The Good and Bad - But Mostly Good - of 2019's Aladdin
Like much of America, I was brought up on Disney films. I grew up owning literally every Disney animated film ever made and watching each of them on repeat. And being that I grew up during the Disney Renaissance, I really loved Aladdin. And who wouldn’t? It’s got a fun story, memorable characters and an incredible soundtrack. I loved it so much, that for many years worth of Disneyland trips, my parents and I watched the live theatrical version at California Adventure’s Hyperion Theatre and I even saw the Broadway version of the play when it went on tour.
So I felt a huge punch to the gut when I found out they were making a live action version of this film starring Will Smith as the Genie. And after watching the sad cash grab that was 2017’s Beauty and the Beast starring Emma Watson, I felt strongly that this film would be just as depressing. But during a trip to Austin Texas the weekend of its release, Steven and I decided to see it, just to get a good laugh out of it. And we were happily surprised that the movie was decent. Is it as magical or as great of a film as the original? Hell no, but we never expected it to be. What we did expect was a soulless interpretation of the film created by a panel of corrupt investors. But what we got instead was - while clunky and awkward in many ways - a pretty well-made film with a surprising amount of heart.
After glowing remarks about the film from friends and comment sections all over the internet, we were happy that people felt the same way we did. But then we got to looking at what the “professional” critics had to say. And they tore this film to shreds. Which I’d totally understand if it weren’t for the fact that these were the same people who raved about terribly written films such as 2017’s Wonder Woman and Beauty and the Beast. (Check out this article to see why I hated those movies with such passion.) I was so confused that the critics who gushed over Emma Watson’s wooden auto-tuned performance as Belle and Gal Gadot’s Stepford Wife like performance as Wonder Woman had the nerve to call this film soulless. With a huge difference between audience scores and critics scores for this film - the critics’ current score being 56% and the audience’s current score being 94% on Rotten Tomatoes - I had a feeling that something was up. That in the world of Hollywood politicking to get films praised and trashed by easily swayed money hungry media “journalists,” there was some sort of vendetta against this film. Because the people have spoken, and they think it was well done. So I figured I’d throw my hat in and break down the good and bad of the film. While it has major flaws and is nowhere near as good as the original, I find it extremely unworthy of the criticism lobbed at it. Especially from the people who called Emma Watson’s singing in Beauty and the Beast “beautifully crafted.”
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS OF BOTH THE ORIGINAL ALADDIN FILM AND THIS NEW REMAKE
THE GOOD: EFFECTIVE CHANGES
This movie made a few changes from the original in its storytelling structure, and I felt that many were pretty effective. I liked the fact that Jasmine was with Aladdin throughout so much of his running from the guards. It gave them time to bond and gave him more of an opportunity to impress her with his street smarts.
I also liked that Abu steals Jasmine’s bracelet, showing what Aladdin has taught him. It humanized Aladdin, showing that he probably in the past has stolen from nice people. And it makes it impactful when Jasmine gets frustrated with him and loses trust and interest in him after the exchange. Especially since trust is a huge theme in their relationship. Him having to return her bracelet to prove himself, and the bit with the hair accessory really was nice framework for their relationship. It gave her and excuse to see him after he walked away from the palace and showed that he wanted to do right by her at the end of the day, rather than just keep her riches, which is in theme to the conclusion that he wasn’t just interested in her in order to become Sultan.
Also, while I thought that the character of Dalia - the lady in waiting - was terribly written, I thought it was nice that the Genie got to start a family after being set free. In the original, he just says he’s going to Disneyland. But in this version, it was nice to see that he finally was free to live for himself long-term, thanks to his friendship with Aladdin.
THE GOOD: THE CHEMISTRY
One of the most glaring issues I had with the Beauty and the Beast remake was that Belle and the Beast had no chemistry. And why would they when Emma Watson (already not being that great of an actress,) had to deliver her lines to either nobody, or a man dressed in a padded gray leotard modeling for the Beast who would be added in post. We didn’t really get to see them spend as much time with each other as in the original, and when they were together, they were quite short and awkward with each other, making it not-so believable when they’re in love later on in the film.
But this movie made me believe that Aladdin and Jasmine really liked each other. The chemistry between Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud is very apparent, and they both do a great job of sticking to their characters’ personalities, while being very soft and communicative with each other. We get a lot of conversations between them in settings that really teach them a lot about each other. For a kids movie, the script makes it pretty believable that Jasmine would fall for Aladdin despite his background, and that Aladdin likes Jasmine for more than just hers.
THE GOOD: THE UNIVERSE
In contrast to Beauty and the Beast, this film also made Agrabah feel like a real place where real things are happening. The market place feels full of people going about their day. Their world feels populated and organically lively enough to make me believe that Aladdin lives among that community and that Jasmine is the princess of a real kingdom. In 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, every member of that poor provincial town was so choreographed and lifeless. Every person looked like they were counting their steps in their head as they were moving, similar to a shoddy high school play. Here, Agrabah - while it does of course feel like a polished fantasy version of the world - feels like people are really selling fruit or really on their way to work, or really talking with their friends. This feeling made the stakes of the film feel real, like what happens to this kingdom politically will impact all those people in the marketplace.
THE BAD: CGI ANIMALS
I find it strange that the company who gave us some of the most memorable 2D cartoon characters of all time feel the need to design ultra realistic animals and anthropomorphic creatures. They decided long ago that from Cinderella’s mice to the enchanted items in the Beauty and the Beast castle to now Abu and Iago, they were going to make realistic versions of the animals or objects at hand, which always makes for a boring or creepy spectacle. Part of what we loved about those characters wasn’t just that they were expressive monkeys or talking teapots, but that they were animated to look much like people’s faces and were very easy to relate to in that sense, and yet cute in their own way. I feel nothing when I see a fake generic CGI lion in the trailer for the new remake of The Lion King, unlike how when I see the 2D Mufasa and Simba, I recognize and sympathize with them.
I did not feel anything for the generic monkey and parrot designs of the lovable animal characters in this Aladdin story. Which was sad, because I thought Abu was written into this film really well when it came to the role he played. It’s sad that I felt like I was looking into the eyes of the Annoying Orange every time he was on screen. I especially thought that Iago was disappointing and boring, especially with how memorable his sense of humor was when played by Gilbert Gottfried in the original.
One thing I will compliment them on is their interpretation of the carpet. Since it had no face, it ended up being animated well, moving and acting just like the carpet I remember from my childhood.
THE BAD: JAFAR
One of the most distracting differences between this film and the original was the presence of Jafar. When I think Jafar, I think of an old tall slender, creepy and intimidating man with intense facial features and a deep bellowing voice. What I got instead, was a guy who looks like a random YouTuber in a Jafar costume for Halloween. It was a bizarre miscasting and an unfortunately forgettable portrayal. And I don’t blame the actor - I blame the casting directors. Why is Jafar so young and so seemingly goofy? Part of what made him intimidating was his age in the original. He was so much older than Aladdin and Jasmine, making it believable that he’d be difficult to thwart, or that the Sultan would make him his right hand man. This guy seemed like such a goofball, I couldn’t take him seriously. I don’t buy that he’s so influential and powerful enough to control the people around him. So in the end, when Aladdin tricks him into becoming a Genie, I’m not impressed that he was so easily fooled.
THE GOOD: THE VISUALS
One of my favorite aspects of the film were its visuals. From the set designs and decorations to the costumes, I felt this was a very vibrant and pretty film. Many CGI heavy films rely on very dark imagery to sort of distract from the fact that nothing you’re looking at is real. But this film showcased so many bright and open locations in the palace and out in the middle of Agrabah, that I was able to see everything well and really take it all in.
I also loved that the costumes in this film satisfied the little girl in me who remembers every little detail of the outfits in the original film. From Aladdin, to Jasmin to the Sultan, everyone’s looks were ultra recognizable, lavish and over the top enough to look beautiful on the big screen, yet updated, dignified and live-action appropriate (for example, if Aladdin and Jasmine wore the same thing they did in the animated film, Massoud would have been shirtless half the movie and Scott’s entire stomach would be on display. Which would have made it less kid friendly for some parents’ tastes.)
And even though they took creative liberties adding new Jasmine costumes, in my opinion, they still all felt like a grand Disney fantasy, without being too Westernized. And boy was I nervous about the costumes after seeing Emma Watson in that sad excuse for a Belle gown that looked like it was made from used yellow picnic napkins.
HIT AND MISS: THE MODERN UPDATES
Being that the original Aladdin film came out about 27 years ago, there were bound to be major updates done to this one to satisfy the more politically correct and culturally sensitive nature of the country (and much of the world) today. And while I noticed a lot of updates I was super happy about, I cringed at others.
Updates I enjoyed included Jasmine’s girl power aspect (I expand on that in another point in this article,) the fact that they removed the scene where she’s dressed as a slave girl, that they gave her a friend in her corner - Dalia - so that she could communicate her feelings on everything going on around her to someone other than her father. In the original film, her only friend was her pet tiger, so she was limited in what feelings she could communicate to the audience through her conversations with Rajah. Even though Dalia is cringeworthy, I did like that she made Jasmine’s feelings more apparent.
Some people were angered by the fact that Naomi Scott is Indian instead of Middle Eastern. I am personally not offended by this choice, as to me - being a woman who grew up watching white women play characters of color - any opportunity to get actresses of color into the spotlight is really good. Sometimes the best actor to play a role isn’t the exact nationality of the character. But in my opinion, as long as they give many Middle Eastern women equal opportunity to audition for this role and other roles they’re suited for, I am happy. In my ideal world, there would just be so many roles to go around for people of every race - as well as racially non-specific roles - that we wouldn’t have to worry so much about whether or not each actor is the exact nationality of their character.
However, what did bother me in this film was how Indian everything else skewed. From some costume and set design choices, to the dance scene that reminded me of Bollywood. I think it’s very important nowadays to not confuse impressionable kids on two very different cultures or groups of people. Agrabah being a fictional place with a fictional culture is fine, but it’s important to rmember which part of the world it’s based on.
THE MOSTLY GOOD: THE SOUNDTRACK
Another aspect of the original film that I hold near and dear to my heart is the soundtrack. It may just be my favorite collective Disney soundtrack of all time. And I was nervous for this one after the beating my childhood took with the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack. From the squawking of Emma Thompson to the auto-tuning of Emma Watson that would make even T-Pain embarrassed, that soundtrack was painful to sit through and didn’t do any justice to the original. So when this film started out with the truly awkward pop-inspired “Arabian Nights” intro song with autotune-heavy vocals by Smith, I thought we were doomed.
But then the rest of the soundtrack ended up being pretty great and true to the original. Yes there were some awkward sounding parts to performances and nothing beats the original vocalists from the 1992 version. But overall, I thought the songs held great energy, evoked the correct feelings and were arranged nicely. I think this soundtrack’s arrangement was actually 100x more successful in feeling like Aladdin than the Broadway version, which sucked the life out of some songs and added unnecessary other ones.
I am grateful to this film that it only added one new song: Jasmine’s girl power anthem “Speechless.” I have mixed feelings on this song, as it comes the hell out of nowhere both times its sung, is generic and clunkily written, and doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the Aladdin songs (despite being written by Alan Menken himself.) However it’s nice to hear Jasmine get a song that expresses her feelings, as she’s the one being emotionally pushed and pulled in many directions in the story. And Scott does a nice job with the vocals. But I was hearing a bit too much of Hamilton’s “Helpless” and ABBA’s “S.O.S” to find that song memorable on its own. And I think it would have been more powerful if she had sung it quietly to herself the second time around after the guards take hold of her. It would have been really sad to see her lose her power, and impactful to see her sing that she won’t be speechless despite of that. But when it goes into the same high energy as it was sung before, and the fantasy version of her tears away from her captors, I don’t feel for her as much.
Yes the soundtrack has flaws like the ones I’ve mentioned and the awkward drumroll sequence in ”Prince Ali” where the Genie tells the Sultan they won’t continue singing until he…taps his hand on the side of his banister (what the hell?) followed by the awkward sound of the song going allargando. That could have been executed much better.
But I dig “Friend Like Me,” “One Jump Ahead,” “A Whole New World” and many of the other songs, feeling they were done in the spirit as the original versions. And the visuals during those songs all felt like they were done by someone who loved the 1992 film a lot. And that’s more than I can expect from the studio who recently gave me robot Hermoine.
And while I never thought I’d hear DJ Khaled yell “Another one!” during the credits of an Aladdin movie, it still wasn’t enough for me to dislike this soundtrack.
THE BAD: THE “COMEDY”
I don’t know what I did in a past life to ever deserve to have to see such awful comedy. There were hardly any actually funny scenes or jokes in this film. The tone of the comedy always had to be “empty awkwardness.” And we kept revisiting boring jokes such as the jam situation. I was shocked when I realized that Nasim Pedrad who played Dalia was an SNL alumnus. Because the humor in this film was so basic and poorly written that only 5 year olds or people who don’t leave the house could truly enjoy it. I think most of the laughter we heard in our theater was via discomfort at how long each bad joke was dragged out. I can’t wait until we are done with this “awkward moment comedy.” It’s truly a waste of time.
THE MOSTLY GOOD: THE GENIE
Like everyone, I went into this film ready to hate on Smith’s Genie. As a huge Robin Williams fan, I have always been skeptical of any portrayal of the Genie following the original film. And it’s very hard not to be, as the role was literally made for him. These feelings of mine were also cemented by how much I liked the portrayals of him in Disney’s live Aladdin show at California Adventure’s Hyperion theater, which truly embodied the Robin Williams version. And how little I enjoyed the Broadway version of the Genie, which did its own thing and ended up being less charming by a longshot.
Enter Will Smith, who at this point is the industry’s smartest decision for the role. He appeals to Gen X and Millennials from his Fresh Prince of Bel Air days and to Gen Z with his newfound YouTube presence. We the audience already like and trust him, so it makes sense to put him into a role where the character is meant to be loved and trusted. But he and Williams have nothing in common when it comes to their humor or style of performance. So this casting choice bewildered everyone and even angered many fans of the original. It felt like a huge sell-out on Disney’s part and even added to the hatred of this movie before its release. And believe me, the first quarter of his performance is cringe-inducing. Borderline painful to witness. He was being forced to act so much like Williams and carry this over the top Looney Tunes type character the Genie is known to be, without baring any of the crazy cartoonish energy required for that part of the role.
However, once the character started to shy away from the cartooniness of the original, and Smith got to start acting like himself, things got a lot better. Things went from 0 to 60 once he stopped doing a pale Williams impersonation and started being the swaggering charming know-it-all we have always loved seeing him be. And once the Genie came into his own, I really enjoyed him the rest of the film. With Smith being such a familiar face, I really felt like I was spending time with an old friend. Had the writers realized that from the very beginning, I think this could have been an even more successful performance.
THE GOOD: MEANINGFUL GIRL POWER
When I saw Jasmine’s girl power moment at the end of this film, I cracked up. And not at the aspect of her girl power, but at how it blew 2017’s Beauty and the Beast’s pathetic attempt at feminism out of the water.
The remake of Beauty and the Beast tried very hard to force in a feminist moment of Belle inventing a washing machine and teaching a girl to read. But is stopped by a human manifestation of the patriarchy, who tells her that one girl knowing how to read in that village is bad enough, and breaks her washing machine. But instead of standing up to him and telling him off, Belle just sits there and takes it all, and that aspect of the film is never discussed again. Instead of a feminist statement, it felt more like a “woe is me” that men are so terrible in this world, without being an example to young impressionable girls watching the film as to what to do when something like that happens to you. Belle’s washing machine never gets mentioned again and she never goes back to teaching that girl how to read. Instead, the movie congratulates itself on shoe-horning in some contrived feminist scene since it was probably part of their contract with Emma Watson due to her organization He for She. Not to mention, women were already literate in France during the period Beauty and the Beast was written. In fact, the original Beauty and the Beast story showed up in a magazine for women. But go on and congratulate yourself on a job not so well-done.
I personally prefer the new empowering take on Jasmine’s character, where she spends her days reading about the history of her kingdom and learning more about the people of Agrabah, in order to become a leader that serves them better. True, she may need an economics lesson seeing that she didn’t think she’d have to pay for the food she sneaks a kid in the beginning of the film. But in the end, she proves herself to her father, who then makes her the Sultan, so that instead of passing the power over to whoever she marries, she can have control over the kingdom she cares about. And she ends up being the one to change the law that she can only marry into royalty, changing her path and opportunities and that of those who come after her. It was a plot line that actually went somewhere, pleasantly surprised audiences and made a lot of sense. It was impactful, it empowered her and it felt like the right thing for the film to do.
And that’s exactly why I ended up enjoying this film. It came into its own by the end. At about the half way mark, it stopped trying so hard to be the original and started focusing on how it could be impactful to a new generation: Giving Aladdin and Jasmine more time/reason to fall in love, updating the Genie’s attitude and empowering Jasmine in a way that wasn’t contrived. And that’s why I believe this film was much better than it was given credit to be. While I can’t say it was an incredible film I will remember all my life, I think it was a job nicely done and that anyone interested in it should watch it for themselves to come up with their own opinion on it, rather than jumping on the hateful bandwagon the world of “journalism” is trying to impose on us all.
What did you think of the new Aladdin remake? How would you have done things differently? And why do you think the critics have been ultra hard on this film and extremely lenient on films like Beauty and the Beast? I hope you’ve enjoyed this film breakdown. Until we meet again.