Disney’s Live Action Aladdin: It’s Complicated

(3)

Rated: PG | Released: 2019 | 2h 10min

Aladdin is a lovable thief with a heart of gold who unwittingly meets a princess and believes the only way to impress the girl is to catfish her in the most epic way possible.

Basic Plot

Disney’s 2019 live action Aladdin is complicated. So much so, there are really two ways I can see to describe the basic plot.

Traditional Synopsis

A charismatic, heart of gold “street rat” gets his hands on a magic lamp that helps him woo a princess.

Modern Synopsis

A charismatic millenial type who is clearly on the street because he spends too much of his money on avocado toast gets his hands on the ultimate game changer: a magic lamp that helps him pull off the ultimate cat fishing scheme so he can go on her magic carpet ride.

Interpretations may change over time, but Aladdin’s plot stayed mostly the same as the 1992 animated version.

The biggest changes were additions of social and political commentaries, the absence of Robin Williams as Genie, and an attempt to remove the stereotypical representation of Middle Eastern culture.

Why is Disney’s live action Aladdin complicated?

Well, that’s complicated to explain. But I’ll start with a softer topic: nostalgia.

Nostalgia

Audiences loved the 1992 animated version of Aladdin. Disney released Aladdin as the second princess movie of the 1990’s. (Technically Little Mermaid was released in 1989.) Aladdin followed Beauty and the Beast (1991) and preceded Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998). For many, Aladdin earned a major part of the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s.

For others, Aladdin is a vehicle for Robin William’s most iconic role. In essence, Aladdin’s Genie is Robin Williams. No one else can replace his characterization of Genie. If you’re in that camp then any attempt at Genie will fall flat.

For Aladdin this type of nostalgia helps spark intolerance of new material. Some fans have demonstrated at least partially nostalgia fueled outrage similar to the outcry against the Ghostbusters remake, The Last Jedi, and even Hellboy. These nostalgia loving fans don’t want someone messing with the “classics” especially if they view the material as:

  • inferior
  • an obvious money grab
  • majorly altering the original

Some fans who grew up loving the original Aladdin will view the remake as all of those things despite the fact that Disney stuck pretty close to the original movie. Disney really only added a little sub plot romance for Genie and made Jasmine more of a modern princess with opinions and a voice. Some people will be outraged by those changes but some parents who grew up watching the animated Aladdin will appreciate just how similar it is.

However some nostalgia driven viewers will see massive flaws and hate it. For example, the singing is flat, the characters don’t shine, and it is missing Robin Williams. Though, to Will Smith’s defense, he did a pretty good job making the Genie his own.

Cultural issues

Aladdin is also complicated because it stuck very close to its source material. A prevalent criticism of the original animated version of Aladdin is its stereotypical depiction of Middle Eastern culture that many find racist.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) had this to say:

The Aladdin myth is rooted by racism, Orientalism and Islamophobia. To release it during the Trump era of rapidly rising anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and racist animus only serves to normalize stereotyping and to marginalize minority communities.

The overall setting, tone and character development in the ‘Aladdin’ story continues to promote stereotypes, resulting in a perpetuation of Islamophobic ideas and images.

CAIR National Executive Director Nihad Awad

To Disney’s credit, they did remove many of the more obvious negative imagery from the live action film. For example, in the market scene in the remake when Jasmine inadvertently steels from the market, no one nearly cuts her hand off.

However, the CAIR may have a point. Though the movie shows people less barbaric and less mystical, much of the treatment of Jasmine throughout the film depicts very negative attitudes towards women.

Disney almost certainly intended this treatment of Jasmine to comment on current American culture. But this connection may not be clear to some viewers.

Instead, they could use it as fuel for their own ignorance. “See! Muslims treat women like sh*t! You should be happy you’re American.”

If you doubt the ignorance that can occur, consider this. A 2015 survey showed 30% of Republican and 18% of Democrat respondents supported bombing Agrabah. Just so we’re on the same page here: Agrabah is not a real place.

The results indicate both fear and a lot of ignorance are prevalent when people think about Islamic culture.

Disney had a lot to overcome when remaking a culturally sensitive Aladdin. They needed to keep the primary story for nostalgic purposes. And, they took a calculated risk. They decided to appeal to nostalgia and minimize objectionable content. Completely redoing their interpretation of Aladdin risked alienating fans.

Social and political commentary

The fear of alienating fans did not stop Disney from adding some very strong social and political commentary. Sadly, it felt forced at times. But the messages were there:

  • women need to speak up publicly about issues that concern them
  • more women need to be involved in politics
  • people need to be loyal to their country and people, not a morally corrupt person with a title

These messages hit me over the head when Jasmine makes a particularly impassioned speech to the head guard after Jafar takes power. She asked him to be loyal to his people. Jasmine inspired her “by the book” head guard to be loyal to her Father and the people instead of to Jafar (or the position of Sultan).

Her speech inspires him to do the “right” thing and attempt to arrest Jafar. This bucks his tradition and concept of loyalty as he had stated he is “loyal to the Sultan.”

Given the current political climate and Disney’s support of liberal politics as of late, there is little doubt that Jasmine’s speech is a direct statement about President Trump and his loyal followers. The movie uses this speech as a call to action. It basically asks people to question allegiance to a person in a position of power, especially if that person’s actions and morality are questionable.

It was also clear that through Princess Jasmine that Disney took to heart the #MeToo movement. The remake made Jasmine a culturally relevant woman fighting to be heard by the patriarchy. Not only did Disney rework her personality as a reflection of the current times but they significantly changed her signature blue outfit to make it less sexy. This change fits the more modern take on Jasmine.

Disney also made Jasmine less of a damsel in distress. Jasmine plays a crucial role in fighting back against Jafar, going so far as to use her wedding to him to steal back the lamp. In the animated version, Jafar trapped Jasmine in hour glass unable to help Aladdin save the day whereas in the remake she is a helpless bystander no more. Instead she saves herself and her people with her daring actions.

In the end her father rewards her efforts. In other words, she gets the literal patriarchy to listen to her. Instead of her father allowing her to marry anyone she chooses as happens in the animated version, her father changed the law to allow Jasmine to be Sultan at the end. She could choose to marry who she wanted. (Spoiler: she chooses Aladdin)

Disney's 2019 Live Action Aladdin: It's Complicated
Aladdin taking the lamp

Movie title: Aladdin

Movie description: A charismatic, heart of gold "street rat" gets his hands on a magic lamp that helps him woo a princess. Or, a charismatic millenial type who is clearly on the street because he spends too much of his money on avocado toast gets his hands on the ultimate game changer: a magic lamp that helps him pull off the ultimate cat fishing scheme so he can go on her magic carpet ride. You decide.

Date published: 2019-05-24

Director(s): Guy Ritchie

Actor(s): Will Smith - Genie, Mena Massoud - Aladdin, Naomi Scott - Jasmine, Marwan Kenzari - Jafar, Navid Negahban - Sultan, Nasim Pedrad - Dalia

Genre: Family, Comedy, Musical, Adventure

Overall
3
  • Plot
    (3.5)
  • Entertainment value
    (4)
  • Music quality
    (1.5)
  • Visuals
    (3.5)
  • Cultural sensitivity
    (0.5)
  • Strong female lead
    (5)

Dad's Take

My wife and her two siblings loved Aladdin growing up. So much so, my brother-in-law came up with a little jingle to the tune of Prince Ali’s grand entrance. It goes: “Prince Ali has to go pee under a palm tree.” It’s short. It’s mildly clever. It has since become a bit of family legend.

In fact, what do you think my 4 year old daughter decided to do when we saw Aladdin? Picture this. About 3/4 of the way through Aladdin, my daughter stands up in front of her seat and begins to sing/shout (same thing for a 4 year old I’ve come to note) “Prince Ali has to go pee under a palm tree.” It happened to be a pretty quiet part of the movie when she did this.

I almost died. Laughing. I have a pretty sick sense of humor. She was not the only child talking (shouting) throughout the movie. But she was the only child to sing that particular song.

But she also repeated nearly every word Jasmine said. She was engaged. And she had a positive female role model that she connected to.

Aside from enjoying the personal family lure, I found a few flaws with the execution of the movie.

For example, the acting was lackluster from the main cast with the exception of Will Smith. Smith actually did a pretty good job. He didn’t try to copy Robin Williams’ performance, which would have likely ended in disaster. Instead, he paid homage to Williams while adding his own style to the role. While Will Smith, indeed, is not Robin Williams, he didn’t try to be. He turned the Genie into a suave character that was cooler though arguably less larger than life than the original Genie. Whereas Williams was funny and quick witted as Genie, he was not debonair. Smith, who needed to bring something different to the role, made Genie less of a standup comic and turned him into the cool friend everyone wishes they had. 

The other actors didn’t bring the same kind of panache to their roles. Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud didn’t do a bad job exactly. They just didn’t do a good job exactly either and Massoud lacked the charm you’d expect Aladdin to have. However I’m pretty sure Aladdin wanted Jasmine to show him her “world” as she took him on a magic “carpet” ride. So I guess they had some chemistry together.

Meanwhile Marwan Kenzari’s take on Jafar was one big missed opportunity. The character of Jafar could be sinister, charming, and as my wife puts it, hot in that bad boy kind of way. Marwan Kenzari’s portrayal was boring. There was no over the top evil. He was forgettable at best.

While Marwan Kenzari was forgettable, Nasam Pedrid was downright uncomfortable and disappointing as Jasmine’s handmaid Dahlia. This is a shame as Pedrid is a gifted comic actress as she has demonstrated on SNL and as Winston’s love interest, Ally, on New Girl. Unfortunately, she spends the movie talking in a weirdly affected accent that makes her awkward instead of funny.

As far as the music goes, the movie did a passable job at best. At times, Massoud gets the singing right, but at other times, it falls flat like his acting. Naomi Scott, again, is passable with her part in “A Whole New World” but her rendition of Jasmine’s new song “Speechless” lacked. The song needs a powerhouse singer, someone who could really belt it out, and Scott is not that singer.  

Likewise the movie’s visuals are another case of close but no cigar. Agrabah is beautifully depicted, stunning to look at really. And they nailed the big moment where Prince Ali makes his grand entrance. However, the Cave of Wonders was more like the Cave of Meh. In the original movie, the cave gleams with golden treasure. In the remake, the treasures don’t really sparkle. It’s more like oh look some treasure in this dingy cave. The movie had the opportunity to make the Cave of Wonders dazzle. And it didn’t.

Additionally, some of the camera work felt off. There were times when the movie was almost uncomfortable to watch because of the awkwardly tight way it would frame the main characters on screen.

Disney made minimal changes to the plot of the original. Most of the changes involved removing the negative imagery of Middle Eastern culture. They added little in the way of back story to the characters. They also added several (of the now over-done) slow-mo action sequences to chase scenes. But in terms of adding to the plot, they only gave Genie a shot at romance and made Jasmine into more of a modern princess. Unlike in the remake of Beauty and the Beast, where the movie fills out a lot of the character’s backstories, Aladdin does not.

For some, this may be a bonus. But a live action film often demands a need for better developed story and characters. Aladdin lacked this. And given the flat characters and often mediocre singing, I can’t help but think, as an overall movie, the animated version worked much better. Or, to paraphrase the old guy in Pet Semetary, “Sometimes [animated] is better.” (Did you read that in his voice? Do you even know who I’m talking about?)

In terms of morals, Aladdin kept many of the same lessons: be careful what you wish for, don’t forget your values no matter what, we all bring value to this world, etc. They also added social commentary on women’s rights and finding their voice. And, a political message about being loyal to your people and to doing what is right, instead of to a particular person or position in government. These morals were much clearer in the remake than in the original.

Finally, the story of Aladdin is not aging well. Aside from all the controversy surrounding the racial and culturally insensitive imagery and themes, the root story of a boy trying to win a girl’s attention and affection comes across now as a story about the ultimate catfishing scheme. Aladdin spends much of the movie trying to convince Jasmine he really is a prince. In a time when someone can pretend to be anyone they want on the Internet, the parallel between Aladdin’s scheme and a 45 year old man convincing someone he is “chatting” with he is a smoking hot 18 year old female is a bit too eerie.

And perhaps Disney pulled off the ultimate cat fishing scheme in convincing the audience that what they are watching is an amazing adventure brought to life that is culturally progressive. The reality is Disney gave the audience a recycled story that replaced much of the magic with mediocre singing and bland characters that still can spawn anti-Islamic thoughts.

Pros

Cleaned up or removed many of the negative stereotypes of Middle Eastern culture

Stuck pretty close to the source material

Will Smith took ownership of the Genie role and didn’t try to impersonate the late, great Robin Williams

Cons

Aladdin, Jasmine, and Jafar all fall flat as characters. I mean, they just didn’t draw me into the story…

Jasmine’s lackluster singing partially ruins the new, woman power song… so much so that it really didn’t stick in my head like Adele Dazeem’s (still funny Mr. Travolta) “Let it Go,” Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest,” or other classic Disney songs

Action sequences relied heavily on the over done slow mo close up shot of the character or action

The live action didn’t add much in the way of extra back story or character development like they did in Beauty and the Beast

Nathan

Nathan is not a published author, professional movie critic, or avid fan of most children shows. He is a caring father (when he's not banging his head against the wall), a movie connoisseur of sorts literally able to have full conversations in movie and TV quotes, and dedicated to helping other parents avoid starting a show with their small children that they will soon regret. In his free time, he does nothing. He has two small children. Free time does not exist.

Leave a Reply