When Princess Jasmine sings “A Whole New World” in the recycled Aladdin, smirks will abound.
This live-action reboot of the hit ’92 cartoon is, of course, no more a new world than Dumbo, or Mary Poppins Returns, and any of the other repurposed properties brought to market by Disney’s reimagineers, or more likely, its accountants.
But if it’s not a whole new world, it’s partly new, with a couple of new songs added to the Menken/Ashman classics, mostly to expand and improve the role of Jasmine (Naomi Scott), whose clothes reveal less, but whose character arc reveals more.
The movie opens with “street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) in the made-up city of Agrabah, in the bazaar, shoplifting from the rich and giving to the poor, establishing his bona fides as a Robin Hoodish good guy on the wrong side of the law.
He runs into an incognito Jasmine, who has left the palace in disguise because her protective sultan father worries for her safety, although the real danger exists within the palace, where the sultan’s sinister vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) plots his overthrow.
Back at the bazaar, Aladdin helps Jasmine avoid trouble, and although she mistakenly believes he’s stolen her bracelet and he mistakenly believes she is a handmaiden, when he returns the jewelry, the act confirms the sparks that fly between them. A smitten Aladdin discovers she’s the princess but is chagrined to know she can only marry a prince.
Massoud and Scott are appealing performers, and somehow manage to sell us on this attraction, despite the way Guy Ritchie’s mammoth production and busy live-action/CGI canvas tends to overwhelm its human characters, and sometimes even the story.
Palace politics and romantic intrigue all hinge on possession of the magic lamp, home to a genie who will grant three wishes. Disney’s wish is that the iconic role, made famous by Robin Williams, be revitalized by Will Smith, selected in the hope that he could match the free-associative comic energy of ’92 character.
That’s a tough ask. The original was an ideal match of persona and technique — traditional animation could accommodate and accentuate Williams’ rapid-fire delivery. Smith is game here (though enlarged and blue and bald, he looks like Michael Wilbon left in a freezer) but the expense and extensive planning that go into CGI make for less nimble delivery.
But the imperative to feature superstar Smith hurts the movie, which is at its best when exploring what’s new here — Jasmine’s frustration at not being considered an appropriate heir to the throne.
She belts out the new song “Speechless” to express her frustrations. It’s not bad, and like the other numbers in the movie, indicates that Ritchie has a zeal for song and dance, and his movie is wildly colorful and nicely designed. Even better: The requirements of coloring within the Disney corporate lines have reined in his preference for frantic editing.
Jasmine’s feminism will not mollify those who find the entire scenario culturally insensitive (Aladdin is actually not a folk tale, having been invented by a Frenchman for Western readers), but in some ways the movie’s crazy fictions suit today’s modern mash-up sensibilities, and its cast reflects the patterns of modern migration that are creating a whole new world.
Aladdin. Directed by Guy Ritchie. With Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith and Marwan Kenzari. Distributed by Disney.
Running time: 2 hours, 8 mins.
Parents guide: PG (thematic elements)
Playing at: Area theaters.