When the credits began to roll on the Aladdin (2019) showing I went to see, there was a small, but significant amount of applause. There were children and adults dancing to the music. On the way out of the theater I heard someone mention to someone else that they were glad that they had come to see the new movie. Unfortunately, I did not share the enthusiasm that gripped many of those around me. I came away from this new, updated version of Aladdin entertained, but also fairly disappointed. 

For the past few years, Disney has been remaking some of its most famous animated movies into live action films. This current wave of Disney remakes started, more or less, with 2014’s Maleficent which was highly successful and is soon getting a sequel.  The Jungle Book in 2016 and 2017’s Beauty and the Beast were both worthy takes on their animated predecessors with the new version Beauty and the Best now ranking as one of my favorite films of all time.

In large part, I have enjoyed these Disney remakes. Some argue that there’s no point in updating classic films with live actors and large doses of CGI, but I think Disney has made some great choices so far, and added new scenes, songs, and substance to the films they first released decades ago.

Until now.

The long and the short of it is that this live action remake of Aladdin lost something. Honestly, I think it lost a lot of things that hurt it in a number of ways. Let’s start with the obvious. Yes, Robin Williams is dead. Yes, he was missed. But, contrary to my expectations, Will Smith did an ok job and even had some fun new moments of his own. The movie would have been better with a reprisal by Robin Williams, for sure, but Will Smith’s genie is not a reason to avoid this movie. I was never really worried about that. I think if Disney knew anything, it knew that it needed a strong performance by whoever it choose to replace Williams. And I think Will Smith mostly delivered.

Interesting, Aladdin is one of the biggest reasons I was disappointed by this movie. The animated version of Aladdin was clever, resourceful, honest, and, for the most part, charming. This live action version of Aladdin lacked those last two traits. 2019’s Aladdin got a lot of milage of being a great pickpocket, but I think maybe he got too much milage out of it. Aside from a few resourceful costume changes as he infiltrated the palace, this new version of Aladdin showed almost no smarts at all. Time after time, I longed for him to charm his way out of a situation, but time after time he either bumbled along until everyone else in the scene got fed up with him, or he managed to get Genie to bail him out at the last instant. The animated version of Aladdin wasn’t a brilliant charmer, but he had enough charisma that he could usually talk his way out of the trouble he got himself in. The more I saw of this updated version of Aladdin, the less I liked him. It’s not that Mena Massoud was bad in the role. He did a good job with what he was given. I think it was just bad writing that did not give him anything clever to do aside from a few instance of slight of hand that were almost never on camera. 

I also didn’t like that they put more emphasis on Aladdin’s lack of moral character. 1992’s Aladdin wasn’t unimpeachable, he was lying about being a price, after all, but this more modern Aladdin certainly succumbed more to the lure of power and greed than the original did. It was with sadness that the animated version of Aladdin told the Genie that he could not set him free. Live action Aladdin? His motive were both more about himself and he was somewhat more mean and less sympathetic about it. That made me sad because I feel it actually did some small amount of harm to the character.

Naomi Scott as Princes Jasmine was a lot better written. She was smart. She was capable. She was resourceful. I largely appreciated the attempt this film made to expand Jasmine’s story. In the 1992 movie, she really didn’t have much of a role other than not being “a prize to be won.” This new, updated version of Jasmine had the intelligence and ambition to succeed her father as Sultan, if only her father and the law would let her. I don’t think Jasmine’s transition from trophy princess to potential Sultanness was quite as successful as expanded role Belle got in the new Beauty and the Beast, but I think Aladdin (2019) had a far lesser 90’s animated character to start with and did an ok job at trying to modernize her. I didn’t think Jasmine’s new songs fit anywhere near as well as the new songs in the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast, but there’s no denying that Jasmine’s final song about not staying silent had some real power behind it. 

If Aladdin’s character was poorly written, I think the second disappointment of this updated movie was the songs. The music and updated lyrics were both ok. There were some lines in “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” that weren’t as good as Robin Williams’ in the animated version, but mostly it was the visuals, not the lyrics, that disappointed me. There were more visuals in the 2019 version, to be sure. 1992’s “Friend Like Me” has a surprising amount of blank, one color backgrounds. The 2019 version didn’t have that problem. There was a lot of stuff to see in every frame, but I felt like they didn’t do enough with that stuff. It’s 2019! Disney has all the money in the world! And yet it felt to me like both “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” had less spectacle and less fun than their animated versions.

For instance, in Prince Ali, the line “strong as ten regular men, definitely” was not accompanied with Genie granting Aladdin the brief ability to lift several men above his head. Likewise, in the same song, they replaced giant elephant Abu kicking open the palace door in exchange for the entire song pausing until the Sultan picked up the beat. I thought it was almost a fair trade, but that the animated version was just a little spectacular. Even “A Whole New World” suffered a little. In the animated version, Aladdin, Jasmine, and Carpet do more loops and changes of direction. Their flight above the clouds and among the birds felt a little more magical. The live action was disappointingly tame by comparison. 

Lastly, I felt that the 2019 movie just lacked some of the great pacing and scenes than were in the 1992 version. Just a few examples: 

  • I missed the moment where Jasmine made the same rooftop jump as Aladdin and then declared that she was a fast learner. In the 2019 version, she stops short and clings to a pole on the near side, instead. 
  • Aladdin and Jasmine’s conversation overlooking Agrabah was great in the 1992 version. Their back and forth and their contrasting views of life in the palace worked very well interleaved with each other. Most of that wonderful scene was lost in the live action version. 
  • Aladdin telling Genie about Jasmine for the first time is an excellent scene with good voice acting and animation in the ’92 version. It just wasn’t as good in the ’19 version. 
  • I was sad that we didn’t get to see Jasmine pretend to fall in love with Jafar like she did near the end of the 1992 film. Maybe it wasn’t in this new Jasmine’s character, but I was hoping to see that scene. The silly things Jasmine says to compliment Jafar in the animated movie was just delightful. She mentions his eyebrows and the gaps between his teeth and the line “Your beard is so… twisted.” was delivered so well. Now, it’s not even in the 2019 version of the movie. 
  • We also didn’t get Jafar’s “Prince Ali” refrain which I was hoping to see. 

But more than those specific scenes, I felt that the new movie changed too much of the pacing. Not just in the new scenes or the added gags. Much of the movie felt off to me. Ultimately, while the new version did make an attempt to add in some responsibility a leader should have towards his or her people, I think the animated version had a stronger, cleaner through line that was lost somewhere along the way. 

I didn’t hate this movie. It was nowhere near as disappointing as some other live action movie adaptations I’ve seen in recent years. (Ghost in the Shell, I’m looking at you…) It had a few great moments and plot points that I enjoyed. The Genie’s romance with Dalia, Jasmine’s handmaiden, was a highlight of the movie, for instance. And, even though Aladdin was overly defined by his slight of hand, it did generate some tender moments here and there. I also enjoyed that Jafar described himself as the same sort of pickpocket street rat as Aladdin, and that he was just one who fully gave into a need for power. And, you know what, turning the Genie into a human at the end did us the favor of sparing us a Return of Jafar or Prince of Thieves. That might be the best move the 2019 movie made! 

Aladdin (2019) is not a movie that must be avoided at all cost. Kids will enjoy it, for sure. But, they will enjoy the animated version just as much, and the animated version is just all around a better movie. If you want to see a classic Disney movie redone in live action, I’d highly recommend 2017’s Beauty and the Beast. I thought it updated and added to its animated predecessor in ways that this new version of Aladdin largely failed to do. This new version of Aladdin more or less just made me wonder why it even existed.