Right off the bat, you can tell that Disney’s live-action “Aladdin” has avoided some of the missteps of the original animated film. The lyrics of the song “Arabian Nights,” which is sung in a prologue that frames the new film as a children’s fairy tale, have been changed from this description of the film’s Middle Eastern setting — “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” — to this: “It’s chaotic, but hey, it’s home.” (Some of the more offensive lyrics to the song were already softened once before, in response to accusations of racism, when the 1992 film came out on home video, although the word “barbaric” was left in.)
It’s just the first corrective that knowledgeable fans of the earlier film will notice. Other changes include casting actors of color: Mena Massoud plays the title character, an orphaned “street rat” and thief in the fictional land of Agrabah; Naomi Scott is his beloved, the Sultan’s daughter, Jasmine; and Will Smith replaces Robin Williams as Genie, who transforms Aladdin into a prince so he can woo Jasmine.
Smith also portrays the nameless mariner whose telling of the tale sets it firmly in a land of wishful thinking. I’m not just talking about magic lamps, flying carpets and a tiger that never seems to eat anything — let alone anyone. I’m talking about the even-more-feminist Jasmine, who doesn’t just dream of escaping from under her father’s restrictive rules about whom she can marry but who aspires to become her people’s first female sultan. There’s even a new song written for this empowered Disney princess: “Speechless,” in which she sings about not being silenced by men. At times, the film feels like it could easily have been retitled “Jasmine.”
That’s all for the good, and it makes for a film that has shaken off some of the dust of the past 27 years. The movie is colorful and pretty, and Smith brings a fresh, more street-wise approach to his character, while still honoring the motor-mouthed spirit of Williams’s scene-stealing performance. And when I say “street-wise,” I don’t mean the marketplace of Agrabah, but the streets of West Philly. As with Williams, Smith’s wholly Americanized Genie is just one indicator that Agrabah is closer in spirit to a California theme park than a real caliphate. Another indicator? Aladdin, Jasmine and her handmaiden, Dalia (former SNL cast member Nasim Pedrad) all talk like L.A. high school kids, while every other citizen of Agrabah speaks English with a heavy accent.
More about those streets: “Aladdin” gets underway with a chase through the alleys of the bazaar that sets the tone for the film’s action sequences, which are, in general, poorly choreographed and edited, loud and visually confusing. Talk about chaotic. One climactic set piece, involving the aerial pursuit of Aladdin (on his flying carpet) by the villain Jafar’s parrot — who has morphed into a gigantic bird of prey — is filled with muddy and overly busy digital effects. The film’s big musical production number, on the other hand, set to the song “Prince Ali” — a reference to Aladdin’s alter ego — is surprisingly inert.
Despite having directed one of his ex-wife Madonna’s music videos, not to mention being known for action movies (“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”), director Guy Ritchie seems inexplicably uncomfortable filming people in motion. It’s weird.
The film’s theme — don’t let yourself be trapped by class, gender politics or, in the case of Genie, a brass lamp — is a nice one, and Ritchie mostly succeeds in keeping things lively, despite some sluggish scenes and a longish running time. It isn’t as great a reimagining of the source material as Disney’s recent “Dumbo,” but it’ll do. To borrow Dalia’s description of Genie’s courtship skills, this earnest but awkward “Aladdin” is “clumsy, but in a charming sort of way.”
PG. At area theaters. Contains some action and peril. 128 minutes.