Fans have been eagerly anticipating and dreading the latest Disney remake in equal measure. Reresponses to the last few have been rather varied, but Aladdin may just surpass every expectation. With just the right amount of classic callbacks, nearly-impeccable casting, and a dose of refreshing new storylines – Disney has found the recipe for success.
A Veritable Melting Pot
The biggest issue going into Aladdin for me, and one I think should be addressed right away, was the fear that it would be an Orientalist fantasy without cultural context grounded in realism. Sure, the live action version remains a vague mix of Arab, Indian and even East Asian influences. However, the movie went out of its way to establish Agrabah as a fictional land rather than trying to outright model itself after one culture while still peppering in aspects of another.
It may be a bit disconcerting to see a Sultan’s daughter doing a (perfectly choreographed) dance that looks like it came right out of a Bollywood film. Notwithstanding, it’s also wonderful to see a cast of diverse actors being allowed to delve into meaty and iconic roles that celebrate their origins despite not fully understanding them. Whether the blending of cultures comes across as respectful and sincere will be up to the individual viewer. It makes for a visually stunning film regardless. Agrabah is teeming with life. And the moments spent looking into the daily activities in the city’s trading center actively contribute to the political plot. That, frankly, is one of Aladdin‘s strongest additions.
Jasmine Won’t Go Speechless
Of course, the original animated film dealt with Jafar’s (Marwan Kenzari) evil plot to take over the Sultan’s (Navid Negahban) kingdom and marry his beautiful daughter Jasmin (Naomi Scott). The live-action Aladdin takes the story to a whole new level. On the one hand, Jafar’s creepy crush on Jasmine is thankfully replaced in the latest incarnation. This time, it takes shape as a purer ambition for power. (This is based on a backstory poetically similar to Aladdin’s (Mena Massoud)). But on the other, Jasmine’s role in the tale takes on a whole new dimension. It’s one that adds depth both to her characterization and to her romance with Aladdin.
That depth is embodied in the original song “Speechless”. The song is one of the musical highlights of the movie both lyrically and thanks to Scott’s powerhouse voice. Jasmine doesn’t just want to leave her stuffy palace life and reject suitors she doesn’t love. She wants to explore Agrabah so that she’s better equipped to rule it herself. Similarly and she doesn’t want to marry because a foreign prince will take her rightful position and disrespect her people. Thus in Aladdin, she finds a man who not only allows her to widen her horizons – and “A Whole New World” remains a lovely duet in which Massoud and Scott’s chemistry shines – but also sees her potential as a ruler and respects it.
Aladdin: A Picture-Perfect Cast
The final, and perhaps most crucial, element that makes Aladdin work so well is its stellar cast. Mena Massoud is a charming revelation as the eponymous street rat. He manages to flawlessly combine the smarts derived from a hard-knock life with the innocence that makes him a perfect “diamond in the rough.” I already mentioned Scott and the chemistry she creates with her costar. But there’s another woman in the cast who also helps make Agrabah shine brighter.
Nasim Pedrad is hysterical as Jasmine’s handmaid Dahlia. Her presence presence allows the Disney film to craft a genuine female friendship that’s unfortunately still all too rare in fiction. Her innate sense of comedic timing pairs extremely well with Will Smith. (Whose interpretation of the Genie, by the way, is unique and memorable.) Legendary performer Robin Williams immortalizing the role in animation. Likewise, the extremely talented James Monroe Iglehart won a Tony for his Broadway version. It’s impressive that Smith was able to put his own spin on the blue giant and thus avoid unfair comparisons.
Any CGI or performance-related concerns about Aladdin based on the early trailers can fly away on a magic carpet. Why? Because Disney delivers an epic tale with a lively cast that can be cherished for years to come. It’s not a perfect film, as there can and should be discussion about the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation in fiction, but it is quite possibly the best live-action remake yet.