Guy Ritchie Brings Together A Grand Disney Visual Style, Spectacle & The Energy Of A Bollywood Film. While Will Smith Reprises His Role From “The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air” & “Hitch” To Become The Freshest Hip Hopping Wingman In All The Land, While Granting One Big Wish For Viewers.
Walt Disney Studios had spent the better part of nearly a century in building a library filled with animated classics, and less than a decade to re-make almost the entire catalog into some entertaining and some unnecessary live-action remakes. With most of them not being able to stand the test of time, but have proven hugely profitable. It was only a matter of time until Disney would touch one of their most beloved animated classics and my second favorite animated film, the 1992 animated classic “Aladdin” into a live action re-telling.
Many doubts surrounded the production after marketing for “Aladdin” was promoted through photo stills, movie clips and badly put together trailers, that made the film look like a hot mess. Despite all the backlash about the film (there was a lot!), people are still going to come out in droves to see the film. From the generation that grew up with the 1992 animated film, to today’s new generation of kids.
If this Memorial Day weekend, theaters are filled to a sold out capacity like the screening I went to tonight. It’s safe to say that Big Willie is all up in it and he is back to own the Memorial Day weekend as the all-powerful blue Genie, Ant-Man-ing himself into different sizes and serving as a wingman, while granting a kind hearted street rat three wishes.
The most unbelievable thing about “Aladdin” is actually what is displayed on screen during the opening credits. Never in my life did I ever think I’d see that Disney studios logo followed by the words: A Guy Ritchie Film, he also serves as producer and screenwriter. Director Guy Ritchie, who made his mark some 20 years ago with his indie UK crime films that were made for little to no money like: “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, “Rock N Rolla” and “Snatch”. Ritchie has since gone on to become one of Hollywood’s big budget filmmakers directing both “Sherlock Holmes” films with Robert Downey Jr, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” and my favorite film of his “King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword”.
Ritchie does a solid job of bringing back a visual and spectacle showcase on a scale to which he did with his re-visioning of “King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword”. He blends big set pieces, practical effects and the CGI wizardry of Industrial Light and Magic, that allows an enormous genie to emerge from a brass lamp, a monkey to be turned into an elephant, and a magic carpet to take Aladdin and Jasmine across the continent as they sing the classic “A Whole New World”.
It’s hard to imagine why Ritchie wanted to make “Aladdin”, my guess it was for his kids? But Disney seems to have ironed out all of the director’s familiar, kinetic and oppressive style. Gone are the textured lighting schemes, the dynamic speed-ramps, and the energetic montages. In their place are flat pastels, straightforward chase scenes, action sequences and long-take musical numbers. If you didn’t tell anyone who directed this version of “Aladdin” and asked the audience afterward, I guarantee no one would have guessed it came from Guy Ritchie, who brings enough creative energy to introduce this story to a whole new world.
“Aladdin” stars Mena Massoud (“Tom Clancy’s: Jack Ryan”) as the title character, a street urchin who’s gotta eat to live, and gotta steal to eat. One of the doubts that surrounded the casting was of Mena Massoud. I was unimpressed with what I saw of Massoud’s performance in film clips released by Disney, but the scenes released doesn’t do justice to what we actually see in full. Massoud does start off rough, and found myself saying this performance is going to be bad. As the film started to unravel, Massoud had proved to be quite dashing in the role, especially when he is flashing that million-dollar heartthrob smile (he is just so dreamy!).
The 1992 animated version of Princess Jasmine was always underwritten, but Guy Ritchie and his co-screenwriter John August give Jasmine ambitions of her own. Naomi Scott from the “Power Rangers” movie embodies the role of Jasmine. She is no longer just a beauty to be won by the “diamond in the rough” street rat Aladdin, but she is a woman who sees herself as a potential successor to her father the sultan. Jasmine’s feminism gets more of a spotlight in this adaptation. She points out that “Princesses are always described by their beauty and princes aren’t, yet they have the exact same position”.
Scott has the gravitas to play Jasmine, and her chemistry with Massoud is natural and romantic. Her new take charge attitude is a nice breath of fresh air. There’s even a new character of Jasmine’s handmaiden Dahlia (Nasim Pedrad), who is introduced and she helps to ground Jasmine and nicely humanizes the Genie.
Marwan Kenzari as Jafar chews the scenery to an over the top fashion, that he was the only cast member I had a problem with. Kenzari makes it obvious how hard he is trying, either Riz Ahmed (“Venom”) or Oscar Isaac (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) would have been more inspired choices. The casting of middle eastern actors, gives Naomi Scott, Mena Massoud and Marwan Kenzari a well earned breakthrough showcase.
However no one in the cast has bigger shoes to fill than Big Willie himself Will Smith, who takes over his role from the late Robin Williams. The beloved comic originally voiced the animated Genie like the Robin Williams we all knew as a half-mad god of comedic and manic chaos. Will Smith’s approach of the Genie can’t be compared to that of Robin Williams as one is physically acting and the other is acting using only his voice. Smith’s inspired take on the Genie recalls to one of Will Smith’s most popular roles as “Hitch”, who is the ultimate wingman that is even down to helping him dance. Smith is really good at that because he’s an actor who can bring the right mix of bravado, charm, humanity, and showmanship.
Will Smith brings the hip-hop swagger of his early career, his blue CGI muscles and his wingman tips from “Hitch” to teach the young ones about the dangers of lying in a relationship and that the best “game” is to be yourself. It’s great to see Smith in comedic mode again, and smart of the team to base the Genie’s personality on the star’s brand, rather than imitating what Williams did with the role. While it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Smith makes the role his own, as he recaptures a different type of magic that Robin Williams had brought.
Original composer Alan Menken returns and gets assistance by “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman” lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Pau. Ritchie and his lyricists give the musical numbers a Bollywood-style spin to the film’s biggest production numbers. All of the original songs from the animated film are still present including Aladdin’s song “Jump Ahead”, which is probably the best musical action scene since “Hudson Hawk”. The sequence featuring “A Whole New World” was as splendid as I hoped it would be and it was a treat to see it played out.
They put a slightly new spin on the original songs and if you loved Alan Menken’s score in the original film you’ll find an homage to his work. Menken helped rewrite some of the songs with Will Smith in mind. Giving it a jazzy, hip-hop infused and heavy on the Bollywood grandeur, as each tune compliments the multi-talented cast who sings all of their own songs. There is also a new recording of “You Never Had A Friend Like Me” from Will Smith that recalls back to his original recordings for “Men In Black” and “Wild Wild West”.
There is a completely new song not featured in the 1992 original as Naomi Scott belts out a ballad called “Speechless”. It’s Disney’s version of “The Greatest Showman” ballad “Never Enough” and the closest thing to a female empowerment anthem Disney has given us.
Ritchie expands the runtime from 90 minutes to 128 minutes that swoops on by just as his camera does during the magic carpet rides through the virtual sets. His style embraces the kind of vision needed to pull off such a fanciful tale. Will Smith who was known as Big Willie was once the king of summer movies, especially Memorial Day weekend as he dominated the box office race. It’s been awhile but Big Willie is back to own another Memorial Day weekend. At least Will Smith’s Genie granted me my one wish…that this movie wouldn’t be a let down. “Aladdin” is just one more step in taking Guy Ritchie from an indie filmmaker to a $200 million dollar studio filmmaker, as his version of “Aladdin” is a real diamond in the rough.
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)