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Disney's Live-Action 'Aladdin' Aims To Correct 1st Film's Problems, Replicate Success


Disney's animated "Aladdin" was a huge hit when it was released in 1992 - the highest grossing film that year, in fact. It also provoked controversy for its stereotyped depiction of Middle Eastern culture. Critic Bob Mondello says Disney's new live-action "Aladdin" aims to correct the problems of the first film while replicating its success.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: What you likely remember from the first movie more than either the street thief Aladdin or the princess he's trying to impress is the bright blue genie - Robin Williams riffing so fast the rest of the film could barely keep up.


ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Genie) Hello, Aladdin. Nice to have you on the show. Can we call you Al or maybe just Din? Or how about Laddy? Sounds like, here, boy (whistling).

MONDELLO: So it's easy to understand hiring Guy Ritchie to direct the live-action version. His stutter-cut editing has enlivened stylized English gangster flicks and Robert Downey Jr.'s "Sherlock Holmes." And when he sends Aladdin and his monkey, Abu, parkouring up walls in crowded street markets, the new film looks plenty animated. Ritchie's directing style is less suited to the romance and the musical numbers, but there the film's casting helps. Mena Massoud, who hails originally from Egypt, is an appealing Aladdin - bright smile, winning personality and a nice fit with Naomi Scott's Jasmine.


NAOMI SCOTT: (As Jasmine) What are you doing?

MENA MASSOUD: (As Aladdin) Sometimes, princess, you just have to take a risk.

MONDELLO: And he jumps off the palace balcony.


SCOTT: (As Jasmine) What just happened?

MONDELLO: Then to her astonishment, he rises up again.


SCOTT: (As Jasmine) Is this...

MASSOUD: (As Aladdin) A magic carpet. Do you trust me?

MONDELLO: Less imposing is villain Jafar. Even assisted by digital wizardry, certainly he's no match for genie Will Smith made so buff by the computer graphics folks you figure he spent the last thousand years in his lamp's gymnasium.


WILL SMITH: (As Genie) I stand by my oath, loyalty to wishes three. I'm kidding. Watch this.


SMITH: (As Genie, singing) Watch out. You done wound me up. You ain't never had a friend like me.

MONDELLO: It's worth noting that from the start, Disney has been trying to fix "Aladdin." Way back in 1993 for the cartoon version's home video, they replaced a lyric that had struck almost everyone as problematic in theaters about a kingdom where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. But even then, they left in the next line.


BRUCE ADLER: (As Peddler, singing) It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.

MONDELLO: In the new version, Will Smith takes that song and sings not of slicing off ears but of a more inclusive spot where the caravan camels roam.


SMITH: (Singing) Where you wander among every culture and tongue. It's chaotic, but hey, it's home.

MONDELLO: I think we can all agree that that's better, as is Princess Jasmine's fresh assertiveness. She has a new song about not being speechless.


SCOTT: (As Jasmine, singing) I won't be silenced. You can't keep me quiet.

MONDELLO: She also wants more than just to marry a prince of her own choosing. She wants to succeed her father as sultan. And good for her. Good for everybody, really. This is all admirable even if the filmmaking surrounding it isn't terribly magical, which seems a shame in a movie centered on a genie. It is loud and frenetic with computer generated critters scampering and CGI backgrounds sparkling. Seriously, they've added digital sparkles. And after a while, even scenery that probably is real - the knife edge of a desert dune, for instance - starts to look less than entirely lifelike. But hey, the flying carpet has personality, and the film, if not a whole new world exactly, is fine for kids. You'll probably want to send them. I'm Bob Mondello.


MASSOUD: (As Aladdin, singing) A whole new world...

SCOTT: (As Jasmine, singing) Every turn a surprise...

MASSOUD: (As Aladdin, singing) ...With new horizons to pursue.

SCOTT: (As Jasmine, singing) ...Every moment red-letter.

NAOMI SCOTT AND MENA MASSOUD: (As Jasmine and Aladdin, singing) I'll chase them anywhere. There's time to spare. Let me share this whole new world with you.

MASSOUD: (As Aladdin, singing) A whole new world...

SCOTT: (As Jasmine, singing) A whole new world... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.