Prove your humanity

We all (should) know the beloved Disney classic that is Aladdin. The original 1992 animated film became the highest grossing film of the year and won many accolades, including two Academy Awards. However along with its success, it also faced a lot of controversy for its representation of Arab culture and allegedly racist song lyrics.

It was no surprise that this 2019 live action remake also copped hate from fans and critics, but I am happy to announce that the film is not the disaster we expected; in fact it surpasses all expectations.

Arriving at the Windsor Cinema in Nedlands for the release of Aladdin, I was immediately transported back to the 1930s. The Windsor, constructed in 1937, holds great significant for Perth’s art and culture scene as it was the largest and first cinema to screen subtitled films. Sitting in the small but cosy Cinema 3, my sister and I snacked on popcorn as we waited to be whisked away into an Arabian night.

To explain the premise briefly, Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street rat living in the city of Agrabah with nothing to his name except his pet monkey, Abu, and his stolen goods. After an encounter with the Sultan’s evil advisor Jafar (played by Marwan Kenzari), Aladdin is believed to be the ‘diamond in the rough’ and must retrieve a magical lamp from the Cave of Wonders. Discovering the Genie (played by Will Smith) trapped inside the lamp, Aladdin uses one of his three wishes to become Prince Ali of Ababwa, in the hopes of wooing Princess Jasmine (played by Naomi Scott).

The film’s first scene is truly magical with a not-so-blue Will Smith on a boat telling two children a story that involves a magical lamp and a genie. Opening with the classic sing-along ‘Arabian Nights’, the camera pans through the busy market streets of the fictional city and thus the popular tale begins.

The set design and costumes are absolutely wonderful. Aladdin dons his iconic purple fez and Jasmine looks the part in her aqua blue traditional outfit. From the dusty, vibrant Agrabah marketplace to the perfectly furnished and fancy palace, the film takes the audience on a journey, at one point through a harsh and sandy desert, and at another, into the freezing snow at one end of the Earth. The fast-moving plot means there is never a dull moment and each musical number is timed well so as too not overdo it (although I personally could never get tired from the soundtrack).

This new rendition of Aladdin is directed by Guy Ritchie who is known for crime films, so it was interesting to see what he did with this classic musical. While trying its hardest to remain true to the original, Ritchie incorporates some new elements unique to this rendition. Alan Menken returns to reprise his role as music composer (cue sigh of relief), so the soundtrack is a hit. A new song ‘Speechless’, has modern pop song vibes (think Jessie J) and shows off Scott’s powerful vocals as she belts out the lyrics, highlighting Jasmine as a modern woman with determination and power (who needs a stupid prince anyway?).

Other favourites include the one and only ‘Friend Like Me’. I was worried Smith wouldn’t be able to pull off the Genie as well as Robin Williams, but I was pleasantly surprised by this scene. While it will never top the original, it was very entertaining and was given a contemporary twist. ‘Prince Ali’ went all out with this musical sequence featuring 1000 dancers, extras featuring crazy costumes, elephants and a flock of ostriches as the entourage storm the palace ‘to make way for Prince Ali’. This song was a bit drawn out and repetitive, but none-the-less was fun to watch. Of course, I can’t forget, ‘A Whole New World’. This dreamy love ballad was exceptional and pulled on childhood heartstrings as the Aladdin and Princess Jasmine soar above the city on the magic carpet.

One of the main concerns about the film leading up to the release was that the cast were not diverse enough. Aladdin is based from a folktale from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights from the Islamic Golden Age, so it makes sense that the characters should be of Middle-Eastern descent. In January of 2018, The Independent accused Disney of applying brown-makeup to white actors to help them ‘blend in’, causing outrage from fans and critics. Disney responded to the controversy saying that the “Diversity of [their] cast and background performers was a requirement and only in a handful of instances when it was a matter of specialty skills, safety and control (special effects rigs, stunt performers and handling of animals) were crew made up to blend in.” But with Massoud (Aladdin) being of Egyptian-Canadian descent, Scott (Princes Jasmine) being Anglo-Indian and only a handful of other actors originating from Middle-Eastern or North African descent, the film does a questionable job of staying true to its origins.

The CGI animations were far from tacky and the visuals were beautiful. These elements were especially enhanced when Genie was present ‘poofing’ his magic around. Abu, the cheeky monkey thief, and Jasmine’s majestic pet tiger, Rajah, were entirely realistic and portrayed human characterisation allowing the audience to connect and understand their actions. If you want to get picky, some of the CGI is a bit clunky and robotic, particularly in the ‘One Jump Ahead’ musical number where Aladdin and Jasmine are running from the guards in the marketplace.

Every actor’s performance––from Kenzari’s impression of Jafar’s evil laugh and Nasim Pedrad as Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia––is executed exceptionally well. Aladdin will always hold a place in my heart; I’m glad this live-action remake wasn’t a disaster and added a new creative flair for the younger generation. Its modern-day mantra and portrayal of Princess Jasmine’s independence is refreshing, and I hope Disney fans gain the satisfaction they were looking for.

These Arabian nights won’t be sticking around for long so get down to your local cinema and sing your heart out (or don’t because fellow movie-goers might throw popcorn at you).

Experience this whole new world, Aladdin is in cinemas now!