Movie Review: Fresh Prince meets Prince Ali in live-action ‘Aladdin’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews Disney's live-action 'Aladdin' (Jason Fraley)

In 1992, Disney’s animated classic “Aladdin” won two Oscars, including Best Original Score (Alan Menken) and Best Original Song for “A Whole New World” (Menken and Tim Rice), while earning Robin Williams an honorary Golden Globe for his iconic, zany voice work as Genie.

This weekend, Disney releases the latest in its successful string of live-action remakes with “Aladdin,” a nostalgic magic carpet ride that might not be “a whole new world” of original filmmaking, but is a welcome familiar world after the depressing downer “Dumbo” (2019).

Set in the fictional Arab kingdom of Agrabah, a kindhearted pauper named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) falls for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) after a chance encounter in the market. He laments that he can never marry her because traditional law requires her to marry a prince.

When the evil Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) sends Aladdin into the Cave of Wonders to retrieve a magic lamp, the cave collapses with Aladdin still inside. Upon rubbing the lamp, a Genie (Will Smith) offers to grant him three wishes, transforming him into Prince Ali to impress Jasmine.

Let’s face it, there’s no replacing the late Williams, who was as close to a cosmic treat to the world of comedy as we’ve ever seen. The man’s brain moved faster than anyone in the history of entertainment. In fact, Williams improvised so much in the voice booth as the Genie that he actually disqualified the screenwriters from being nominated for a screenplay Oscar in 1992.

Now, his replacement is an equally beloved Will Smith, who was 24 years old, dancing with Carlton in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-1996) at the same time that Williams was voicing the Genie for Disney. When Aladdin asks, “Can you make me a prince?” it’s deliciously ironic to hear the Fresh Prince reply, “There’s a lot of gray area in ‘make me a prince.'” He would know.

Here, Smith shines best when he’s not merely mimicking Williams. “Never Had a Friend Like Me” feels more like Smith’s best Williams impression rather than anything organic, a hectic number exacerbated by flashy effects. He’s much better after ditching the blue makeup and CGI body to simply be himself, wearing human clothes, cracking original jokes and ramping up to a showstopping “Prince Ali” dance number that’s worth the price of admission alone. It’s the closest the film comes to James Monroe Iglehart’s joyous Tony-winning turn on Broadway.

On the flip side, Marwan Kenzari (“Ben-Hur”) doesn’t look menacing enough as Jafar. Fans might hope for a more twisting beard, piercing eyes and sinister voice made famous by Jonathan Freeman in 1992, rather than Kenzari’s higher-pitched vocals. His digital parrot Iago is also underwhelming, getting only a few zingers rather than the signature rants of Gilbert Gottfried. Thankfully, the CGI nails Abu the monkey, Rajah the tiger and the Magic Carpet.

Supporting characters aside, the film delivers on its most important element: the chemistry between the two young leads. Massoud is absolutely charming as the “diamond in the rough” hero tired of being called a “street rat,” while Scott adds feminist gusto to Princess Jasmine. Gone is the seduction scene where Jasmine distracts Jafar, replaced by an empowering speech echoing Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai or early-season Daenerys Targaryen.

Her modernization is most apparent in the new song “Speechless,” taking a term that once meant women should be silent — and still does in many places around the world — and insisting that she will not go unheard. It’s a wonderful addition from dynamic songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who won a Tony for “Dear Evan Hansen” (2015), an Oscar for “La La Land” (2016) and a Golden Globe for “The Greatest Showman” (2017). What a catalog so far: “Waving Through a Window,” “City of Stars,” “A Million Dreams” and “Never Enough.”

The feminist slant is just one way Disney tries to make amends for outdated social attitudes from 1992. The opening number “Arabian Nights,” performed by Smith during the opening credits, scraps the line “where they cut off your hand if they don’t like your face” in favor of “where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense.” It also replaces the word “barbaric” with the less-loaded term “chaotic,” hoping not to offend Middle Eastern viewers in global markets.

Director Guy Ritchie (“Snatch”) shoots mostly in the Jordanian desert of Wadi Rum, site of David Lean’s epic Best Picture winner “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), while production designer Gemma Jackson (“Game of Thrones”) constructs Agrabah as a combination of Arabian and South Asian landscapes. The sets and costumes are lavish, though at times it seems the filmmakers conflate Middle Eastern and Indian cultures right down to a Bollywood dance.

There’s also an attempt to evolve from a whitewashed cast. The lead characters in the 1992 film were all voiced by white actors with Scott Weinger (“Full House”), Linda Larkin (“Runaway Bride”) and of course Williams. Instead, the 2019 remake casts Massoud, who was born in Egypt but raised in Canada, and Scott, who’s of Gujarati Indian descent but raised in England.

Either way, by the time Aladdin and Jasmine climb aboard the Magic Carpet to serenade each other with the timeless duet “A Whole New World,” you’ll be swept away in nostalgic goose bumps that will make any minor flaws melt away. So while Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” removed all comic relief by eliminating Timothy Q. Mouse, “Aladdin” maintains the upbeat tone of the original for the type of family fantasy we want from these remakes. Bring on “The Lion King.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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