Let me just start all this by saying that “Aladdin” is in my top two favorite Disney movies. It’s a toss-up between “The Lion King” and “Aladdin.” Let me also say that overall I liked the new live-action remake that came out on May 24. That being said, there were a lot of issues.
I have always felt, ever since the live-action “Cinderella” came out, that there is really no point in remaking an animated Disney classic just to make it a carbon copy of the original. I loved “Maleficent” because they chose to tell the story of “Sleeping Beauty” from another perspective, it was fresh and new and something we hadn’t seen before. I thought maybe it was a sign that Disney’s live-action remakes moving forward would try to do something unique, but that has not been the case.
I found myself rewatching the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” with my sister recently and we both left the film feeling the same way, we wished we were watching the animated version. I felt that exact same way while I was watching Aladdin.
During the film, I struggled the most with Will Smith’s genie character. Robin Williams has a special place in my heart, as I’m sure he does for many people, his version of the genie is classic. It’s funny, it’s heartfelt, and dare I say, not recreatable. This should be a given for anyone making the movie. You cannot be Robin Williams, so you have to create a new version of the genie, one that audiences will come to love in a different way. In the few moments that Will Smith was creating a new version of the genie, his version, it was good. But whenever he tried to do something the way Robin Williams did it, it just didn’t land as well. I think had the filmmakers given him more space to create his own version, it would have been more successful. Even with all that, I’d still rather watch Robin Williams portray the genie, every time. Even if not everything he did aged well.
The female empowerment they tried to fit in for Jasmine didn’t always land for me. I found myself wondering if I was being manipulated, if this, just like many other movies coming out now, was just a pandering moment that had no real weight behind it. The moment in the film where Jasmine sings “Speechless (Part 2),” a song they created for her to punch up the feminism angle, had me flashing back to that awfully executed women-in-battle sequence in “Avengers: Endgame.” In the end, the song partially won me over because I liked it and will probably be listening to it on a loop for the next week. But did it feel genuine and earned? I’m not sure. It certainly left a less sour taste in my mouth than that “Avengers: Endgame” scene.
I have one more gripe with this film and that’s the casting of Marwan Kenzari as Jafar. Jafar is supposed to be an unabashed, over-the-top creep that is prone to big emotional outbursts and can sometimes even be humorous. Like when he pretends to be a beggar in order to manipulate Aladdin to enter the Cave of Wonders. This Jafar was devoid of emotion and humor and was not at all an interesting villain to me. I want to love to hate Jafar, while in this version I felt nothing for him and his dead eyes.
I think it would be irresponsible to talk about this film and not mention the problematic elements of it. They tried to make some improvements but the old racist ideas can’t help but linger from the original. It is important to point out that Agrabah, a Middle Eastern fantasyland, feels like a vague version of what white people fantasize the Middle East is like. When the original animated film came out, it was criticized for perpetuating Orientalist stereotypes of the Middle East and Asia, and I’m not sure they did enough to curb this in the new version. It is so embedded in the story it would be almost impossible to fix it.
The issue of casting has also been discussed. In an article on Al Jazeera by Khaled A Beydoun titled “It doesn’t matter that an Arab will play Aladdin,” Beydoun discusses why Aladdin will always be problematic. He also discusses how many people were upset with the decision to hire Scott, who is half Indian and half white. Beydoun states, “In casting an actress of Indian descent to play an Arab, or an Agrabian, continues the Orientalist tradition of conflating Arab and Indian, Middle Eastern, and anybody and everyone Brown.” As much as I loved Aladdin as a child, I have to admit I’m not sure remaking it was the right decision.
My question for Disney is, if you are going to make unnecessary live-action remakes, shouldn’t you take risks? Shouldn’t you make something that feels different and fresh, not just a worse version of something many people hold dear? Disney is undoubtedly doing this for the money and people will see these movies regardless of if they try and make them interesting. But with this many resources and this much power, why not try?