BY RICK BENTLEY
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
The parade of live-action films based on Disney animated movies continues with Guy Ritchie’s take on “Aladdin.”
There are always elements to deal with in this process, but none of the previous attempts have come with as massive a hurdle as this film considering Robin Williams was so spectacular voicing the Genie in the 1992 production.
The live-action version comes with lavish sets, grand musical numbers and new music but it all came down to how well Will Smith could take on such an icon part.
The story hasn’t changed. The wicked Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) is looking for an easy way to become Sultan and he needs help from street thief Aladdin (Mena Massoud) to steal a magic lamp from a cave.
Things go bad and it is Aladdin who ends up getting three wishes from the Genie (Will Smith) and uses one wish to become a prince so that he can impress the Sultan’s daughter (Naomi Scott).
Their romance and the evil deeds of Jafar playout against the backdrop of the Oscar-winning score by Alan Menken with the memorable songs of ‘Friend Like Me” and “A Whole New World.”
It also is told against a dazzling backdrop of a fictional Middle Eastern city created by production designer Gemma Jackson.
Scott is by far the strongest casting outside of Smith. She brings both a royal demeanor and a spunkiness to her performance that makes Jasmine a very strong and independent character.
The new tune of “Speechless” from Menken, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul is delivered with such power and grace that it is destined to be both an anthem for those who won’t be kept quiet and a potential nominee for an Oscar.
In both performance and singing voice, Scott overshadows Massoud. He’s fine when dealing with the larcenous ways of Aladdin or trying to control his emotions around Jasmine. But, he’s not as capable as Scott either as a singer or a dancer and that comes through very clearly with “A Whole New World.”
Even Nasim Pedrad’s performance as Jasmine’s friend and confidant,
Dalia, has more energy. It may be that the women seem more empowered by these roles than the men. Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar even comes up a little short in the menacing category.
In the end, none of that would have mattered if Smith had not come through. Smith’s ability to bring his own form of magic to the role makes the live-action version not a movie mirage but real entertainment.
There are some similarities to the frantic nature that came out of Williams being the original voice of the Genie. Those moments are mixed with the kind of high energy performance Smith has shown in the past when allowed to play comedy.
The CGI work that helps bring the character to life is so good it is impossible to tell when it is the real Smith and when the Genie is being completely created in a computer. That adds to the overall strength of the performance.
Transformation of some Disney animated films over the past few years have worked beautifully (“Jungle Book”) while others have failed (“Dumbo”).
“Aladdin” falls under the category of an adaptation that works but it does come with the same question that has dogged all of the animation-to-live-action productions so far: Why was this necessary other than to generate a few bucks for Disney?
There are a few Disney animated movies that have some very outdated moments but overall the company’s animated offerings continue to be just as strong as the day they were created.
There is enough quality in the live-action “Aladdin” to suggest that should you stumble upon a magic lamp, make one of your wishes to go see this movie. The second should be to own a copy of the original animated film because it is still a treasure. The third wish is up to you.