About halfway through Aladdin – Guy Ritchie’s enjoyable live-action remake of the 1992 animated classic – the titular “street rat” turned royal suitor (Mena Massoud) invites Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) for an aerial ride on his magic carpet. It’s here, as you might expect, that the pair harmonise a new rendition of ‘A Whole New World’, in a scene that plays out almost exactly like the original.
You might think it’s ironic that a song about “a new fantastic point of view” appears in a film in which the world looks so familiar. But although Ritchie’s film hews extremely close to the colourful aesthetics of Disney’s classic ’toon, as well as hitting all the same story beats, it does at least attempt to freshen things up.
In many ways, this is a whole new world. Nearly 30 years after the release of the original, things have changed – not just in terms of filmmaking, but culturally, too – and, in that respect, the film does feel very much of its own time. For a start, it’s not quite as shot-for-shot as you might think; what worked in a ’90s cartoon won’t necessarily work in a modern, live-action movie, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that we say goodbye to cheesy flybys of ancient wonders and people trapped in giant hourglasses.
Perhaps the biggest change in Aladdin ’19 is the character of Jasmine. Scott is given much more to do here, and she really makes the role her own – including belting out a whole new song, the defiant ‘Speechless’ (written by Disney stalwart Alan Menken and The Greatest Showman’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, with more than a few shades of ‘Let It Go’). Pitched as a potential future leader of Agrabah, she’s a much more rounded character than in the original and, dare we say it, has a much more satisfying arc. Not only that, but Scott has fantastic chemistry with co-star Massoud – a cheeky, likeable Aladdin – that keeps us rooting for the two young lovers.
Also showing good chemistry with Massoud is Will Smith as the Genie, who’s given the unenviable task of stepping into the shoes of the late, great Robin Williams. It was always going to take an actor with a big personality to move the Genie from out of William’s shadow, but Big Willie uses every ounce of his sizeable screen charisma to pay respectful homage while also putting his own stamp on the big blue wish-maker (despite being lumbered by some decidedly dodgy CGI).
Not quite as successful, though, is the reimagining of baddie Jafar (played by Marwan Kenzari), the sinister sorcerer and royal advisor who’s secretly plotting to overthrow the Sultan – aka Jasmine’s dad – as the ruler of Agrabah. Kenzari’s Jafar has more of a backstory that informs his lust for power, but his political scheming (perhaps influenced by Game Of Thrones and its ilk) lacks the maniacal menace of his larger-than-life animated counterpart. The result is that the villain seems somewhat neutered – by the time he goes full crazy during the film’s finale, he’s lost any kind of impact. A shame, given that Jafar was one of the original’s strongest assets.
One change to Jafar’s posturing during the grand finale, though, does at least introduce one of the film’s best, most dynamic set-pieces – a blistering, free-running chase across the rooftops of Agrabah. It’s here that Ritchie really comes into his own as director: he knows how to film a good action sequence, and he really brings the world of Agrabah alive, even sneaking in a bit of signature slo-mo. Elsewhere, though, he reins in his usual directorial flourishes – this is probably his most measured film to date, even with all the grand-scale dance numbers, toe-tapping songs and eye-popping production design.
That’s perhaps Aladdin’s biggest problem, then: aside from being brought up-to-date and benefitting from a few new additions, there’s an overwhelming feeling of having seen it all before. Kids visiting the story for the first time should find lots to love, but for fans of the original, despite the lively ride, it’s a world that’s perhaps not quite new enough.
Aladdin is out in cinemas now.