Aladdin review: Guy Ritchie's live-action Disney remake dazzles, surprises

This update isn't quite a whole new world, but it's still one worth visiting -- despite its forgettable villain and unsettling Genie CGI.

Sean Keane Former Senior Writer
Sean knows far too much about Marvel, DC and Star Wars, and poured this knowledge into recaps and explainers on CNET. He also worked on breaking news, with a passion for tech, video game and culture.
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Sean Keane
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The 1992 version of Aladdin is among Disney's most beloved animated movies, so it'd be easy to dismiss Guy Ritchie's live-action remake as utterly redundant.

Luckily, Ritchie goes far beyond a straight copy and paste, opting to update the classic -- based on a story from an Arabian folktale One Thousand and One Nights -- with fancy CGI visuals, some very modern sensibilities and more depth added to the characters. The movie is in theaters worldwide now. 

The basic thrust of the story is pretty much as you remember it. Orphaned street urchin Aladdin (Mena Massoud) falls for Princess Jasmine of Agrabah (Naomi Scott) after a chance encounter and finds a magic lamp containing a wise-cracking, wish-granting Genie.


Princess Jasmine (right) and her handmaiden/best bud Dalia (left) elevate this live-action remake of Aladdin.

Daniel Smith/Disney

This version, however, gives Jasmine a much bigger role, making her the emotional heart of the story as she struggles in Agrabah's male-dominated hierarchy. It's a surprising turn that infuses the update with renewed relevance, aided by the addition of handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad). This delightfully glib new character gets some of the movie's biggest laughs and a pretty heartwarming story of her own.

We still spend most of the movie with Aladdin, a happy-go-lucky character without much depth -- Massoud's acting has a showy Broadway quality to it, but he can belt out the tunes and leap around stealing only what he can't afford as well as his animated counterpart.

Of course, the charismatic Genie is the reason we're seeing this movie, and it's impossible not to compare Will Smith's version with the late Robin Williams' incredible 1992 portrayal. Smith is at his best when he puts his own energetic magic in Genie's corner, but he doesn't exude the same warmth as Williams did, and his magical shtick can be a bit of a sensory overload in live action.


Genie is pretty unsettled in blue.

Courtesy of Disney

Genie still gets two of the movie's most fun songs; Friend Like Me and Prince Ali are amazing, noisy displays of pageantry. And a surprising romantic subplot proves rewarding as it explores a fresh aspect of his character. Unfortunately, his blue CGI look is a bit unsettling -- get ready to breathe a sigh of relief whenever Smith adopts his natural skin tone to blend in.

Unfortunately, Marwan Kenzari's villainous vizier, Jafar, feels pretty flat and underwritten despite an attempt to reframe him as Aladdin gone down a dark path. He gets some cool outfits and creates some spectacular visuals toward the end, but it's too little, too late.

His parrot pal, Iago, is much more realistic than Gilbert Gottfried's shrill portrayal in the original. Alan Tudyk opts for a subtle approach, giving the character a sinister edge and managing to display more personality than Jafar through squawked repetition of other characters' lines -- it's astounding a CGI parrot is more memorable than the movie's big bad.


Jafar isn't a terribly exciting villain, but his serpentine staff is cool.

Daniel Smith/Disney

Each character's choices feel more organic and logical than they did in the animated movie -- it's clear screenwriters Ritchie and John August reverse-engineered their motivations and developed them.

Jasmine's expanded role is a complete success, to the point the movie feels shallow when she's not the focus. She adds a strong message about equality that's underscored by Speechless, a new song that fits seamlessly with the classic setlist.

Scott and Massoud's vocals carry the updated version of Whole New World as well, though the latter's rendition of One Jump Ahead loses some of the original's energy.

Watch this: Disney's Aladdin trailer reveals Will Smith's blue Genie

There's plenty of great choreography on display in the movie's colorful action and dance scenes, framed by Jordan's shining deserts, shimmering streets and splendid costuming. Ritche's signature visual trickery generally serves the movie's heightened Disney reality too, aside from the occasional use of a strobing effect that speeds things up and feels a little unnatural.

A huge portion of the internet would wish away Disney's live-action remakes of its beloved classics, but you shouldn't waste one of your three wishes on such nonsense. Despite a weak villain and some questionable Genie CGI, Aladdin is an entertaining, rich magic carpet ride for fans old and new.

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Originally published May 22.