Will Smith makes Robin Williams’s old genie role his own.
How much could there possibly be to say about the new live-action Aladdin? It's another squeeze of the Disney property that's already yielded a phenomenally popular 1992 animated film, a pair of straight-to-video sequels (best left undiscussed), and a stage show that's been running on Broadway pretty much forever. (Well, since 2014.) I haven't seen the Disney on Ice version of Aladdin, and I'm pretty sure I never shall.
The story, frankly derived from the 1940 adventure fantasy The Thief of Baghdad, is by now a part of pop-culture DNA. Young street thief Aladdin works the bustling bazaar of the fictitious desert city of Agrabah with his wily pet monkey, Abu. He falls into the hands of the evil Grand Vizier Jafar, advisor to the sultan, who maneuvers Aladdin into entering the Cave of Wonders, a fabulous storehouse of gold and jewels, as well as a magic lamp—which is all that Jaffar is actually interested in. Aladdin does Jafar's bidding and emerges from the cave with the lamp and a magic carpet that he also found inside. Jafar tries to double-cross Aladdin, but Abu steals the lamp back from the sorcerer and soon he and Aladdin are making the acquaintance of an ancient genie who has been trapped inside the lamp for thousands of years. The genie tells Aladdin he will grant him three wishes (none of which can be a wish for more wishes). Soon he has transformed Aladdin into a wealthy prince named Ali, who before long has made his way into the royal palace and begun courting the sultan's beautiful daughter, Princess Jasmine. Jafar—who controls the sultan through a powerful spell—does everything he can to disrupt this romance. In the end, of course, he fails.
So what's new in this live-action version of the old tale? Practically nothing. It's still a musical, and the songs are largely the same (naturally including the Oscar- and Grammy-winning "A Whole New World," once again delivered with full Broadway gusto on a magic-carpet ride over city and starlit sea). The story is well-served by director Guy Ritchie (of the Sherlock Holmes movies), whose acrobatic action sensibility provides lots to look at (especially in a wall-running bazaar chase and a breakdancing production number inside the palace which is a couple of miles more entertaining than that description would suggest). The production design, by Gemma Jackson, is pure Disney, stuffed with charm and tchotchkes and ready to fill the skies with fireworks at the swell of a chorus or to bring in CGI elephants and giraffes and cantering ostriches for no particular reason at all. It's fun. Bring a kid.
The main players—Mena Massoud as Aladdin, Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, and Nasim Pedrad as her genie-fancying handmaiden Dalia—are fine, solid. However, Marwan Kenzari, who plays the scheming Jafar, lacks the resonant menace that Jonathan Freeman brought to the animated character in 1992, and he has none of the mad-eyed brio that Conrad Veidt provided in The Thief of Baghdad. An underplayed Jafar is practically no Jafar at all.
Fortunately, Will Smith, taking on the role of the genie, pretty much makes the movie. Unintimidated by Robin Williams's memorably hyperactive performance in this part in the 1992 film, Smith dials back the manic yammering and delivers his lines with a smoother spin. When lovestruck Aladdin tells the genie about Jasmine and says, "She's a princess," Smith flicks back a deadpan "Aren't they all?" that's gone almost before you register it. When the genie suggests a made-up place name for Aladdin to tell people that Prince Ali is from, the naive lad is hesitant. "Is that a real place?" he asks. "Yeah—it's got a brochure," the genie says, magically producing one.
From time to time, Smith clambers over the fourth wall to address us directly, at one point crowing, "This genie's on fire, folks!" He kinda is.