" What is a place like me doing in a girl like this? "
— [Evie], The Mummy

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A grueling experience (and that's a compliment). —Matt Anderson (review...)

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This time, it’s not so much the music as the cast that’s pitch perfect.

The Fresh Prince of Agrabah

A winning pair: Jasmine and Aladdin
A winning pair: Jasmine and Aladdin

First things first.

Nobody can replicate Robin Williams and his high-energy take on the big blue genie in Disney’s 1992 animated version of Aladdin. It was a singular, character-defining performance. Will Smith — in a musical turn that revives his Fresh Prince musical roots — can’t, and he doesn’t try to. Instead, Smith takes the character and clearly makes it his own — with the help of a more sophisticated, gutsy screenplay by John August (Big Fish) and writer/director Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes) that enhances the character’s role.

Those enhancements help bulk up the running time from 91 to 128 minutes — giving the movie breathing room to explore today’s societal norms and roles. Aladdin transformed from a simple fairy tale romance into a statement about gender, roles and societal rules? Yep.

This time around, Jasmine’s storyline gets a big boost of empowerment — driven by a terrific new song, Speechless, that draws out her ambitions to not be content as a silent princess, but to become a compassionate sultan. As a bonus, Jasmine is played by the exquisite Naomi Scott (The 33). She’s got a great voice and an engaging presence. This is big and she’s certainly going to become a much, much bigger star.

That’s where this version of Aladdin really shines: the casting of Scott and Mena Massoud (Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan on Amazon Prime) as Jasmine’s semi-princely romantic suitor, Aladdin (or the fake Prince Ali of Ababwa), makes for a great pairing that ultimately lifts the romantic component into something unexpectedly compelling.

A Bold New World

Aladdin’s followed the same creative cycle as Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. It started out as a ridiculously popular animated feature, followed by a long-running Broadway stage show and now a big-screen live-action version. (Only a matter of weeks from now, The Lion King will complete that same circle of sight.)

While the fate of The Lion King remains to be seen, the live-action Beauty and the Beast felt uninspired. It worked enough magic to be minimally satisfying, but it struggled to find any sense of new relevance in transitioning from animation to stage to live-action feature.

Here is where Aladdin comes out ahead. It packs a couple bold story twists that make Agrabah a place worth revisiting.

Aside from Speechless, the music doesn’t feel particularly reinvigorated, but the signature songs A Whole New World and Friend Like Me are buoyed by lush, colorful visuals. Maybe that overall lack of musical vigor is a side effect of having Guy Ritchie at the helm, but more about that in a moment.

Those narrative updates, though, give the story a fresh punch that sets it apart as more than a live-action retread. There’s Jasmine’s leadership ambitions, but there’s also a romantic entanglement for the genie that provides a little comic relief while also serving as a foil to Aladdin’s own romantic shortcomings. Alas, Aladdin still has no game without the genie’s guidance (generously played up for humorous payoffs), even as he tries to impress Jasmine as fictional royalty in order to fulfill the rule the princess must marry a prince.

Diamond in the Rough

So. What about Guy Ritchie? He’s one of those directors who has his own distinct visual and stylistic sensibilities. It can be seen in harder-edged work (like Snatch and RocknRolla) and in his biggest hits, the Sherlock Holmes flicks with Robert Downey, Jr. They’re also on view in the drastically underappreciated King Arthur.

Aladdin is a sort of rehab for Ritchie after the critical and commercial drubbing of King Arthur. And it’s apparent Guy Ritchie is playing by Disney’s rules. It’s Ritchie restrained and playing nice. That’s not such a bad thing, but there is a pang of desire to see the material he’s built out be given the full Ritchie treatment of quick cuts and highly stylized action. And maybe with a smidge of attitude, to boot.

Nonetheless, in Aladdin Ritchie has made a connection. It’s a connection with two people — Jasmine and Aladdin — who both feel trapped and unable to escape their dramatically different worlds. She’s locked into a royal life which limits her access to the real world; he’s locked in a desperate world of poverty and thievery that limits his ability to rise in the ranks of society.

Along with a strong narrative component surrounding those legendary three wishes — it’s strongly advised to not wish for wealth or power and the genie can only transform outward appearances, not what’s in the heart — the movie works its way to a well-told climax and that obligatory reprise of Friend Like Me.