I'm writing this review late. We're at the point where we already know, unsurprisingly, that Disney's live-action remake of Aladdin has overwhelmingly captured the Memorial Day weekend's box-office crown and Will Smith's reputation as a box-office king, or genie in this case, has another notch on its cinematic bedpost.
If we're being honest, and we should be, more than a little part of Aladdin's success lies in the fact that after abysmal trailer after abysmal trailer our expectations for the film and for Smith's big blue genie were remarkably low.
Aladdin has pleasantly surprised us, perhaps most notably because after a painfully slow start Smith finds his groove, his larger than life personality, and the spirit of the beloved genie and Aladdin becomes an entertaining, if still unnecessary, film.
Will this live-action remake make you set aside your love and affection for Disney's 1992 classic? Not a chance in fricken' hell. However, this mostly faithful adaptation will also, at least for the most part, not make you cringe with regret even as Will Smith plays Will Smith as Genie rather than trying to become anything close to the vocal work put forth in Robin Williams' practically iconic performance from what doesn't seem so long ago.
The opening number here, "Arabian Nights," is abysmal and sets the tone early that Aladdin is going to be a disappointing affair.
Then, somewhere out of the blue (Sorry, couldn't resist!), Aladdin rights itself and Smith becomes the entertainer that we know him to be and Aladdin nearly becomes one of the better of Disney's recent live-action adaptations that have decidedly mixed results. I think it started with the delightfully entertaining tune "Prince Ali," a Bollywood-tinged number that Smith brings to life in the way that Smith can bring a tune to life when he's really inspired. Aladdin purists won't swoon, of course, but those who simply want to be entertained will very likely be entertained in abundance.
Mena Massoud is hit-and-miss as Aladdin himself, much like Smith eventually finding his footing and his cinematic voice as the rather insecure prince. Naomi Scott is more successful as Jasmine, strong of voice and authoritative in her performance. SNL's Nasim Pedrad shines brightest of all as a new character, Jasmine's handmaiden named Dalia who largely serves as the film's comic relief and an able big screen compadre able to hold her own alongside Smith's larger than life persona.
If there's one significant way in which Aladdin is updated, it's in Disney's effort to make the story a little bit more culturally sensitive toward the Persian culture. The story itself is still rather cartoonish, but this Aladdin is a little more successful in avoiding treating the culture itself as cartoonish.
Aladdin was entertaining in the moment, a pleasant enough film that I don't regret having seen yet also have struggled to remember in any great detail even having seen it not that long ago. It's not quite instantly forgettable, but neither will this live-action remake ever find its way into my treasure chest of precious cinematic memories.
It's simply a film that's "good enough" and, again being honest, it's immensely more entertaining than the vast majority of us ever expected it to be.
We were prepared to laugh at it...not with it.
A new song in the film, "Speechless," is epic in presentation, overly epic and obvious, yet its anthemic qualities are likely to resonate with the young girls in the audience. For this older guy? I simply rolled my eyes.
I largely rolled my eyes through "A Whole New World," a beloved tune that returns here to a significantly muted impact. It's still quite the lovely song - it's simply not presented very well.
In short, there's nothing particularly wrong with Aladdin.
There's also nothing particularly right with Aladdin.
It's a middle-of-the-road effort for Disney, though that's more than good enough for Disney's marketing machine to make a solid go of it and for the film, as has happened, to absolutely dominate the Memorial Day weekend box-office dollars despite the presence in wide release of the vastly superior Booksmart.
Had we not found ourselves so incredibly disappointed by the trailers for Aladdin, I can't help but think that Aladdin would have been considered a much more disappointing effort. However, Aladdin is vastly superior to its dismal trailers and Smith is far better than we'd ever hoped he might be. So, breathing a cinematic sigh of relief we let go of our disappointment, hunker down into our seats, and allow ourselves to be washed over this modestly entertaining effort that will hold us over until the live-action Lion King roars into theaters later this year.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic