If you’re wondering about the casting of Will Smith to play the genie in Disney’s live-action “Aladdin,” join the club. In this reviewer’s opinion, it’s really not fair to expect anyone to match the brilliance of Robin’s Williams’s portrayal in the 1992 animated film, so filled with his trademark impressions and improvisations. I’m happy to be able to tell you, Smith doesn’t even try. He takes the character of the genie and makes it his own.
This new “Aladdin” is faithful to the original story with all the songs plus some new ones. Aladdin (Mena Massoud), street rat that he is, joyfully goes about stealing food from the merchants of Agrabah, giving whatever he doesn’t need to the poor children lining the streets. In the market he meets a beautiful young woman, who is really Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) in disguise. She wants to go out among the people ruled by her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban), to get to know them and their needs. She has to sneak out because dear old dad won’t let her leave the palace.
Aladdin is immediately smitten with Jasmine and plays the rescuing hero when her naiveté gets her in trouble. She tells him she’s Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), handmaiden to the princess and when he sneaks into the palace to see her, he’s caught by the power-hungry vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Being the ‘diamond in the rough’ that Jafar needs to retrieve the magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders, he sends Aladdin into the cave.
Enter Will Smith’s Genie (although this isn’t the first time we see him). A little over the top as a super muscled blue giant, Smith’s comedic background comes into play as he introduces himself to his new master with “Never Had A Friend Like Me.” However, the Genie really comes into his own with the song, “Prince Ali” as he leads Aladdin, now disguised as a fictional prince, into Agrabah on Abu, transformed from monkey into elephant.
Naomi Scott as Jasmine and Mena Massoud as Aladdin in "Aladdin" (Disney)
Genie enjoys spending time in human form, especially hitting on the real Dalia. But the joy of the film is watching the interaction between Massoud and Scott. Scott bestows on Disney princesses a new vision for her Jasmine. She is definitely not a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued by a man. She has her sights set on succeeding her father as Sultan of Agrabah and expresses her desires in the original song, “Speechless.”
The weakness of the film comes in its villain, Jafar. With his sidekick parrot, Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk), Jafar wants the kingdom for himself so he can have “phenomenal cosmic power.” He really tries to be menacing but doesn’t quite cut it.
Overall, though, “Aladdin” is as fun as a magic carpet ride, so sit back and enjoy the unbelievable sights and indescribable feeling, soaring, tumbling, freewheeling through an endless diamond sky.