Chalk it up to modest expectations – starting with early previews that rubbed people the wrong way – but “Aladdin” is a great deal of fun, with charming leads and elaborately mounted songs. It’s hardly a whole new world, but in this suddenly well-populated land of live-action reboots, makes the most out of its familiar one.
Much of the advance focus was on Will Smith and the blue-ness of it all, but his Genie manages to straddle a line between Robin Williams’ irrepressible animated antics and the theatrical Broadway version. Moreover, the filmmakers have come up with a framing device that brings a bit more heart and resonance to the role, and indeed the movie in general.
Beyond that, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, respectively, effectively carry the movie. That includes a notably beefed-up aspect to Jasmine’s character, articulated through a powerful new anthem – from composer Alan Menken and “La La Land’s” Benji Pasek and Justin Paul – that helps render her, as Disney princesses go, anything but a shrinking violet.
Like Tim Burton and “Dumbo,” director Guy Ritchie (known for his jittery style in independent films, as well as “Sherlock Holmes”) might have seemed like an unorthodox choice to lead this caravan. Yet he infuses the movie with considerable energy, including the ebullient production numbers, which are staged with a bit of Bollywood flair.
Lest anyone have forgotten, the plot involves a good-hearted thief who, enlisted by the Sultan’s evil vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) to carry out his nefarious ambitions, winds up in possession of a magic lamp. (Kenzari brings an edge to the role, which provides the movie with some much-needed gravity.)
Aladdin uses one of his wishes to become a prince in order to court Jasmine, who, much to her chagrin, must marry royalty. The deception, however, creates its own complications, as well as lessons about pushing back against traditions.
Smith’s singing voice isn’t particularly well suited to the material, but he muddles through well enough, giving the Genie the requisite irreverence, as well as the longing to escape his itty bitty living space. “Saturday Night Live” alumna Nasim Pedrad is also a nice comic addition as Jasmine’s protective handmaiden.
Perhaps foremost, “Aladdin” has certain advantages over some of its animated-to-live-action brethren amid Disney’s “everything old is new again” cash grab, inasmuch as it focuses on human characters, the helpful monkey and magic carpet notwithstanding. As a result, it’s a more organic adaptation than “Dumbo,” although still probably what amounts to an appetizer before “The Lion King” roars its way into the summer.
Granted, it’s hard to find much originality in movies that essentially have their roots in the consumer-products division – based on another 27-year-old movie, as filtered through a long-running Broadway production. But if “Aladdin” doesn’t turn that formula into unvarnished magic, it has brought this old world to life in a manner that, above all else, won’t leave you feeling blue.
“Aladdin” premieres May 24 in the US. It’s rated PG.