Disney live-action remakes are many things. Some are everything that is wonderful about childhood adapted for a more mature audience. Others are emblematic of just how lazy Hollywood seems to have become. And then there are others which are a striking reminder of how much the world has changed since the original animated version was released. Aladdin seems to be a combination of all three of these.
Disney’s Aladdin, starring Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari and Nasim Pedrad, is a live action/CGI version of the animated version which was released in 1992. Aladdin (Massoud) is a slick yet soft hearted street urchin, surviving in the fictional kingdom of Agrabah by stealing from others. Right at the beginning of the story, he bumps into the princess Jasmine who has disguised herself as a servant so she can sneak out of the palace to which she is confined by her over protective father. When Aladdin slips into the palace to see her again and to prove his honesty, he is commandeered by the scheming vizier Jafar (Kenzari) to recover a magical lamp containing a genie (Smith) with the power to grant the lamp’s owner nearly any three wishes. But when Aladdin accidentally ends up becoming the genie’s new master, he sets out on a mission to win Jasmine’s hand that pits him against Jafar and puts the entire kingdom at stake.
There are some new additions to the film that are clearly meant to cater to the sensibilities of modern moviegoers. Some are subtle, such as replacing the word “barbaric” with “chaotic” to describe Arabia in the opening number “Arabian Nights.” Others are less subtle. There is an entirely new character introduced to the story; Dalia (Pedrad), Jasmine’s lady-in-waiting. Both the Genie and the villain Jafar are much more human and relatable.
What’s not subtle at all is the amplified role of Jasmine. She is not just a princess aching for the freedom to love, she is an aspiring queen. Her struggle to marry whom she loves takes a backseat to her struggle to save her kingdom from Jafar’s destructive ambitions. In the end, her father gives his blessing rather than his permission for her to be with Aladdin.
To top it off, her new identity is cemented in the most Disney-esque way possible. She is given her own song. It is an entirely new addition to the soundtrack and comfortably on the same level as the classic Aladdin songs. It also demonstrates how the importance of a character in a Disney movie hinges largely on how much they sing.
This new angle on a Disney princess is impressive, with parallels being drawn to Queen Elsa in the movie Frozen. However, it begs an interesting question. If Disney wants to give young girls powerful female role models to look up to, is it better to reimagine old characters or create new ones? In the original Aladdin, the only time Jasmine sings is in a duet with Aladdin. But then again, she’s not the title character. Who does most of the singing in The Little Mermaid? The Little Mermaid of course. In Beauty and the Beast, Beauty usually spends more time singing than the Beast, depending on which version you watch.
So why was Jasmine transformed into an Elsa? Did the makers of the live-action Aladdin remake believe the original treatment of princess Jasmine was sexist? Were they trying to correct past wrongs or effectively create a new character? Gender role discussions aside, the Aladdin of 2019 fails to approach the charm and appeal of the original. An admirable performance from its cast is drowned out by overly gaudy visual effects and a generally thin, un-gaudy script. It will undoubtedly arouse feelings of nostalgia in its viewers, but ultimately it seems torn between adapting the story to a modern audience and checking boxes to make it as much like the original as possible.