Movie review: Shine, shimmer and splendor in live-action 'Aladdin'

Fred Hawson

Posted at May 26 2019 04:48 PM | Updated as of May 26 2019 06:28 PM

Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine and Mena Massoud as Aladdin

MANILA -- It is very remarkable that Disney had been unfolding one big project after the other this 2019. Aside from their huge Marvel Cinematic Universe films and Star Wars 9, they are also releasing "Toy Story 4" and "Frozen 2". There are also three live-action reboots of animated classics like "Dumbo," "The Lion King," and this one "Aladdin." All of this surefire box-office hits in one single year -- truly amazing how films by the Disney company are dominating Hollywood and the world. 

The original animated film "Aladdin" released in 1992 was an instant all-time favorite. Aside from its Disney trademarked storytelling and artwork, it featured the inimitable Robin Williams as the Genie of the Lamp with his motormouth delivery of crazy ad libs. For Filipino fans, it was very momentous that Lea Salonga provided the singing voice for Princess Jasmine in the duet "A Whole New World," a song that hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and won both the Oscar for Best Original Song and the Grammy for Song of the Year. 

Just like how it was with "Beauty and the Beast" last year, I doubted that it was a good idea to recreate this classic animated film as a live-action film. Since Williams had already passed away five years ago, his formidable Genie shoes will be very difficult for any actor to fill. When initial teaser featuring Will Smith as the new Genie came out, I did not like how it went. My expectations were certainly tempered down before I went to watch this, but I simply could not not watch it

Aladdin was a skillful young thief who worked in the busy marketplace of Agrabah with his monkey partner Abu. He had a serious crush on the royal princess Jasmine despite the law that says the princess can only marry a prince. Tempted with wealth, Aladdin was conscripted by the evil Royal Vizier Jafar to retrieve a magic lamp from within the Cave of Wonders. To his big surprise when he rubbed the lamp to clean it, a big blue Genie came out in a cloud of smoke to offer him three wishes. 

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The casting of Mena Massoud (Canadian actor of pure Egyptian descent) and Naomi Scott (British actress with Guarani Indian blood) as Aladdin and Jasmine was remarkable because they looked their parts and, incredibly, they could both sing their own songs. These two charming new actors had romantic chemistry working in their favor, quite evident in their centerpiece duet number "A Whole New World." Their rendition was not as refined as the Brad Kane-Lea Salonga version nor as pop as the Peabo Bryson-Regina Belle version, but so much better than the Zayn Malick-Zhavia Ward version heard in the closing credits. 

Massaoud was able to capture how a rascal street-rat can magically turn into a prince, but still kept his pure heart within intact, despite the temptations. I don't know if its all him, but I enjoyed all his dance numbers, especially that one in the palace courtyard during the harvest celebration. 

The camera definitely loved Scott, who looked great from all angles as she radiated the strength of her noble character. Her impassioned singing in Jasmine's new solo song "Speechless" can rival fellow Disney power belters Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato.

It was not easy to forget Williams' larger than life Genie, but eventually Will Smith managed to create a Genie of his very own modern vibe and winning personality, and even a love interest angle to boot. More known as a rapper, it was surprising to hear Will Smith actually singing all those favorite songs, like "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali." The live-action versions of these songs were most likely more expensive to render on screen yet could not fully match the manic energy of the animated original, but made up for it with a lot of lavish colorful costumes and fun amusing Bollywood-style dance moves. 

The original animated Jafar was a truly evil and really scary character. Drawn with an ugly long face and given a diabolical laugh, he gave young kids vivid nightmares back then. Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari was miscast as Jafar. He was just not sinister enough a villain. The entire climactic confrontation scene between Aladdin and Jafar was executed in so much darker fashion in the first film than in this new one. While it was good that we didn't have to see that disgusting kissing scene of Jafar and Jasmine, it was disappointing that this Jafar did not sing that deliciously wicked reprise of "Prince Ali" like the previous one did. Jafar's parrot sidekick Iago was less noisy and squawky this time around since it was not Gilbert Gottfried voicing him, and his CG rendition, especially that of his giant form, was rather rough compared to the other CG animals.

The basic story was the same, with all the main events and song numbers intact, with some significant tweaks. Being co-written and directed by Guy Ritchie, you know it won't be an exact copy. The Genie in the reboot had a human persona so he can interact with other people. In the previous film, Genie was always a magical blue being throughout the film. 

It was also remarkable was that this new Princess Jasmine was more independent and even had high political ambitions. These two key plot points influenced how the story would run a little differently from the first one.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."