With Disney digging into its archives and smashing out live action remakes, this past week, the old and beloved classic Aladdin returned to screens. Post the furore over the actors chosen, some audiences were set to receive this one as we do most Disney remakes: with dread.
Casting and production aside, the film takes relatively large liberties with the plot of the animated source material, some in the way of changing a few of its problematic areas. Understandably, Disney is treading glass with a remake of a film like Aladdin in 2019. However beloved, the 1992 animated version set racist stereotypes, and exotified West Asia in a way that still barely gets a pass for being a product of its time.
The most noticeable and positive change in this direction is that Princess Jasmine is much more a part of the story than Disney’s 1992 ‘Aladdin’. Along with wanting to see the world, she has an unrelenting ambition to rule Agrabah as the first female Sultan of the city, and is fully confident that she is capable of it.
This is a running theme, and her desire to take the throne uplifts the film because, in a way, Jafar is trying to steal the throne from her as well. In the same vein, however, Disney seems to have gone overboard in pushing a feminist image of its films. Jasmine sings an extra, extremely unmemorable song called ‘Speechless’, not once, but twice. The song is ham-handed both in its visuals and lyrics, and looks like an attempt at recreating ‘Let it Go’ from ‘Frozen.’
On the plus side, rather than having things done to her or at her, Jasmine takes part in many of the films key moments, and plays a role in adding to or resolving situations that the characters are in. In this version it’s Jasmine who first lies about her identity instead of Aladdin, and both continue to try and fool each other until they resolve the situation. She takes part in a number of action sequences with Aladdin, and tries almost successfully to stop Jafar, (though Aladdin saves the day at the end).
Jasmine’s desire to become Sultan, however, is one of the few redeeming aspects of the movie. Mena Massoud as Aladdin and particularly Naomi Scott as Jasmine deliver mind-numbingly bland performances but, to their credit, they deliver excellent musical performances.
Will Smith charms and surprises in his role as Genie, making the character his own rather than trying to copy the beloved Robin Williams. His first song, ‘Friend Like Me’, is a beautiful show of light and colour, and entertaining to watch, though the big blue version of him is straight up creepy and was probably better left as a cartoon. Those making comparisons to the beloved Williams will be sorely disappointed, though Smith does his best to deliver his own version, which is not bad, and would have had its own charm were it not for the old version.
Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) was by far one of the most painful to watch. This Jafar has none of the scheming charm, wit, charisma, and over-the-top flamboyance that the character is associated with. It can be debated that some things don’t translate well to live-action, and this was a definite miss.
Adding to the pile of disappointments, the renditions of the characters’ non-human companions — Abu the monkey, Iago the parrot, and Rajah the Tiger — seem like poorly done taxidermies, looking neither cartoonish nor fully alive, and add almost nothing to the body of the film’s plot. Even Carpet looks like it could do with a round of dry-cleaning.
The city of Agrabah, designed by Gemma Jackson (who previously worked on ‘Game of Thrones’), delivers colour and vivacity, but is extremely confused in its definition. The clothes, sets, and customs are a mishmash from different cultures and feel neither unique nor cohesive. (You’ll know when the Bollywood number starts.)
There are many fan favourite scenes that are almost shot-for-shot remakes of the original, and while it may be interesting to watch, it makes you cringe to see the scenes and hear the dialogues that you saw a hundred times as a child being delivered in a different way. Rather than being a crowd pleaser, these remade scenes are mostly cringey and could have been avoided.
For long-time fans, it’s a pleasure to watch some musical numbers brought to life and see Jasmine having a bigger role. All in all, the best thing the film does is probably make you want to rewatch the 1992 version.
(The author is a brand & visual communications designer, and occasional pop culture writer based in Bengaluru.)