Grade: A-
Entire family: Yes
2019, 128 min., Color
Rated PG for some action/peril
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B+
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital
Amazon link

While Disney’s live-action adaptations of their animated classics have been hit or (near) miss, the 2019 remake of Aladdin is a hit—and don’t let any of the Will-Smith-shouldn’t-have-been-the-Genie complainers tell you differently. Smith is just fine as the genie whose many moods and mannerisms help pace the film. And if you don’t believe me, go to Rotten Tomatoes, where you’ll see that Aladdin received the highest audience rating of any of the live-action remakes.

Smith said that he loved Robin Williams’ manic performance in the 1992 animated classic, but he had no intention of trying to duplicate it—partly because it was the right thing to do out of respect for Williams, but partly because it was the sane thing to do. You can’t beat Williams at manic improvisation, so you might as well carve out your own niche. Smith manages to entertain as the bright blue genie, who fast-talks, sass-talks, back-talks, and even throws in some improvisations of his own—all while managing to carve out his own version of the character.

Meanwhile, Disney struck casting gold with Egyptian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Anglo-Indian singer-songwriter Naomi Scott as Jasmine. Today’s teens and tweens are into Hollywood’s beautiful twentysomethings, but don’t look for Massoud to be bare-chested throughout the film, as the animated Aladdin was. Director Guy Ritchie thought it would be too distracting on a human, and he’s probably right. Massoud and Scott have great chemistry together and individually they’re charismatic, warm, and talented. Young viewers might also recognize Scott from the Disney channel movie Lemonade Mouth and the TV series Life Bites.

In Aladdin, a “street rat” pickpocket meets an incognito Princess Jasmine in the marketplace, and they have an adventure together that leaves them both slightly lovestruck. But Grand Visier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) schemes to wrest the kingdom away from Jasmine’s father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban), and he captures then coerces Aladdin to go into the Cave of Wonders to retrieve the magic lamp for him. After a double-cross, Aladdin ends up with the lamp and a magic carpet, and soon he gets his wish to be royalty so that he might be a suitable suitor for the princess. There are, of course, complications along the way, and they mostly revolve around Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) and his parrot Iago.

Apart from the addition of a handmaid (Nasim Pedrad) and parallel love interest sideplot, Disney stayed pretty close to the narrative of the original animated film, and there’s nothing here that’s more frightening than children saw in the animated version. Tonally it’s also similar, because all of the Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice songs are reprised—“Arabian Nights,” “One Jump Ahead,” “Friend Like Me,” “A Whole New World,” “Prince Ali.” Plus there’s a new song (“Speechless” Pts. 1-2) from Menken and lyracists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, which Scott sings. Scott has the better voice, so the “Whole New World” duet with Massoud doesn’t have quite the same soaring quality as when Lea Salonga and Brad Kane sang it in the original animated feature. But the overall energy and look of the film is so wonderful that it doesn’t really matter. The live-action Aladdin is visually stunning.

Disney has perfected the blending of live-action and CGI animation in their remakes to where you can’t even tell if Princess Jasmine’s tiger is a trained animal or CGI. Though the flying carpet is obviously CGI, it’s rendered as believably as the pyrotechnics and genie transformations. Just as the transition between a live parrot and CGI one is seamless, Jafar’s snake staff undergoes a live-snake-to-staff transformation that would have made The Ten Commandments’ filmmakers envious. And who would have thought that the addition of a Princess Bride-style “frame” to the narrative would have such a wonderful payoff at the end?