When I heard Disney was doing a live-action version of ALADDIN, my inner child went “UUUUUGH! We don’t need this!” I didn’t realize how much I loved the original until that moment, but I do. I love the songs (it’s the only “golden era” Disney soundtrack that my kids and I still listen to in the car). I loved the Aladdin stage show at Disney California Adventure. I liked the Broadway musical version when I saw the touring company here in Los Angeles (but I still preferred the DCA one; weird, right?).
But just a few minutes into this vibrant reimagining from Guy Ritchie and company, they had won me over completely. I was ready to ride that magic carpet anywhere they wanted to take me. It’s not a perfect live-action remake, but it has so much goodness in it, it wasn’t hard to forgive any missteps that may have been taken. Let’s talk about Disney’s live-action ALADDIN.
When You Know Better, You Do Better
One of my favorite aspects of this new version is the filmmakers’ commitment to telling the story with positive portrayals of Middle Eastern cultures and people with probably the most diverse cast of any Disney film ever. I’ll let the people of those cultures weigh in on whether Disney’s execution was successful or not; as someone not from those cultures, it’s not my place to say if it was or wasn’t. But I will say that I’m so very glad that they are trying to do this better.
At the global press conference for the film, Mena Massoud (“Aladdin”) called out the representation and ethnically diverse cast, saying, “I’m excited for little boys and girls to go see people that look like them on screen, man. That’s what I’m proud of.”
Another example: Listen closely to the songs, and you’ll hear subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — changes the songwriters made to depict Middle Eastern culture, traditions and people in a positive and factual way. (I’ll give you this little one for free: In “Prince Ali,” they changed “Brush up your Sunday salaam” to “Brush up your Friday salaam,” given that the Muslim sabbath occurs on Friday, not Sunday, as it does in most Christian traditions. Huzzah!)
Suggested New Title: Aladdin & Jasmine
Halfway through the film, it occured to me that it would have been totally appropriate if they had called the movie “Aladdin & Jasmine,” and I was so into it. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott (“Jasmine”) were so captivating and charming from the first time they appear on screen, I would have watched an entire movie of just the two of them and been totally satisfied. They are lovely and talented.
Jasmine has a full, robust story arc now with more agency, a very moving new empowerment song (“Speechless”).Plus an actual human best friend, who has her own story arc, too? Amazing.
At the press conference, director Guy Ritchie and Naomi Scott (“Jasmine”) talked about the need for “equality of challenge” when it came to the main characters’ story arcs. They explained it this way: Aladdin had plenty of things to deal with already. The Genie has his own stuff going on. It was time for Jasmine to be more than a girl wanting to get out of the palace and not having to marry a schmuck. They took this need for equality seriously and their angle fits perfectly into the reimagining of the film.
There’s so much more I want to share about the movie. Here’s the speed version:
LOVED: Seeing real humans playing these characters and singing these songs that I already love. Animation is such a gift because they can do so much that real humans can’t, and it allows you to engage with subjects in ways that live-action can’t. But I wasn’t expecting to get so much more from watching real people do these things.
LOVED: The production design and costumes. From the first frame through to the credits, this film is a total feast. It’s so beautiful and rich and transporting. I wanted to jump into the screen and live there with them and wear their clothes.
LOVED: The music and songs themselves. It’s was so exciting to experience these songs again for the first time. It was such a heightened experience. When I could anticipate that another song was about to start, I was so thrilled to see where they were going to go with it.
LOVED: The Genie in non-CGI form. I loved Will Smith. He made the Genie’s dialogue his own, and I was grateful for it. He was so fun and funny and also tender. I didn’t love looking at the CGI Genie, even though I really liked what he was saying/singing.
I was also fortunate enough to get to bring my kids to the screening, and they really liked it, too. The 13-year-old said she liked Jafar (played by the excellent Marwan Kenzari) in the live action version because “In the original, he looks like more of a creepy villain, but in the live action one, he reminds me of Viktor Krum (from the Harry Potter series). And with his shaved head, he looks scarier than the animated one.” I also like the live action Jafar better, too. He’s a real person, who also happens to be power-crazy and awful, and feels less like an ugly stereotype.
My 8-year-old chimed in on his favorite scene: “When Aladdin is showing Jasmine his house and he [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS]. That was really cool.” It was one of my favorite moments, too.
The Bottom Line
I really loved it. It’s gorgeous and spectacular. The production numbers are amazing. They preserved most of the reasons I love the original, and fixed a lot of the problematic elements. Jasmine is an equal partner in the plot and the stakes. There’s another girl! They really did a good job updating this beloved film for today’s world.
I can’t wait to take my kids to see it again opening weekend. Make sure to check out Disney’s ALADDIN at a theater near you beginning Friday, May 24.
Side Note: I show my kids my favorite older movies that also have subtle or overt problematic elements in them: misogyny, racism, homophobia, fat-shaming, bullying used for comic effect and the like. And I use them as teaching moments. It’s a great opportunity. But it’s so lovely to have good movies that do better in this respect to just enjoy together. I’m grateful that this new ALADDIN exists in the world, and I’ll keep going to movies like this as long as the studios make them.