One of my more popular posts, especially recently, was a story structure breakdown of the 1992 animated Aladdin film – I think from people looking for information about the live-action remake released in 2019. So I think it makes sense for me to actually publish my thought of the most recent film so people aren’t confused.
My reactions to this film are very much based in my feelings for the original, so don’t view this review as though I’m being at all impartial. I am absolutely biased to favor the original. Because of that, I do some comparisons with the way the remake tackles this story against the original. To clarify things and to help indicate which version I’m refering to, when I’m talking about the original, I’m going to use italic font. When talking about the remake, it will be normal font. Clear? Okay then.
Also, SPOILERS FOLLOW for both the live-action Aladdin remake and the animated original, so take whatever internet precautions are needed.
Most of the casting in this movie (with regards to acting ability) was less than stellar, but neither was it atrocious.
But there are two absolute standouts: Naomi Scott as Jasmine and Navid Negahban as her father, the Sultan, are amazing, with Navid being especially standout for me. Something about the way his eyes and microexpressions could communicate decades of loneliness, loss, and grief while also showing a father who really did love his child, but doesn’t know how to connect with her just floored me. The reconciliation scene between the two near the end is so satisfying. He has limited screen time and yet I remember him vividly.
Naomi Scott on the other hand convinced me that Jasmine really did need a better script than what the original animated film provided. As lead, she absolutely carries this film and makes it not just watchable, but worthwhile. And her pipes! Granted, her voice shows much better in “Speechless” than in “A Whole New World”, but considering that she was replacing THE Lea Salonga (and filling those shoes is a hard job for anybody), I am totally on the Naomi Scott train. Her acting strength stands out the most during the scenes alongside some of her fellow actors where the gulf in talent between she and they is stark.
The other times when the acting really stands out is when the actors are required to interact with anything computer generated, and in this case, stands out for the worse. If the poor actor has to envision a blue genie or a monkey or a flying carpet or a giant parrot, it is almost uniformly bad. Naomi and Navid mostly escape criticism in this because their scenes don’t have a lot of CG. But poor Mena Massoud spends nearly all of his time on screen interacting with some CG element and always looks clunky and fake. Because of how often this happens with a number of different actors, I’m putting this acting fail squarely on the director’s shoulders – yes, the actors need to act around different kinds of challenges, but I don’t think Guy Ritchie did any of them any favors. Maybe they needed better visual targets or to have an actor in a green suit to act against or something. It fails so repeatedly that it has to be a systematic problem with how it was filmed, not just bad acting.
Since we introduced CG above lets continue – it is universally bad. Never at any point does poor Will Smith as “blue genie” ever look anything other than B. A. D. Honestly, he should never have been CG’d for this in the first place. He should have been body-painted Gamora-style, filmed, then given a some CG overlays. Replacing him with a CG body double destroyed my willing sense of belief for those moments in the film. And don’t get me started on the “Friends Like Me” dance number. **shudders** Every time they try to have the Genie zoom around cartoon-style during that number, it fails miserably.
Fake Abu (monkey and elephant varieties), fake carpet, fake parrot (regular and giant), fake Cave of Wonders, and even fake Agrabah suffered terrible things at the hands of the CG artists. I really don’t know who or what to blame this on – if it was rushed or not given priority or bad design or what. Just all of it is terrible, especially when considering that this is Disney we’re talking about, with deep pockets and plenty of talented artists at their disposal. I don’t get it.
Thankfully, the film seems to realize how bad the CG is from the start and goes to great pains to minimize overt CG whenever it can. The genie thankfully takes on human appearance almost immediately and keeps it for nearly 80% of the film. Abu is a non-entity, existing only to advance the plot in the moments required, and then essentially disappears. Same for Iago the parrot. The flying carpet exists, but really, it’s a carpet, so I don’t know. Agrabah is shown sweepingly at the beginning then the film transitions to physical sets at almost every other point. Pretty much every CG element that appears does so for plot reasons and then is gone, so as bad as it is, it isn’t around for very long.
You’d think by this point I should hate this film for all the complaining I’ve done. But really, it was more about things being mediocre to passable with a few great moments standing out, rather than outright bad. (Except the CG)
The music follows suit. Most of the performances are adequate. I didn’t hate Will’s approach to the genie’s songs, Mena hit the notes he was supposed to (though sounds uninspired or untrained), and while Naomi rocks “Speechless” her other moments were shakier.
That’s the frustrating part of watching this film – seeing that is had the capacity to be really good, but missing the mark on so many things that wouldn’t have taken very much to fix, and fix well.
But I absolutely cannot forgive the writers and film makers for one key change and it ruins the film for me completely. In my write up about the structure of the animated film, I talk about Aladdin’s moment during the “Return” portion where he gets the better of Jafar, tricking him into wasting the final wish by becoming an all-powerful genie. Aladdin manages this because he’s a con-man and thief, street-wise through and through. He knows how to manipulate people and emotions, and the only thing that’s stopping him from becoming a thief-king running those streets is that, at heart, he actually is a good person. He brings all of this – con-man and essential goodness – to bear in that moment of the film, taunting Jafar as second best and comparing Jafar’s limited power with the limitless power of the Genie.
And the Genie is terrified by this development – he already feels bad that he’s making a bad man more powerful, and now Aladdin is there stoking that desire? Has Aladdin gone crazy? Can he not see all the destruction Jafar has already caused? And then the other shoe drops and everyone (audience and characters together) suddenly see Aladdin’s plan. In the animated film, Aladdin get to be clever and his cleverness beats power. The structure of that reveal, and how it ties to character and theme works perfectly. If you wanted to copy verbatim any part of the original film for the remake, this is the part you copy.
This version destroys that.
During the same moment, Jafar has the upper hand. He’s won. Everyone is trapped or captured. Aladdin is about die. And rather than give him that moment to realize that he can trick Jafar, THEY GIVE IT TO THE GENIE TO THEN GIVE TO ALADDIN!!!
I’m so upset by this. Essentially, they destroy Aladdin’s character arc by doing this, because by taking that realization away from Aladdin, it removes his character moment after when he frees the genie. In this version, Aladdin isn’t smart, he isn’t the diamond in the ruff, he isn’t the hero – he’s just some lucky dude who got a genie. Good only trumps evil in this film because an all-powerful being kinda decides “Yeah, I’d rather that Aladdin guy win”. It’s is almost literally Deux Ex Machina – the god from the lamp in this case.
There is a bright spot from a story perspective though and it’s given to Jasmine and I love it. It’s not enough to overcome the story fail with Aladdin, but it’s close.
In the animated film, Jafar gets the lamp and wishes first to become sultan. Jasmine gets about 0.7 seconds to stand up to him about it and immediately he goes typical movie-evil-vizier and jumps immediately to his second wish of becoming a sorcerer and the film rushes on. Nothing really comes of it.
But in the remake, they let this play out. Jafar wishes to become sultan, which wish the Genie grants, and suddenly he’s there ordering everybody around, including the palace guards. And because the guards are law-abiding men, they now obey him because palace guards obey the sultan. That’s that law. It doesn’t matter that Jafar magically made himself sultan – in their eyes the sultan is sultan. End of discussion. So when Jafar commands Jasmine to wed him and she refuses, and Jafar commands the guards to take her away, they take her away. Not without some reluctance, but they obey, feeling trapped to do anything else.
This mirrors Jasmine’s entrapment – she strains the entire film to move beyond what “a princess is supposed to do” but obeys her father, the Sultan, because that’s what one does. She pushes and argues with her father, the Sultan, but in the end, obeys.
And then the moment.
As she’s being dragged away, unsure of what’s about to happen, Jasmine stops. She stands up AGAIN to Jafar, and calls on the power of loyalty and devotion. She convinces the guards to not only let her go, but to join her in turning against Jafar. In that moment, if Jafar no longer had the lamp, he’s done for. He loses. It’s him versus Jasmine, the palace guard, the ex-Sultan, and a tiger. It’s ONLY because he still has the lamp that he’s at all a threat. He isn’t smarter or stronger or better than Jasmine in anyway. This ends up being much more powerful, and much better motivation for Jafar to use his second wish to become a sorcerer. He realizes just having the title of sultan gets him exactly nothing and that he’s nothing without the lamp.
(Which is exactly the dismissal Jafar levels at Aladdin in the animated film. Thematically they can totally connect this moment to the climax where Aladdin should have beaten him by being something, ANYTHING, more than just a lucky guy.)
But this moment of Jasmine asserting herself comes with a second, internal revelation. For the first time in her life, the sultan and her father are not the same person. Before when she would argue to be more than just “the princess”, when she was concerned for the people of the city, or fearful of Jafar’s manipulations, she was confronted by the fact that the legal authority of the sultan was also the vested in the person of a father. A man who had already been so hurt by loss. She couldn’t bring herself to hurt him more, and so she relents again and again. But once Jafar is sultan, she’s no longer in danger of hurting her father by rebelling. She’s free to fight back, and to fight without giving in. And this freedom gives her (and her father too) the power to break with tradition/law/expectation, to challenge injustice by someone in power, and to win. Thematically, this moment is so beautiful. It really is a similar moment to the original film’s moment with Aladdin – where the person someone truly is has to shine through to defeat evil.
And the fact that they give us THIS moment while then completely butchering the climax is just soooooo angering.