A male movie theater attendant checking tickets in a full-blown Jasmine outfit can only mean one thing: The live-action “Aladdin” has finally hit theaters. Released May 24, director Guy Ritchie adapts this classic into a magical, thrilling version that adds depth to the characters, plot and decor while retaining the aspects fans love most.
While the storyline generally follows the order of the original movie, the opening scene leads with suspense. Will Smith — who’s supposed to play the Genie — is a human on a boat with two kids. He begins telling them a story, at which point the viewer travels back to an Arabian night and into the Arabian city of Agrabah. This introduction is risky, especially since it doesn’t receive context until the end, but serves as an initial hook for those expecting the same old tale.
The movie stars actors from varying countries, which received backlash. However, since Agrabah is fictitious and it never specifies an Arab country, it’s only fitting that the actors are from varying Middle Eastern countries — there’s no right country. Mena Massoud (Aladdin) is Egyptian, Nasim Pedrad (Jasmine’s handmaiden) and Navid Negahban (the Sultan) are Iranian and Marwan Kenzari (Jafar) is Tunisian. Interestingly though, Naomi Scott (Jasmine) is a British actress whose mom is Ugandan with Indian decent, neither of which are Middle Eastern.
With this aside, Scott portrays Jasmine beautifully. Similarly, Massoud was perfect as Aladdin, so much so that his voice is nearly identical to the original Aladdin’s. This helps ease the viewer into the newest version with different actors.
Contrastingly, Smith as the Genie is the complete opposite of the beloved Robin Williams Genie. While this takes some getting used to, these hesitations disappear shortly in as it’s impossible not to laugh at the combination of Smith and Genie humor — plus, who can resist seeing Smith painted blue with a hair knot on his bald head? The key, however, is to not go in expecting a Robin Williams Genie. With that aside, Smith adds his own touch of humorous responses that make Genie even funnier.
Redesigning the Genie for a live-action film was likely challenging. The obviously painted, non-animated torso of Smith with an animated lower half comes off a little strange at first. It helps that for a good portion of the movie, Smith is a human version of the Genie.
The overall animation is stunning. Even Jasmine’s tiger, Rajah, looks real. The cinematography, special effects and decor make the film look like it had a much higher budget than $183 million — a normal price for Hollywood movies.
Disney has consistently received criticism for inaccurately representing cultures. While “Aladdin” isn’t perfect, it’s a step up in cultural representation through traditional Arab decor and architecture. This includes traditional tea glasses, open rooms such as Jasmine’s bedroom, water — an important Arab symbol — inside during the harvest party scene and the busy, colorful market filled with spices and fresh food.
Jasmine’s wardrobe and the Arab Majlis sofa in her bedroom display traditional silk. But the culture is best represented in the Arab architecture. Jasmine’s room and others have horseshoe arcs with alternating white stone and red bricks as seen in the Mosque of Cordoba in Cordoba, Spain. There’s also intricate, repetitive architectural designs, traditionally made from plaster or wood with geometric symbols, vegetation and calligraphy — all religious designs.
If there’s something that could’ve been changed for more cultural context, it’d be the lack of accents. While Disney movies are notorious for using American accents in movies about other cultures, it stands out most in this movie. At least in “Beauty and the Beast” everyone aside from the main characters has French accents. Adding Arab accents could’ve added that extra cultural touch.
The original “Aladdin” is known for its iconic soundtrack. While the new version keeps these songs, it alters a few lines such as adding a rap part to “Friend Like Me” for a comic twist and adds a few songs such as “Speechless.” This keeps the music interesting while remaining classic.
Another character is even added. Dalia, played by Pedrad from “New Girl,” is Jasmine’s handmaiden who falls for Genie. The addition of this character allows for insight into Jasmine’s thoughts, as she has someone to talk to about the kingdom and her feelings for Aladdin.
This character development allowed by having a live-action film extends to Jasmine and Aladdin’s relationship since they have more one-on-one dialogue. This enables them to get to know one another better through awkward conversations and endearing moments. This shows the growth of their relationship as opposed to the “meet a prince/princess and get married right away” Disney stereotype.
The most significant change in this movie is Disney’s approach to Jasmine’s character. Disney hones in on female empowerment and steers away from the criticism of the damsel in distress stereotype.
Jasmine desires to be the next Sultan and insists she has the strength, knowledge and care for the kingdom needed for the role. In response, she’s told to be seen and not heard to which she responds that she won’t be silent. This is captured in her song “Speechless.”
This is a turning point for Disney. It’s great for a young girl to dream of being a princess, but it’s even better if they can be inspired to be strong women with limitless potential.
Disney even goes the extra step and covers Jasmine’s midriff. While Scott is still virtually flawless, this simple adjustment steers the focus away from the unrealistic body images portrayed in princess movies.
As not only an “Aladdin” fan but a fan of the other “Aladdin” movies such as “The Return of Jafar,” I had high standards. But it’s fair to say Disney surpassed them. I may even go as far as to say it’s a contender with the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” for the best Disney live-action film — which is remarkable since Emma Watson is Belle. Let’s just hope Disney can keep it up for its other releases this year.
Contact Shanna Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.