One by one, Disney’s given live-action makeovers to their classic films, and 1992’s Aladdin is the latest to get that treatment. Each adaptation announcement stirs up excitement from audiences, but there’s also an anxiety and skepticism that expectations won’t be met. When it comes to remakes, viewers tend to look for three things: 1) nostalgia, 2) improved story-telling, and 3) application of today’s technology and/or cultural atmosphere. The 2019 edition of Aladdin (directed by Guy Ritchie; screenplay by Ritchie and John August) fulfills all three criteria a medium amount. That said, you’ll likely leave the theater content, but it’s equally likely there’ll be an undercurrent of disappointment.
Not that you’ll need this plot summary, but just for good measure: Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is an impoverished young man, whose life turns around when he finds a mystical lamp that inhabits a Genie (Will Smith). He’s allotted three wishes. He hopes to woo his city’s (the fictitious Arabian Agrabah’s) Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who has her own problems. She’s regularly monitored by palace guards, and is being made to marry to retain her sovereign status. Meanwhile Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), her father’s right hand man, is secretly determined to reign.
Misguided casting is often the first thing to threaten a recreation project. In this case, the characterizations of the fictional alter egos were the trouble. Many Disney tales include talking animal friends with splashy personalities. They carry the humor and compliment their human companions. They’re usually positioned peripherally, but they’re essential. In Aladdin, these pet pals were the petulant and mischievous monkey Abu, and the devious and obnoxiously loud parrot Iago. Part of the thrill of a live-action rendering is seeing fantasy elements (like a mouthy monkey) become tangible. Ritchie squandered the opportunity for this. He and his team heavily focused on aesthetic realism, sucking the pizzazz out of Abu and Iago. There was a similar effect in 2017's Beauty & The Beast (you can read my review here).
Royal vizier Jafar is an antagonist in name only. His presentation is entirely too subtle, having none of the menacing or magnetic qualities of his cartoon predecessor. When I was younger, I had nightmares about Jafar for years. Kids now are more liable to be scared of Santa Claus than Kenzari’s copy. The character’s allure lies within his shady wit. He does things like deliberately mispronounce Aladdin’s name, and use the guy’s signature song (i.e. “Prince Ali”) to expose and humiliate him. You wonder if Kenzari's’s incarnation is even capable of making a chicken joke.