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Review: Beyond a Great Will Smith, Guy Richie’s Aladdin Delivers Very Little Except Nostalgia

2.5 out of 5 phenomenal cosmic powers.

Will Smith and Mena Massoud in Aladdin (2019)

Let’s start with the good when talking about Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1992 animated Disney film Aladdin. Will Smith is great as the Genie, Naomi Scott brings a lot of regal charm and singing talent to Jasmine, and there’s enough nostalgia beats to stir up joy in the person who came to this movie just to see Aladdin again. For me, the movie just fails to either be a fun enough adaptation or provide enough creative and visual changes to be anything more than another nostalgic cash grab.

For those unfamiliar with the animated film (how?), Aladdin tells the story of a young street rat named Aladdin (Mena Massoud), who falls in love with the beautiful and rebellious Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), but she can only marry a prince, because those are the rules. After being tricked by the Sultan’s evil Grand Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), Aladdin gets trapped in a cave and unleashes the all-powerful Genie (Will Smith). Genie helps Aladdin become a prince to try to win over the girl, but they also need to save the kingdom in the process.

While watching the film, I tried to ask myself if my four-year-old niece would enjoy it, because to a degree, these new Disney adaptations are targeting both her young demographic as well as someone like me, who literally grew up with Aladdin (I was born in 1992). I think there’s enough here that she would enjoy herself. While Richie’s visuals are nothing to write home about, the film is fine looking if feeling a little unfinished at times. Will Smith’s Genie is truly delightful, and I’m glad they allowed Smith to do his own thing, being a more sarcastic, wisecracking type rather than Williams’ standup comedian.

Honestly, his scenes do more to make the movie work than most of the other elements.

Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud in Aladdin (2019)

Naomi Scott as Jasmine and Mena Massoud as Aladdin.

Aladdin and Jasmine are both pretty, and while Mena Massoud cannot sing at all, he’s charming and competent as Aladdin. Scott’s Jasmine pales in comparison to the original, but they attempt to give her a more modern empowerment storyline, which is fine on its own. They have also given her a human companion in Nasim Pedrad’s Dalia, who also serves as a human love interest for the Genie. Hot Jafar is also given his own backstory as a former street rat and does his best cartoon villain. Also, most importantly, Abu, Rajah, Carpet, and Iago are fantastic non-human companions, and Iago (Alan Tudyk) made me laugh several times.

Still, despite the fact that I think my niece would enjoy this, I don’t think that makes this movie good on its own merit, because there are so many other options for kids. We live in another golden age of animation for young children that manages to have complex storylines, beautiful visuals, and dynamic characters, and something like this underwritten adaptation of Aladdin doesn’t really warrant the money it’s about to make by trying to appeal to the nostalgia of my generation.

As much as I want to give this movie grace to be its own thing, what it changes, outside of Genie, really doesn’t add much to the story, and the reality is that Aladdin is an adaptation of one of the most successful Disney movies ever and fails to hold a candle to that original, because it can only manage to be competent, but nothing more. Also, it’s like many of Disney’s live-action adaptations in that it wants to be as close to the original as possible but make “changes” that are usually there to course correct “mistakes” or “hot takes” about the original. As someone who does love to indulge in Disney Hot Takes and thinks there’s value in fans having those conversations, at the same time, not all those takes are worth addressing onscreen.

Yet, I think I could have forgiven a lot of the movie’s flaws if I didn’t hate the personality changes to Princess Jasmine and the complete lack of chemistry between Aladdin and Jasmine.

Naomi Scott in Aladdin (2019)

Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine.

Jasmine was the first non-white Disney princess, and while there is a lot of valid criticism of how she was designed and sexualized, there is no denying that she had a magnetic personality. The first time we were introduced to her in the movie was after she just embarrassed another Prince, laughing about it with Rajah. In that scene, we understood Jasmine, her conflict, her personality, and her stubbornness.

Instead, the first real scene of her we get in the new version is when she’s already arrived in the marketplace and meets Aladdin. Plus, instead of being its own scene, it’s interconnected with the musical number “One Jump,” which is an odd choice because you don’t get to see Aladdin and Jasmine really play off each other like in their original marketplace scene.

Still, I went with it until they made one other major change.

In the animated movie, when Jasmine is going with Aladdin to his home, there’s a scene where they have to leap from one rooftop to another. Aladdin does it first and, thinking Jasmine would be too scared to do it herself, starts to make a path for her, but she leaps anyway on her own. It’s a great scene because you see that despite being sheltered, Jasmine is brave and not afraid to take a leap of faith, and she has confidence in herself. Plus, it also adds to why Aladdin is so attracted to her.

In the live-action version, she doesn’t jump.

That may seem like a small thing, but the reality is that, as I went back to think about it, they cut all the scenes of Jasmine having a real dynamic personality—Jasmine being able to play along with Aladdin’s con, Jasmine side-eyeing literally everyone, or that scene where she commands guards of her own to protect Aladdin, or the one where she stands up to Jafar by saying that she’ll have the power to get rid of him when she’s queen, etc.

All that is replaced to give Jasmine a tragic murdered mother story, and rather than her princely marriage requirement just being some weird law, it’s a way for there to be a male Sultan because there hasn’t ever been a female Sultan, and Jasmine wants to be Sultan. That last part is a change I really like, but why can’t she want to be Sultan and also be the brave dynamic woman we know? Jasmine’s big solo number, “Speechless,” is all about her deciding not to go quietly into her fate … but the animated Jasmine never went quietly into her fate. Jasmine was never speechless.

It also doesn’t help that Aladdin and Jasmine have no chemistry together. This is kind of weird to say about an animated movie, but the original Aladdin and Jasmine had some very hot chemistry. If you rewatch their first balcony kiss … there is tongue. I’m just saying!

Scott and Massoud just don’t have anything dynamic together. The setup is cute, and I think that Scott does sell this kind of Roman Holiday “this boy was kinda mean to me and I’m into it” appeal that her Jasmine sees in Massoud’s Aladdin, but it’s mostly kind of boring.

Nasim Pedrad and Naomi Scott in Aladdin (2019)

Nasim Pedrad as Dalia and Naomi Scott as Jasmine.

I know the criticism of Disney movie couples getting together really quickly is constant, and it’s a valid issue when talking about the larger issue of how gender norms are presented in stories for children. At the same time, that doesn’t mean we need to drag it out with more scenes of them just looking at each other with googly eyes. Hell, I’d argue that, despite not knowing each other for a long time, Aladdin and Jasmine have such engaging personalities that you see why they have a mutual attraction.

Beyond that, Richie just doesn’t bring anything beautiful to this film. It’s not visually engaging, the CGI is jarring at times, and beyond Jasmine’s costumes, the style is just okay. The fact that he brought nothing to the cave of wonders scene is astonishing. Also, the Genie has a love interest and wants to be human … which is fine but means we won’t get any sequels, so … actually, that’s great. Keep it.

I know I’ve been harsh in my coverage of the Aladdin scenes released in marketing, but I did my best to try to give Aladdin the chance to be its own thing. It did make me laugh at times, and I do really want to commend Scott and Smith on their performances, but this movie is just a generic film that, if it didn’t have the Aladdin name on it, no one would see. If you love Aladdin and just want to see it, I think you’ll get something out of it, but we already have an Aladdin, so if you’re going to spend $183 million to make a live-action version, then give us something special. Sometimes that can stand on its own merit, and Aladdin just doesn’t, even with some moments that break the tedium.

Lion King and Mulan are next.

(image: Disney)

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Princess (she/her-bisexual) is a Brooklyn born Megan Fox truther, who loves Sailor Moon, mythology, and diversity within sci-fi/fantasy. Still lives in Brooklyn with her over 500 Pokémon that she has Eevee trained into a mighty army. Team Zutara forever.