps more glaringly-the musical numbers that each lack a certain sense of pizzazz. That isn't to say moments like "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali" don't work because when Smith is involved there is charisma to spare and to that effect-Naomi Scott's performance as Princess Jasmine and further, her performance of the new, original song "Speechless," is one of the highlights of not just the additions to this re-telling, but of the entire movie. While the majority of these musical interludes look more staged and unauthentic than anything on Broadway as opposed to the gritty and grounded style Ritchie is known for and might have made this adaptation stand out more. It is thanks to the extravagant production design and solid cast doing their best to make things work that these more often than not work well enough.

Aladdin and his new-found friend, the Genie (Will Smith), make a grand entrance under Aladdin's new guise, Prince Ali.
© Disney Enterprises
Speaking of the cast, everyone was arguably most anticipating seeing how Smith would ultimately live up to Robin Williams incarnation of the Genie and, while the marketing did its best to make us believe the worst, Smith pulls things together and puts enough of his own spin on the character that it-largely through the camaraderie he builds with Massoud's Aladdin-comes to be as heartwarming a bond as one could hope and genuinely funny in the right moments. There was outrage after Entertainment Weekly published a cover story along with a photo featuring Smith not as the recognizable blue genie, but the genie in human form and while the fully-CG creation works well enough (and again better than expected) for the character's introduction, Smith is largely in this human form and honestly-the movie is all the better for it. We aren't distracted by the varying degrees of quality depending on the type of shot the Genie is included in, but rather are allowed to become more immersed in the characters themselves and the conflict at the center of the story as Smith's Genie-who is literally narrating the film as well-serves as the audience surrogate into this story of star-crossed lovers who, against all odds, find a way to be together. As mentioned before, Scott is nearly exceptional as Jasmine as it is this character who undergoes the most changes from the original to this new film. Jasmine was always a rebellious princess not content with being told what to do and especially who she had to marry and always cared more about the people she would rule than the facade of being royal, but Ritchie and August really up these qualities as not only is Scott's Jasmine opposed to her arranged marriage, but she is well-informed about the political climates surrounding Agrabah, who their allies are, and who potential threats might be making it all the more difficult for Marwan Kenzari's evil Jafar to execute his plans without resistance. Navid Negahban's Sultan isn't nearly as clueless this time around and Jasmine is given a handmaid in the form of Nasim Pedrad's Dalia who gives Smith's Genie something a love interest and therefore more character development to play with. Pedrad in fact brings a nice balance of comic relief as Negahban graces each scene he's in with a nice balance of levity. And levity is key when dealing with a character who is as over the top as Jafar who Kenzari is serviceable as, but not exactly as memorable as he necessarily should be. Speaking to serviceable, this is about where Massoud falls as well. Sure, he's handsome and charming and plays the character about as well as one could hope a performer might (his singing and dancing skills are certainly put to good use), but beyond this Aladdin, the character, is made most endearing through the relationship he has with the Genie more so than his relationship with Jasmine or anything Massoud does specifically to make Aladdin stand apart as his own creation. So, no, 2019's Aladdin isn't necessarily the breakthrough with which we've been waiting for in terms of finding true purpose for these "live-action" re-makes, but it does well enough to keep Disney on a promising track and certainly isn't the complete derailment many anticipated it to be.

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