The Classic Story Told From the Perspective of a Whole New World
About the Film
Aladdin is the latest in the swelling list of Disney’s live-action remakes of its classic film catalogue. The story is likely already familiar to you. Of the Disney remakes, this was the first time that I had any emotional attachment to the original, which was an important memory from my childhood. As a result, I was skeptical and had resigned myself to be extremely disappointed—and I left the theater having been pleasantly surprised.
Is Aladdin a great movie? Does it capture the magic of the original? Is Will Smith as good as Robin Williams? Will it have the same transformative impact on today’s young viewers as the cartoon did for my own generation? The answer to all of these questions is “no.” That said, this film is as good as it had any right to be and far more enjoyable than I anticipated. I expect that many viewers will be let down by it or will be unable to avoid comparing it to the superior original. Yet, if expectations are kept in check, this movie is a lot of fun with enough charm to overcome its flaws.
On the Surface—(Profanity, Sexual content, violence, etc.).
This movie is squeaky clean. The more sexual elements from the original (Aladdin and Jasmine’s exposing costumes, and Aladdin’s brief foray into what is strongly implied to be brothel) have been toned down or removed, limited to only a few bellydancers during the musical dances. Ironically, the adaptation is arguably cleaner than the original cartoon.
Beneath the Surface— (Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)
- Adult Nostalgia
The main question for many people is whether or not Will Smith’s Genie hold up to Robin Williams’ iconic performance. I was skeptical going in, but Big Willie won me over. Smith offers a much different take on the character; one that is more human and slightly less wacky. His dynamic with Aladdin is delightful and provides most of the movie’s humor. It is initially jarring to see a big, blue Will Smith on screen, but by the time they leave the Cave of Wonders I was sold and rarely thought back to the original. My biggest fear ended up being the highlight of the movie for me.
The focus on Will Smith vs. Robin Williams testifies to our culture’s current obsession with nostalgia. One trend I’ve noticed with these Disney live-action remakes is a tension between our past and present. Each adaptation has required 30-45 minutes of new material to flush out the runtime. The additional screen time has been largely used to insert more adult-oriented scenes or thematic material. With Beauty and the Beast, we learned that Belle’s mother is absent due to the Black Death. Earlier this year, Dumbo completely reinvented itself as an adult drama, full of post-war PTSD, corporate jargon, and emotional abuse. Aladdin follows suit, with its new scenes diving into Agraba’s political landscape. Unlike Dumbo, these new additions don’t detract much from the story (although the children in my theater were restless). These movies are a testament to our current culture that has grown up and been beaten down by the worldly reality of adult life, yet still longs to return to the nostalgic past of our childhood stories.
2. A Whole New World
The live-action Disney remakes offer a fascinating insight into how much our world has changed. Today’s culture is drastically different from when the original cartoon was released 27 years ago. Aladdin (2019) is largely the same familiar story told through the lens of modern society. For example, the original’s portrayal of Middle-Eastern culture has long been accused of propagating false Arabic stereotypes and encouraging Islamophobia. In this version—and in our more racially sensitive culture—Agraba is portrayed as a colorful, multi-cultural fantasy utopia.
The most evident example of a modern-day mindset infused into the old story is with the character of Jasmine. The rebellious princess from the original is elevated into the poster child of modern-day feminism. In the original, her stubborn desire is simply to marry the man she loves rather than the one imposed on her for political reasons. In the 2019 version, her aspirations themselves are political. She wants to be Sultan after her father so that she can rule Agraba. Her prime fear and “cage” is not a bad marriage, but to be silenced. The one new song written for the movie is fittingly called “Speechless.” Her big character triumph is in refusing to be silenced, taking a stand, and lecturing the male characters to rise up and do what is right (in a scene that ends up making no difference at all to the story). In 1992, the ideal princess was a spunky girl who wanted to marry for love. In 2019, the ideal princess is a strong woman with political aspirations who refuses to be silenced by evil men. In other words, this is Jasmine in a whole new #MeToo world.
To be clear, none of that is necessarily a problem. The new song is catchy, the musical scene is visually impressive and emotionally stirring, and Jasmine’s character benefits from the increased agency. Unfortunately, however, she also follows the trend of other recent feminist heroes (ie. Captain Marvel) in essentially equating a strong woman with perfectionism. The 2019 Jasmine is the one character in the film that is utterly without any hint of a character flaw. She is smart, noble, and caring. While each of the other characters have flaws to overcome (or to not overcome), the only tension surrounding Jasmine is whether or not her society will be enlightened and elevate itself to her level. I applaud much of what the new wave of feminism in Hollywood has accomplished, but Aladdin is another example of how clumsy the implementation of this ambition still is.
Aladdin may not reach the heights of the original, but it still charts among the best of Disney’s recent live-action adaptations. The spectacle-driven musical numbers are fun and satisfying, the actors all do a commendable job bringing the characters to life, and Will Smith does the impossible by owning the role and allowing us to forget—if only temporarily—our comparisons to Robin Williams. Like all the live-action adaptations, the film is a novelty. It is by no means necessary, but is nevertheless an enjoyable chance to revisit a beloved story from our childhood from a fresh new perspective.
Recommendation: Go see it. The spectacle is made for the big
screen and the story’s morals (being who you are rather than who you wish you
were) remain as important today as they did in 1992.