Growing up, Aladdin, the musical fantasy film by Disney was one of the most beloved feature films because it was one of those few brown animated heroes we saw on screen. We had Prince Charming, Thundercats even 101 Dalmatians but barely a brown hero who we could relate to. Enter swashbuckling, floppy-haired Aladdin with his dark black brows and decidedly skinny brown arms and there you have it. It was a hero many of us brown folks could own, could mimic in school productions, could pronounce much easily (though the American pronunciation is far away from the actual word itself). Set aside the political correctness of it all, the animated film was a satisfying ride.
Robin Williams as the genie in one of the most iconic roles of his career was inimitable. You Ain't Never Had a Friend Like Me was an anthem. My brother and I had memorized the entire lines from Prince Ali (my brother was named Ali and he did love that song so much) and would often sing it if he had done something worth celebrating. 27 years later, as I watched the animated film come alive in a live-action film, I was almost on the edge of my seat when the Prince Ali song began on the screen. Not because I didn't know what was about to happen. But because I was asking myself THE question: are they about to ruin another classic?
Directed by Guy Ritchie, who co-wrote the screenplay with John August, Aladdin is originally based on the Middle Eastern folklore of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The story is of a young street thief, Aladdin, who finds a magic lamp and befriends the genie of the lamp. The 2019 film stars Mena Massoud as Aladdin, Will Smith as the Genie, Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine. and Marwan Kenzari as Jafar.
Rotten Tomatoes gave an average rating to the film saying, "Aladdin retells its classic source material's story with sufficient spectacle and skill, even if it never approaches the dazzling splendour of the animated original." The rest of the reviews are similar with some not liking it at all and some loving it. Perhaps that is the danger of going into the remake territory. Unless you make something absolutely fantastic, something that is as reinventive as Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight who flipped the genre over its head and turned Batman into a hero with an existential crises instead of merely a costumed billionaire who follows shadows in the sky, you are doomed to hang in the purgatory of critical reception: you are neither panned nor become memorable for many years to come.
As a long-time Aladdin fan, the film did not disappoint me as much as I feared it would. The elements added by Guy Ritchie to bring alive the video game and the animated feature itself sufficed for the live-action to not miss out on the magic. Kenzari, despite not being as evil in his outward appearance as the original Jafar, managed to make a mark and Will Smith, despite the big shoes he has had to fill, made for a very enjoyable Genie. It was Mena Massoud who allows Aladdin to be likeable and relatable still. Despite the thick American accent, Massoud's classic Middle-Eastern looks and inherent charm helped create a new dimension to the live-action film, one that was crucial for this version to work. So the verdict is this: they haven't ruined it. Could it have been better? Maybe. But hindsight and childhood memories are always more wondrous than they actually are in our heads. The standard filmmakers are fighting for are nostalgia and that's always impossible to achieve in the present day.