The most surprising part of Guy Ritchie’s “Aladdin” isn’t that it’s far better (more fun, more frisky, more coherent) than a string of maligned trailers have let on, it’s that no one ever got the bright idea to rename the whole thing “Genie” and turn all of the film’s attention on Will Smith. While early looks at the film — especially scenes that focused on Smith turning on the bravado with a vibrant song-and-dance — were received badly enough that both Ritchie and Smith were asked to respond to the critical jabs, within the context of Ritchie’s warmly silly film, they work. They really, really work. That’s not to say that Ritchie’s live-action treatment of the beloved animated classic doesn’t have other elements to recommend it, but Smith puts on such an outsized performance that it’s easy for him to overshadow its smaller joys — and when Genie is suddenly silenced in a limp third act, the entire film suffers.
First, however, there’s Aladdin (Mena Massoud) to get to know: a kind-hearted street kid with a panache for stealing and a knack for parkour that seems ripped out of the otherwise charmless “Assassin’s Creed.” Aladdin is both scrappy and smart, and when he runs into a beautiful new friend who has gotten into a spot of trouble at his local market (vibrant, colorful, very obviously crafted on a soundstage), of course he’ll help her out of a jam. Soon enough, the pair are running, swinging, and singing their way through their home city, all to the catchy tune of “One Jump Ahead.” While the mechanics of the meeting have been slightly altered from the original Disney film, even audiences not familiar with John Musker and Ron Clements’ 1992 animated hit will surely see what Aladdin doesn’t: that’s no regular gal, that’s Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott).
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Despite a few tweaks, the meat of the animated story remains: Aladdin is eventually dispatched to a terrifying cave to retrieve a gold oil lamp for the crafty Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who promises the young “street rat” a chance with Jasmine for all his hard work. Aladdin, of course, finds the lamp, only to unwittingly claim it for himself. Cue wild Genie, strike up the insane song-and-dance sequences, and get jamming on a concealed identity narrative device that drives forward a zippy, fun second act. While Smith doesn’t appear as Genie until well into the film’s running time, but the propulsive nature of the film before he arrives on the scene keep things pumping right along until he arrives to blow the whole thing up with humor, charm, and gobsmacking sequences that looked, quite frankly, totally deranged when they were edited for television.
In the context of “Aladdin,” Smith’s scenes help fuel the spectacle of a wild, candy-colored fairy tale packed with unexpected laughs and a series of impressive musical numbers. Although Ritchie isn’t exactly known for putting on this kind of razzle dazzle, audiences that expect he’ll nail the street tough bit and leave the rest blowing in the wind will be very surprised to see what he succeeds at crafting. It’s the big musical sequences that are the most successful, including Genie’s cave-set introduction and an eye-popping street parade that functions as the coming out party for Aladdin’s royal alter-ego Prince Ali.
As Jasmine and Aladdin, Scott and Massoud are well-matched, and they’re even better when their characters are allowed to be loose and fun (they’re aces on that key magic carpet ride, both crumble into mealy-mouthed line-readers when asked to deliver hammy exposition). Chemistry-wise, the heat between the duo is lacking, but that’s okay, this is a film aimed at a younger audience, and they are going to love it. They are going to especially love Will Smith as Genie, because it’s almost impossible to imagine the wacky comedic tour-de-force won’t charm everyone. Massoud’s take on Aladdin is a fair bit sillier than fans are used to, and a sequence in which he’s expected to turn up the royal charm via the presentation of gifts is genuinely uproarious, even before Smith adds his own flair.
Elsewhere, Ritchie and co-screenwriter John August have added a fair bit of modernization to Jasmine’s character, imagining her as a leader-in-the-making who is eager to rule her country, despite a father (Navid Negahban) who doesn’t see the need to change tradition and his own wily righthand man, the suitably nefarious and compelling Jafar, who doesn’t want any competition. It’s a smart change, and gives Jasmine plenty more to do: from new songs to belt, like the Alan Menken and Pasek-and Paul-penned “Speechless,” to a fresh motivations that add emotional dimensions to the role, Scott makes off with one of the juiciest Disney Princess roles in recent memory.
But that’s not enough to save the film’s flatlining final act, in which Genie is muted, Jasmine is expected to deliver emotional twists via confusing musical sequences, and Aladdin undergoes a series of serious motivation changes on a minute by minute basis. There’s plenty of plot to drive Ritchie’s film — a secret identity film bolstered by romance, palace intrigue, and Will Smith as a giant blue genie, what else could anyone possibly want? — but the third act of “Aladdin” is so laden (and leaden) with major plot points that it wallops all the fun that came before. Younger viewers will surely tune out, but the older set is likely goners too. It’s the perfect time to call for once last wish: make this whole thing as fun as the first two acts, voila!
Disney will release “Aladdin” in theaters on Friday, May 24.