Aladdin Opens This Weekend. Will It Be Everything You Wished For?
The film is the latest in a string of live-action remakes of animated Disney properties.
Disney's live-action remake of Aladdin is one of the most hotly anticipated films of the year: Based on the 1992 animated original, it casts live actors in the story of Aladdin (Mena Massoud), the street urchin who discovers a magic lamp inhabited by a powerful genie (Will Smith taking on the role made iconic by Robin Williams). In addition to new renditions of unforgettable numbers like "A Whole New World" and "Friend Like Me" (by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice), the movie features new music by Tony winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen). It is now playing at a theater near you.
This Story of the Week will explain why Disney is remaking Aladdin, how the critics are responding, and how it is likely to be received by the public.
Why is there a new Aladdin movie?
As the 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast proved, there is a real demand for live-action remakes of films from Disney's animation renaissance. That movie grossed over $1.2 billion worldwide, becoming the second-highest-grossing film that year behind Star Wars: The Last Jedi (also Disney). Nostalgia sells, and millennials who grew up with the 1992 version of Aladdin will be eager to revisit the story, hear the classic score, and share this new version with their own kids.
Much has been written about the ways the movie has been updated to conform to contemporary cultural sensibilities: Disney has cast actors of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent in the lead roles, while screenwriters John August and Guy Ritchie (who also directs) have shifted Princess Jasmine's objective to breaking Agrabah's glass ceiling.
Perfunctorily woke and mildly noteworthy, these updates feel like window dressing on a house that was going to be built regardless — not because of some imperfection in the original, but because audiences have proved repeatedly that they are willing to drop money on characters and plots they already know (no matter who is playing them). This is the assumption on which Disney's entire theatrical enterprise seems to be built. And if the wildly popular five-year-and-counting Broadway run of Aladdin is any indication, it's a solid notion.
What are the critics saying?
What satisfies ticket-buyers doesn't necessarily thrill the people who write about movies, though: In his review of Aladdin, TheaterMania's Kenji Fujishima repeatedly used the word "bland," describing it as a product rolling off an assembly line. A.O. Scott of The New York Times called it "pointless in a particularly aggressive way," while speculating that the worst of this era of remakes is yet to come (a silver lining for Aladdin, to be sure).
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone was more positive in his assessment, praising the casting choices and admiring Will Smith's "Fresh Prince sass." Still, Travers's little song of Smith is likely to be drowned out by the operatic disdain of critics like Barry Hertz of Canada's Globe and Mail, who describes the film as "pure nightmare fuel."
Much opprobrium has been leveled against Smith's Genie (the consensus is he can't really sing), while the harshest scorn has been reserved for director Guy Ritchie: Fujishima described his treatment of "A Whole New World" as, "little more than a theme-park ride." One can be sure that "imagineers" in Anaheim and Orlando have already taken note. Disney will certainly hope that its audiences steer clear of such pans — but I doubt this is something The Mouse will bother wasting a wish on.
Will Aladdin be a hit?
Disney is obviously hoping that it will be: Holiday weekends are a great opportunity for Americans to go to the movies, and several films have had their wishes of box office treasure granted on this magical weekend (negative reviews be damned).
Here are the top five highest-grossing Memorial Day Weekend film releases ever:
1. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007) — $139,802,190
2. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) — $126,917,373
3. X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) — $122,861,157
4. Fast & Furious 6 (2013) — $117,036,995
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) — $110,576,604
Disney is already the reigning champion of Memorial Day weekend with its historical haul of Pirates booty. I would be surprised if Aladdin got anywhere near that record, but I would also be surprised if it didn't bury its competition this weekend in a mountain of conjured baklava. Consider it an appetizer to Disney's main course for 2019: the animated remake of The Lion King, starring Donald Glover and Beyoncé.