MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, May 24th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Disney’s latest live-action remake. Here’s Megan Basham.
MEGAN BASHAM, REVIEWER: Think of them as Marvel movies for the younger set. Cinderella in 2015. The Jungle Book in 2016. And Beauty and the Beast in 2017. They successively pounced on the box office like Shere Khan on poor little Mowgli. Now Disney is rolling out remakes of its classic animated films nearly once a quarter, with varying results. Before the next two years are out, audiences will reportedly be treated to a live action Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, Sword and the Stone, and Pinocchio.
First, though, kids and their parents must decide if they’re up for a magic carpet ride with Aladdin. Let’s save the suspense—they should be.
CLIP: What are you doing? Sometimes, princess, sometimes you just have to take a risk. Is that— A magic carpet? Do you trust me? What did you say? Do you trust me? Yes.
The remake strikes just the right balance. It honors the original enough to feel pleasantly nostalgic. But it still offers enough new scenes, characters, and jokes to make this version worth our time.
Perhaps because of the Dumbo stumble, the run up to Aladdin’s release has included far more doubtful media reports. The leads here are almost totally unknown. And the only marquee name—Will Smith—has drawn a lot of skepticism. Commentators wonder if he has the chops to fill the late Robin Williams’s genie shoes.
That’s the wrong way to look at it. It’s true Smith’s energy doesn’t match Williams’s. But then again, there’s probably no actor working today who could equal the late comedian’s manic ability to fill a screen.
CLIP: Hey, can you make me a prince? There is a lot of grey area in “make me a prince.” I can just make you a prince. Oh, no. Right. You’ll be snuggled up with that dude for the rest of your life. Yo, y’all seen my palace? Be specific with your words. The deal is in the details. Got it.
The studio wisely held back from spoiling Smith’s funniest and most creative bits by featuring them in the advertisements. The earnest optimism he does so well is enhanced with the addition of a new character—Princess Jasmine’s handmaid, played hilariously by SNL’s Nasim Pedrad.
But if Smith is quieter, the rest of the movie certainly isn’t. Director Guy Ritchie leans into the setting with bouncy Bollywood flair. The extravagant song and dance numbers are so fun, you can’t help wishing he had the space and budget to work in a few more. And here’s a tip: You’ll want to stay in your seat as the credits roll.
CLIP: Prince Ali, mighty is he, Ali Ababwa, strong as ten regular men, definitely!
I also think somebody on Disney’s marketing team owes Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott an apology for criminally underselling them in the trailer. Massoud is the perfect embodiment of Aladdin, charming and cheeky. A million little girls will swoon at the chaste chemistry he has with Scott’s Jasmine. She, incidentally, developed her angelic pipes singing in the evangelical church her father pastors. And she brings a likeable feistiness to a new storyline. That includes an addition to the soundtrack that is appropriately female-empowering without flogging a feminist message. For once it feels like someone took the time to make the girl-power feel organic to the plot rather than tacked-in pandering.
Perhaps most surprising of all is that a director once known for his raunchy R-rated comedies keeps it so sweet and innocent. Aladdin’s wholesome humor and message—that to be great one must be a servant—is far more in line with Cinderella than the subversive Beauty and the Beast.
That’s not to say there aren’t a few down beats. Smith’s facial expressions have an uncanny Tom-Hanks-in-the-Polar-Express look whenever he’s in his blue giant manifestation. And villain Jafar barely registers as a blip on the menace radar.
MUSIC: [A Whole New World]
But these are minor complaints compared to the treasure Aladdin offers. Rather than a whole new world, it feels like a delightfully old one—romantic, exuberant, and entertaining for all ages.
For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.