May 25, 2019 – Vinz Lamorena
The thing about messing with the classics is that it only allows a slim room for errors. The public is ruthless with their expectations and can be unforgiving. But Disney’s 2019 live-action adaptation of “Aladdin” need not worry about measuring up to its 1992 counterpart.
The film entices the senses with its constant motion and endless flashing of colors, and delivers the beloved folklore in a grandiosity of scale and opulence that immediately separates it from its source material. Its respect and awe for Arabic culture is an infectious fascination. Every scene of the film manages to cast its own enamoring enchantment, transporting every viewer to a fantastic land laced with magical realism.
Director Guy Ritchie (“King Arthur” and “Sherlock Holmes”) was patient in unravelling the story—it’s a good thing he knew the excessively jumpy editing just wouldn’t work on this one. Knowing how comfortable he was with fast-paced action dramas, I was prepared for him to make “Aladdin” a disaster. But instead he came up a clear-cut musical narrative that had gratifying theatrics and immersive action (which are best seen on the streets of Agrabah and Cave of Wonders).
With Alan Menken scoring “Aladdin” the second time around, there is an indistinguishable familiarity even with the reinterpretation of its canonical songs. The film’s music gains a certain gravitas to it, too, as it underscores majestic Arabic beats. The singing, instead of being the separately iconic singles they have become, finally adds a layer of storytelling that provides the emotional beats of the film—yes, pun intended.
In making the story of “Aladdin” come to life, Disney created a mythical period piece from the unknown ends of the earth. While the plot remains mainly the same and has even reworked the original lines to the new screenplay, its transformation into a live-action film is symbolic. As it takes on the realness of flesh and senses, the story also envelopes itself with humanity—the kind of benevolence and correspondence it wasn’t able to tackle before.
A strong connection with (and between) the characters are forged. Mena Massoud is overflowing with charm as Aladdin. While we see his innate kindness and honed wits and agility to survive, we are also allowed to witness how Aladdin ponders on his existential worth. All society offers him is pity and it doesn’t miss a chance to remind him of his shameful rank. His need to belong and be recognized as a person is apparent—he knows he can be more than a street rat, a riff raff.
Naomi Scott makes Princess Jasmine stand with undeniable grace and brilliance. “Aladdin” gave her character a defining strength, an ambition to position herself as a progressive leader of Agrabah. She wishes for a societal shift that would break gender expectations, and this princess doesn’t settle to be one or the other—Jasmine is to lead and love. Although we have to admit her solo “Speechless” sounded too modern pop to even be part of this film.
The story also deepens the connection Aladdin has with Jasmine. Their short encounters had such vulnerable honesty that doesn’t force its transcendence to infatuation. The princess’ alliance (and warmth) is won with intellectual conversations, and inevitably Aladdin’s awkward charms.
Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) is also given a history that fleshes out his despicable lust for power. There is finally depth to his sinister antics—rising from a societal scoundrel, he won’t stop at being second at command. He wants the throne for himself and this archaic-thinking dictator in the making is ready to declare war to expand his domain.
Last but definitely not the least, Will Smith was a magnificent Genie. Fans can have confidence in Smith’s spectacular performance of this favorite personality. The Genie gets his bizarre moments and frantic disposition where Smith brings his own brand of smashingly fun energy. This cosmic being’s personal arc has also grown with just one simple addition: He wanted to be free and become human.
Freedom is the most precious currency of this story. It emphasizes the freedom to become. A freedom that entails the deviation from the destiny of labels and traditional expectations.
In a lot of ways, this is true for the movie’s director, too. Ritchie was able to build a whole new world with this Disney remake—and he has redeemed himself with this one.
Photos courtesy of Disney. “Aladdin” is now showing on theaters nationwide.
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