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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

May 26, 2019


naomi scott as jasmine & mena massoud as aladdin

mena with will smith as the genie

YOU CAN’T BLAME Disney for remaking their animated features into live action flicks, especially after the huge success of “Beauty and the Beast” in 2017 that earned a whopping $504 million in the U.S. alone and $1.2 billion worldwide. After all, they’re in showbusiness to make money. But unfortunately, they were not as successful with their last one, “Dumbo”, which earned only $112 in the U.S., with a budget of $170 million. It’s good it eventually did good worlwide with a gross of $347 million.

Now comes “Aladdin” from the “Arabian Nights” and after that, they also have live action versions of “The Lion King”, “Little Mermaid”, “Mulan”, “Lilo & Stitch”, “Lady and the Tramp” and “Snow White”. Just like “Beauty and the Beast”, the new “Aladdin” expands the story but tries to be faithful to the basic ingredients of the 1992 animated version. It keeps the same basic plotting, the same set pieces and the same songs plus a new one, “Speechless”, that gives Jasmine the chance to do some belting. But it also makes some good revisions.

The movie casts relative unknowns in the leads, but employs some star casting in getting Will Smith as the genie, previously rendered hilariously by the late Robin Williams in the animated version. Smith is made the narrator of the movie and there’s a twist in this in the epilogue. He’s even given his own love interest in Dahlia, Jasmine’s handmaiden played by comedian Nasim Pedrad.

His inherent charms vibe well with the Egyptian-Canadian actor chosen to play the title role, Mena Massoud, especially in their comic scenes, like when Will coaches Aladdin in courting Jasmine where they mention different types of jam. Two big show-stopping production numbers are anchored by Will, notably the lavish and opulent “Prince Ali” which introduces Aladdin to Jasmine as a prince, and “Friend Like Me”, his first song while he’s in his blue CGI genie persona.

If you’ve seen the first movie, then you already know that Aladdin is a young thief in Agrabah who has a heart of gold, stealing from the rich to help the poor. He meets the Princess Jasmine while she’s roaming around incognito and helps her escape when she steals some bread and gives them to poor, hungry children.  He falls in love with her and secretly visits her in the palace, but he is arrested by the court’s grand vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, truly cutting a menacing figure) who wants to usurp the Sultan’s throne.

Jafar then forces Aladdin to get a magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders which will make him very powerful. But it’s Aladdin who gets to free the genie from the lamp after Jafar double crosses him. He then gets three wishes and his first is to be a prince so he can be an equal to Princess Jasmine.

As directed by Guy Ritchie (best known for “Snatch” and the “Sherlock Holmes” hits), “Aladdin” has got it all with adventure, comedy, songs, fantasy with a lovable CGI monkey and an irrepressible magic carpet, fabulous sets with colorfully detailed backgrounds, topped with a feel good love story that defies social classes and royal pedigree.

The script (co-written by Guy Ritchie himself) has made many changes but the best one is how it beefs up Jasmine’s character. From being a mere love interest, she’s given more substance involving woman empowerment as a princess who is fighting against the pressure for her to soon marry a prince while trying her best to raise her own views in a country where women are deemed better seen than heard. As a princess, she also wants to inherit her father’s position as Sultan so that she can give a better life to her suffering fellowmen who are being oppressed by Jafar.

Take note that both Jasmine and Aladdin both lie about their real identities. When they first meet, Jasmine pretends to be her handmaiden, Dahlia, and after Aladdin gets hold of the lamp, he pretends to be a prince. But in the end, of course, love conquers all for Aladdin and Jasmine, despite their tremendously different background and social status.

It’s good that despite Will Smith’s dominant screen presence, the two leads didn’t just allow themselves to be totally overshadowed by him. This is Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott’s biggest breaks. Real Arabs and Asians are cast in line with the casting of real African Americans in “Black Panther”.

Mena has done mainly TV work before he was cast as “Aladdin”, although he has also finished a new movie in his native Canada, “Run This Town”, about a former mayor of Ontario. He is quite likable and his best scenes show him doing some action and some Bollywood dance sequences spiced up with hiphop moves.

Naomi Scott is of Indian descent but born in London. She has done also mainly TV work but appeared as the Pink Ranger in the flop 2017 big screen version of “Power Rangers”. Now, even before “Aladdin” is shown, she’s already been cast as one of the three leads in a new reboot of “Charlie’s Angels”. A real firecracker, she’s more charismatic and marvelous as a headstrong Jasmine and she slays that scene where she shines singing the new song “Sleepless”.

Both she and Mena soar as they sing the movie’s centerpiece, “A Whole New World”, while riding on board the flying magic carpet through some very resplendently imagined backgrounds. It’s very opportune for “Aladdin” to open on the long four-day weekend in the U.S. because of Memorial Day and it’s currently number one in their box office.