Aladdin had a shame-faced ad campaign that made it seem like Disney was embarrassed of the movie, and the most interesting thing about Aladdin was #HotJafar. So I am quite shocked to report that Aladdin is not terrible. And it won the box office this weekend with a $105 million domestic take. It’s not especially good, but it’s not nearly as bad as the lackluster trailer makes you think. Some of that is because of the songs—Aladdin has some of the best songs in the Disney canon – but a WHOLE LOT OF IT is Mena Massoud, Aladdin himself. Massoud is electric on screen, with charisma to spare; he’s the kind of actor you describe as “A Star”, complete with capital letters and flashing neon lights. Between his charm, smile, and roguish-but-not-smarmy performance, Mena Massoud should be our 2019 Internet Boyfriend or there is no justice in the world. We will probably forget Aladdin in six months, but I hope Mena Massoud sticks around. He deserves as vibrant a career as anyone named Chris.
Of course, Massoud is not alone on screen—although I have no doubt he could carry Aladdin if it was nothing but a two-hour monologue—and what makes Aladdin work (in fits and starts) is the strength of the casting. Naomi Scott is wonderful as Princess Jasmine, who is reimagined as a young woman hungry to lead but denied the chance by tradition. Her potential marriage is presented as a search to find the “real” ruler of Agrabah since Jasmine can’t rule herself. Scott brings a lot of hopeful energy to Jasmine that plays wonderfully against a more fatalist Aladdin. Scott and Massoud are fabulous together, and they knock “A Whole New World” out of the f-cking park. Just getting that right covers a lot of the not-good elements of the movie.
Also very good and with good chemistry are Will Smith as the Genie, and Nasim Pedrad as Jasmine’s hand-maiden “Dalia”, a new character developed just for the movie. No one, not even Will Smith, was ever going to top Robin Williams as the Genie. And for the most part, Smith doesn’t even try. He’s free to put his own spin on the character, except for having to repeat a few of Williams’ famous jokes, which is a mistake as it just reminds you HOW GOOD Williams was. But 80% of the time, Will Smith is working as the genie. He never quite looks right in blue magic form—the proportions are all off—but his chemistry with Massoud mostly distracts from that. They’re wonderful together, so good they pull off a frankly bizarre running joke about jam.
Slightly less good—TO MY SHOCK—is Marwan Kenzari as #HotJafar. He is doing his best with what he’s got, but Kenzari gets the least decent material of any of the main cast. Jafar is saddled with too much backstory, going so far to suggest he assassinated Jasmine’s mother to provoke a war between Agrabah and their neighboring kingdom (very Prince Humperdink of him). The only backstory Jafar needs is that he was once a street rat, like Aladdin. It’s enough to paint Jafar as a power-hungry social climber. He doesn’t need secret assassinations and the desire for a caliphate to be the bad guy. Especially that last one—“caliphate” is a word ruined by negative modern association (I strongly recommend Roxana Hadidi’s fabulous piece about the worsening of Aladdin’s Orientalism for more on this topic).
Less good still is Guy Ritchie’s direction. It turns out, his kinetic action style does not translate to musicals. “One Jump Ahead” is decent enough, between Massoud’s vocals, his abundance of charm, and super-parkour-Aladdin choreography which is a fun interpretation of the classic animation. But Ritchie doesn’t stage song-and-dance numbers well, so songs like “Prince Ali” come off as strangely small, and Jasmine gets a new song in which the staging is totally at odds with her meaning. It’s a power anthem called “Speechless”, and as she sings everyone in the throne room disappears, one by one. It’s a freeze frame shot, I assume late enough in the process that someone realized Ritchie isn’t good at dance numbers and so cancelled dancing entirely, but instead of disappearing, it seems like everyone should be turning and fixating on Jasmine, suggesting that once she speaks up, her audience is unable to turn away from her meaning. But instead they just vanish and leave her singing about her empowerment to an empty room. It is very strange.
Aladdin is full of these ups and downs. Will Smith is pretty good as the Genie when he’s just acting, but his singing is not good, so all of his numbers fall flat. The songs are classic, but the live-action execution is mediocre at best. The cast is terrific, but Jafar and Jasmine walk into some ugly Middle Eastern stereotypes the movie could do without. Mena Massoud is an unqualified goddamn delight. Let this be the takeaway of live-action Aladdin—the movie is completely mediocre, but Mena Massoud is A Star. If Aladdin gives us nothing else but Mena Massoud, then it has done its job.