If I could make one wish as a movie lover, it would be that Disney would take some creative risks when they dig into their animated back catalog to find live-action inspiration — instead of playing it safe, as the studio does with its tepid retelling of “Aladdin.”
That’s not to say the 1992 animated adventure couldn’t stand an update. The old movie’s gloss on Arabic culture is none too worldly, and its handling of its only female character, Jasmine, doesn’t consider that a princess could be a future sultan rather than just marrying one. The animated version’s top draw, Robin Williams’ rapid-fire improvisational work as the voice of Genie, though still funny on a rewatch, is loaded with dated references (including Ed Sullivan, William F. Buckley and Rodney Dangerfield).
The question with this new live-action “Aladdin” is whether action director Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes,” “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”) can excise those outdated elements and replace them with something interesting. The answer, much of the time, is no.
The structure of the story, in a script by John August (“Big Fish”) and Ritchie that sticks closely to the ’92 version, introduces the “street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) trying to live by his wits on the hard streets of Agraba. It’s there he rescues a young woman, caught giving a vendor’s bread to children, by leading her away from the sultan’s guards in a breakneck chase. Aladdin thinks this woman is the princess’ handmaiden, not realizing she’s actually the princess, Jasmine (played by Naomi Scott).
There are romantic sparks between the princess and the urchin, but Jasmine is reminded by her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban), that she must marry a prince — with the doofus Prince Anders (Billy Magnussen, in a funny cameo) the latest to try to woo her. Before Aladdin can see Jasmine again, he’s captured by the Sultan’s evil vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who needs a “diamond in the rough” to enter a magic cave and retrieve a certain lamp.
Inside that lamp, of course, is Genie — and in place of Williams is Will Smith, appearing as a shirtless Blue Man Group hopeful in most of his animation-augmented scenes. Smith has the charm to make Genie appealing, but either he or Ritchie have made the unfortunate decision to have Smith sing Genie’s big musical number, “A Friend Like Me,” in a wisecracking style that emulates Williams’ performance. What a different, livelier movie this would be if Smith got jiggy with the song, and applied some “Fresh Prince” rap stylings.
Some changes are for the better. Scott’s Jasmine has more agency than her cartoon version, and even gets her own power ballad, “Speechless,” by composer Alan Menken (who wrote the music for the original) with lyrics by “La La Land’s” Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Pasek and Paul also sanded down the problematic lyrics to the opening “Arabian Nights,” but mostly the original movie’s songs retain the familiar words written by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice.
Massoud (“Jack Ryan”) and Scott (whose last big role was as the pink Power Ranger) have great chemistry, shown to best effect on the magic carpet ride where they duet on “A Whole New World.” Scott is also the beneficiary of costume designer Gemma Jackson’s handiwork, wrapping her in gorgeous royal gowns of magenta and teal and purple.
Using live actors and photo-realistic computer animation loses some of the primal emotional punch of hand-drawn animation. Jafar isn’t nearly menacing enough in live-action, and who would believe we would miss Gilbert Gottfried’s screeching voice as Jafar’s scheming parrot, Iago? Ritchie’s action spectacle can’t make up for those shortcomings, and make this “Aladdin” far short of magical.
Disney’s live-action version of its 1992 animated tale, with Will Smith as the wisecracking Genie, doesn’t have the magic of the original.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, May 24.
Rated • PG for some action/peril.
Running time • 128 minutes.