Live-action 'Aladdin' works its magic in remaking beloved original

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service
Mena Massoud as Aladdin, left, and Will Smith as Genie in Disney's live-action adaptation of the 1992 animated classic "Aladdin." This image released by Disney shows

There's no slowing the Disney live-action remake train. The chance to cash in on fan nostalgia for their favorite Disney animated films can be quite lucrative, even though there have been some misses among the hits. It's a fraught endeavor to try and update a film while maintaining what fans essentially love about it. Fortunately, Disney nails it with the live-action "Aladdin" — mostly because they've hardly messed with the original formula.

Many of the live-action remakes feel like hollow pandering to audience demand for representation. Audiences do want more inclusivity in film, but when it's done authentically, not when it feels like checking a box, when it seems like studios and filmmakers do the absolute least but tell us it counts. But co-writer/director Guy Ritchie has updated the characters — particularly Princess Jasmine — in a way that feels both well-earned and necessary, while intrinsically understanding what made "Aladdin" such a beloved animated film in 1992.

Because it is so faithful, it's easy to love "Aladdin," especially hearing new versions of the incredible songs by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. "La La Land" and "The Greatest Showman" songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul contribute lyrics to a new song for Jasmine, "Speechless," which becomes an empowering anthem for the princess (though it has more of that earnestly modern ballad flair, rather than the wordy, clever, traditional tunes by Menken, Ashman and Rice).

The story of "Aladdin" lends itself well to live action, because it's a film with timeless themes and lessons about power, love and embracing your authentic self. The love story between Aladdin and Jasmine is genuinely romantic, and Aladdin's struggle with his own pride and unwillingness to own his identity as a riff-raff street rat is eminently relatable.

Mena Massoud as Aladdin, left, and Naomi Scott as Jasmine in Disney's live-action adaptation of the 1992 animated classic "Aladdin." The movie opens Thursday at Regal West Manchester, Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

Half the battle is casting, especially for such a character-driven story. Canadian actor Mena Massoud is perfect in the role of Aladdin, accurate down to the wide side-grin and swoopy hair. However, the breakout star is absolutely Naomi Scott as Jasmine, who tears into a beefed-up role with gusto. Jasmine gets a friend (Nasim Pedrad), her own song and a desire to wield her own political power, for good, and the additional character elements make the relationship with Aladdin even more interesting and powerful.

The question on everyone's minds, though: What about the Genie? Will Smith has stepped into the big blue shoes left by Robin Williams, who memorably voiced the Genie in one of the funniest Disney performances to date (or ever). Smartly, Smith doesn't try to be Williams, as no one could ever duplicate that performance. He does himself, adding some hip-hop flair to the Genie.

Ritchie seems to have been the right man for the job, not because he brought a specific singular personal vision to the film but because he honed in on the elements that made the original so beloved. He also seems to really enjoy shooting parkour stunts in walled cities, and of course, the animated "Aladdin" is the vanguard of that movement. While sometimes Ritchie's style can be a bit herky jerky, relying on editing and film speed rather than the fluid camera movements that are so breathtaking, as a filmmaker he knows what to preserve and what to enhance.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it, and the resulting "Aladdin" is fun, celebratory and yes, nostalgic.

3 stars
Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad, Navid Negahban.
Directed by Guy Ritchie.
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.
Rated PG for some action/peril.