'Aladdin' proves a respectable live-action successor to the animated feature

It all depends on how Aladdin rubs the lamp — and how the Genie rubs the audience — in Disney’s lavish live-action remake of the 1992 animated hit.

We can’t help being charmed by Mena Massoud in the title role of that goodhearted Arabian street urchin who happily steals for a living, although, as urchins go, he’s a bit long in the tooth. Massoud, at 27, is past his urchin prime but still a very artful dodger, aided by his equally charming simian accomplice Abu — the two stay (and sing) “One Jump” ahead of their pursuers in the teeming marketplace.

Ah, but a carefree man’s life is always complicated by — what else? — a woman, in this case the Sultan’s beautiful daughter, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), with whom Aladdin is smitten. She’s well guarded by her lovely huge tiger and devoted handmaid Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), but Aladdin sneaks into her royal digs.

“You cannot break into a palace like you own the place!” she admonishes.

“If you don’t have anything, you have to act like you own everything,” he replies.







  • Starring: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott.
  • Rating: PG for action/peril.

Such chutzpah fails to impress the Sultan’s sinister vizier. (I wish I had a Sinister Vizier or a rock group by that name.) That’s Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who tricks Aladdin into fetching a marvelous lamp — one that makes wishes come true — from a booby-trapped Cave of Wonders.

He emerges with the lamp, from which emerges Will Smith — a dream of Genie with the light blue skin, heavily hip-hop flavored with jiving, posing, bodybuilding, hula-hooping and a martini with three olives in hand. He explains the rules (you can’t wish for more wishes), and then, upon Aladdin’s first request, declares, “It’s showtime!” — followed by song-and-dance numbers aplenty.

“Aladdin’s” long literary history stretches back many centuries to the great Middle Eastern folk tale collection, “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights,” though the magic lamp story itself (like “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves”) was among the “orphan” tales added later by an 18th-century Frenchman. Many stage pantomimes of it were performed in the 19th century and movie versions in the 20th, including “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926), the first animated feature film. Douglas Fairbanks’ spectacular “Thief of Baghdad” (1924) contains the greatest flying carpet scenes (but no lamp or genie). A 1979 London stage musical by Sandy Wilson was short-lived.

Director Guy Ritchie’s serious competition was none of the above but, rather, the 1992 Disney feature cartoon (and subsequent Broadway musical) with songs by Alan Menken — most of them highly derivative — that were popular. Their versions here, for the most part, have the virtue of brevity. Best of the lot are the Genie’s signature tune “Friend Like Me” and the “Prince Ali” song-and-dance spectacle in which Aladdin, after a stumbling start, turns into a razzle-dazzle break-dancer extraordinaire.

Among his previous entries, Ritchie’s “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1999) and “Snatch” (2000) were well received, as opposed to “Swept Away” (2002) — starring his then-wife Madonna — which was the “winner” of multiple worst-film-of-the-year awards. He recovered, somewhat, with “Sherlock Holmes” (2009).

His biggest gamble here was casting Will Smith as the Genie (after Jim Carrey, his original choice, bowed out). Smith has said he was initially “terrified” to fill the shoes and the universally adored character created by Robin Williams. Indeed, it takes him a while to do so, but he eventually “finds a lane” that pays homage to Williams while remaking the role as his own.

Aside from Genie, the film’s makers worked hard to find actors of Arab/Middle Eastern/Central Asian ethnicity. Egyptian-Canadian Massoud turns out to be a dashing Aladdin. Anglo-Indian Scott is an excellent, not to mention gorgeous, Jasmine in her dazzling magenta outfits with bosom-bursting bustiers. She looks a little Princess Leia without the Danish-pastry hair rolls, and she gets to sing “I Won’t Be Silent” (a newly added #MeToo era song).

The weak link is Dutch-Tunisian actor Kenzari as Jafar, a so-so villain at best.

Ritchie originally considered shooting in Morocco but went with creating Agrabah in studio mattes and CGI labs. The result is a pleasantly vague, eclectic semblance of mythical Baghdad, by a coalition of the willing production designers, drawn from Moroccan, Persian and Turkish art and architecture. The insanely colorful costumes and amazing special effects do their part.

This family-friendly adventure produced much audience interaction and applause at the end of its jam-packed preview screening. “Aladdin” seems to be a generational franchise thing — self-regenerating every 25 years or so. What’s next, the Cinerama Claymation IMAX 3D format with Smell-o-vision, circa 2045?

I won’t be around for that one — you’ll have to let me know in the afterlife.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

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