What easily causes a legend to feel terrified? The need to fill the big shoes left by another legend, of course. Our case study for today is undoubtedly Will Smith. Yes, he’s the genie that all of us have been anticipating for. Be it the human form in the earliest reveal or that spectral blue form teased in the first trailer, everyone has something to say about Smith’s genie.
In case you need a refresh, Aladdin was originally a cartoon film by Disney back in 1992, and the iconic blue genie was voiced-over by the late Robin Williams. It was an instant hit, and became one of the most memorable animated films that a huge chunk of us today grew up with. Naturally, in their effort to reboot the movie in a live-adapted reincarnation, Disney found themselves in a tight spot.
At one end, they need to be preserve the overall structure of the film so that it won’t upset fans of the animated film. On the other, they need to make it relevant to the current audience, so that it won’t bomb on them.
But the hotspot of all that crushing pressure seems to rest on Smith’s shoulders, and even he himself confessed that he’s terrified to take up the genie-role. Let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to replace Robin Williams completely, and my prediction was, Smith would carry on the iconic role diligently and gracefully before passing on the baton to an inevitable reboot, perhaps two to three decades later. And I’m glad that up to this point, my prediction is mostly true.
For those who have not watched the animated film, Aladdin is a story about a magic lamp, the princess of Agrabah (Naomi Scott), an evil Grand Vizier (Marwan Kenzari), and a genie (Will Smith), along with those three wishes which he grants to whoever fortunate enough to summon him. The actual location of the fictional kingdom of Agrabah is still widely unknown, but my best bet is that it’s squeezed somewhere in between Middle East and South Asia. Taking up the center-stage of Agrabah is Aladdin himself (Mena Massoud), a petty, but selfless street-thief.
Okay, let’s do this. I’m assuring you, Will Smith in his blue genie form is not as scary as what the trailer might have suggested, okay? I promise, once you have watched the actual movie, all of your nightmares that came along from seeing that ghostly, blue apparition will disappear. You see, people fear what they don’t understand. And once you understands Smith’s genie, he is only as scary as Casper.
And since he just won’t budge away from being at the center of attention, I’ll address the genie topic first. Yes, Smith is a great genie, period. Disney took the right leap in hiring the man for the genie-job. Naturally, having him in that role means he will take over the helm for all of Aladdin’s comedic chores, and that’s what he did. Robin Williams might be the genie that you want to remember, but Smith is no doubt the genie that you want to bump into in real life. He’s witty, cheeky, and cool. And the best part? He’s not looking like he’s trying too hard. Basically, what you see on-screen is just Will Smith, with a little nuances calibrated to match that genie spec.
Of course, there have to be times that the scene just had to pay tribute to the original genie. You know, those times that the blue giant has to zip around, spawn a few copies of himself to express his thoughts. Or maybe pulling out a lengthy, endless scroll to look for some eenie-tiny info. These characteristics were established by William’s genie in the cartoon movie, and they are here to stay. It is not outrageous to say that Smith look a little unnatural in those instances, and there’s a noticeable gap between that and his own version. And how they managed to make the topknot stay on Smith’s head throughout filming is still a Hollywood mystery.
Beyond that, he might be just the genie which I have been wishing for. As a plus, he has that charming chemistry with Massoud, that whenever the duo tags along in any scene, strikes a distinctive tone that they just couldn’t achieve it in the animated film. And then, who can ever complain about that healthy dose of crackling humor found throughout their adventure?
Speaking of Massoud, just when I was still trapped in that ‘Will-Smith-be-a-good-genie” debacle (pun intended), his performance during the first act of the film struck me. Hard. How can we be so obsessed with a certain aspect of the film, that we seemingly ignore everything else?
Massoud is such a feather-light and smooth Aladdin, I could virtually find no fault in his character. Which is such a rarity nowadays, because to me, an anime character is the purest form of imagination as put forward by its creator. And to find the actor who fits into that character like a glove is virtually impossible. But that’s not exactly true for Massoud’s case. It even looks as if the 1992 animated Aladdin was modeled after him.
On the contrary, not the same can be said for Naomi Scott’s princess Jasmine. She might not look the part as a Disney princess at all, because of her intimidating intellect and impossible-to-please persona. Constantly brewing with intense character, this ultra-tenacious Disney princess is a strong case for a love-it or hate-it character. For me, I just love her. Her character projects so much depth into otherwise a rather light-hearted story.
I’m totally okay with good looking protagonists, especially those who will adorn the screen for extended periods of time. But there’s one aspect of Aladdin which got me scratching my head. Have you ever heard of beauty cam? If you have not, just google Jafar and Hakim from the 1992 animation, and versus them with their live-film reincarnation played by Marwan Kenzari and Numan Acar respectively.
The cartoon Jafar is a skinny old man with the face of a wrinkly old lady. And the cartoon Hakim definitely looks like an ugly street thug who happens to be promoted to a palace guard. But just look at both Kenzari and Acar, which I dub as the overhauled and beautified versions of the cartoons. Acar has the looks and style that can decorate the front page of GQ magazine, anytime. And Kenzari looks like Aladdin’s long-lost, equally good-looking elder brother.
And there lies another problem. Jafar’s good looks already shunned the fans away from him, that it’s impossible for them to re-establish their connection with the old, animated character. To the new audience, he’s a fine, but barely-okay villain. But to us, the admirers of the animated movie, he’s like a new villain in an old movie, and some magic felt lost along the way.
Apart from that, I’m happy to report that most aspects of the animated film are carefully preserved. And if you’re fond of the tunes of the animated film, you will not be disappointed. Ritchie is courteous enough to bring back all the good ol’ music of the 1992 film, and at the same time enrolling Alan Menken, the original composer, to continue working his magic.
The ‘new version’ of the songs definitely feel more lively and refined, thanks to a longer list of musical instruments involved. Yet, at the same time, they kept their authenticity towards the original ones faithfully, pitch by pitch, and word by word. The talent gap between Scott and Massoud when they performed ‘A Whole New World’ is definitely noticeably, but I found that to be a cute detail rather than annoyance.
On the other hand, the newly composed songs are really having trouble catching up with the old ones. While I appreciate the musical diversity presented in Aladdin, songs like ‘Speechless’ sounds plucked straight out of Frozen, and doesn’t blend well with a magical Arabian Night. Those are okay to have, but I couldn’t care less if they are exempted from the movie.
If you noticed that somehow I did not point out anything about the plot right up until this point, then yes, you are correct. There’s a saying that you don’t fix what’s not broken, and the current film lived by that. Yes, do not worry, all the iconic scenes that defined Aladdin are still intact. Scenes like Prince Ali’s convoy, The Cave of Wonders, and the magic carpet tour are here to stay.
Aladdin treaded very closely within that established, tried-and-true story, and by working within that clear framework, perhaps they could shift their focus to improvise other areas of the film. Just peep at the visualized Agrabah, and you’ll notice how much attention has been given to the details and colors. They are an art of beauty, and not to even mention the effects that go into Abu the monkey, and the magic carpet. I’m just a little puzzled how Massoud can exhibit such a believable interaction with a CGI monkey.
Addict Verdict, AV:
The ‘old’, 1992 animated Aladdin is charming, groovy, fun, and has an appealing story to tell. Now, the 2019 live-action film has all of that, with an extra edge of riding on a nostalgic wave created by the former. Even then, because of live-adaptation touches done right, the current film is way more hilarious, and surprisingly moving towards the end. The biggest catch is that, perhaps, you need to live with that ‘hot’ Jafar. And I don’t mean marrying him.—The Film Addict