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Pressing Questions About ‘Aladdin,’ Answered

A dive into Disney’s latest remake of an animated classic (that is mostly focused on reckoning Will Smith’s haunting portrayal of Genie)

Disney/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

The Disney revival train rolls into town yet again this weekend with Aladdin, the latest live-action makeover from the company. But unlike the recent remakes of Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book, Dumbo, and the upcoming The Lion King, Aladdin has had a hard time coasting on warm nostalgia in the lead-up to its release. The main reason for this is, um, whatever the hell this is supposed to be:

Screenshots via Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Will Smith already had the arduous task of stepping into a character who was once so wonderfully and iconically voiced by the late Robin Williams; to make matters worse, his Genie looks like a Smurf who ate too much creatine and can’t stop ordering jewelry on Etsy. The inescapable horror of the Genie’s new visage, exacerbated by the release of this disconcerting clip of Smith performing a cringey version of “Prince Ali,” made it seem like the new Aladdin was a disaster-piece waiting to happen.

But after seeing the Aladdin remake, the worst that can be said about it is not that it’s a high-budgeted train wreck—it’s that it’s just mediocre. The movie is elevated by a couple of entertaining set pieces—and Smith does a good job, all things considered—but it’s a largely unremarkable, mindless sea of CGI and sand dunes. At least if the film was a total dumpster fire (shout-out Serenity!) it wouldn’t be forgettable. That doesn’t mean, however, that watching the new Aladdin won’t raise as many questions as Arabian Nights had tales. But for the sake of brevity, here are six of the most pertinent Aladdin questions, answered before you’re whisked away to a whole new (yet oddly super familiar) world.

How Much Actually Changed?

The trailers for Disney’s remakes of animated classics have all—perhaps smartly—depicted the movies as near shot-for-shot replicas. Thankfully, the new Aladdin is more than just “that movie from 1992, only with humans now.” The movie kicks off with a new prologue, as a sea voyager—also played by Smith, for reasons that will later become clear—tells his children the tale of the legendary prince Aladdin. It’s a small, but encouraging sign right off the bat that the movie is going to try new things.

From there, the broad strokes are the same: Aladdin (played by Mena Massoud) meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) on the streets of Agrabah, discovers a magic lamp, and wishes to become a prince so that they can live happily ever after, all while the sultan’s grand vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), plots to take over the kingdom for himself. (In case you didn’t realize he was supposed to be the bad guy, Jafar repeatedly talks about how women have no rights, and at one point casually pushes a minion down a well, definitely killing him.)

The differences, rather, are in the details. For example, Jafar is hot now:

Is the twist of introducing Sexy Jafar at all necessary? It is definitely not, but when you consider what the animated Jafar looked like—cartoonishly evil at best, racially insensitive at worst—the new Aladdin couldn’t exactly get a like-for-like replacement. And there’s apparently no rule in the Disney playbook that its villains can’t be sexy. So, sure, why not? Jafar—the guy whose best friend is a parrot—is objectively attractive. This is canon now.

Princess Jasmine also gets a contemporary update, in that she’s actually given some agency after having basically none at all in the 1992 film. Her interest lies in becoming the new sultan of Agrabah after her father. Unfortunately, the kingdom’s law stipulates that being a man is a requirement, because the patriarchy sucks. This bit of tension—Jasmine’s ongoing struggle to be recognized as a legitimate force—is a welcome update, especially in a movie that’ll be most widely digested by kids. One of the film’s rare new tunes is “Speechless,” a Princess Jasmine empowerment anthem written by two dudes, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whom you probably know for their lyrical work on La La Land and The Greatest Showman. Pasek and Paul’s work is the musical equivalent of vanilla ice cream: bland but nevertheless appealing to the masses. “Speechless,” unfortunately, feels wedged into the movie as an attempt to give Princess Jasmine something to do while Aladdin and Genie are messing around—and considering the movie is way more interested in the latter, the song’s inclusion feels pandering rather than genuine.

But Princess Jasmine’s predicament is also the film’s best source of laughs. A new character, Prince Anders of Skanland, shows up hoping to marry her and unite their kingdoms. Played by Billy Magnussen, Prince Anders sounds like Tim Gunn doing a Norwegian accent, and is clearly a moron. It’s incredible. Unfortunately, Prince Anders is gone from Aladdin about as quickly as he enters the film, after about five minutes of screentime at best. This may well be the new Aladdin’s biggest sin.

The new Aladdin also, somewhat inexplicably, provides Genie with his own new subplot: He’s single, and ready to mingle. Aside from his aspirations to eventually be freed from his genie shackles—which can only happen if the person in possession of the lamp makes Genie’s freedom one of their three wishes—he takes a liking to Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), Princess Jasmine’s handmaiden. It’s bizarre to see the Genie pursue a love interest. He’s a magical, immortal being with untold powers, but when he’s posing as a normal human, he very clearly wants to copulate with Dalia. (In a PG-approved sort of way.) I’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2; I know nothing good can come from a human–cosmic being coupling! While it’s clear that Genie is bound to his lamp and wants to be freed, it’s unclear if he once was a human before this fate was bestowed upon him. How else could you explain the character’s suddenly burgeoning sexual desires?

Don’t worry, we’re not done talking about Genie.

Is the Genie As Bad As Advertised?

As in the original, we’re introduced to the Genie after Aladdin gets trapped in the Cave of Wonders and rubs the magic lamp. Given the expectations set by those disastrous trailers, the Cave of Wonders sequence is remarkably delightful. It’s the setting for the film’s best musical sequence, as “Friend Like Me” unfolds into a grand and entertaining CGI spectacle featuring puppet strings and circus animals.

Unfortunately, Will Smith as Genie never quite leaves the uncanny valley. This is probably due to the fact that cartoon genies are just far more aesthetically pleasing than a shirtless, 50-year-old Smith slathered in blue paint, a look that’s even more garish once he and Aladdin leave the dark cave. Desert sunlight + blue skin = eternal waking nightmares.

If you think you’re going to get used to this after a few minutes, you’re wrong. The way the whites of Will Smith’s eyes clash with the blue of his face is just … haunting. Also—and this is a very minor thing—Genie’s muscle mass seems to fluctuate rapidly in Aladdin? I guess what I’m saying is, going into this movie everyone was worried about how Smith as Genie would look. And everyone was right.

How Guy Ritchie-ish Is This Guy Ritchie Movie?

Count me among those shocked that the dude with the flair for slo-mo shots and crime flicks would be down for Aladdin, but I suppose if you can’t do a sequel for The Man From U.N.C.L.E. yet—though it needs to happen!—you go where the money is. (You could also argue that Aladdin being a so-called “street rat” makes him a natural Ritchie protagonist.)

On a scale of 1 to Robert-Downey-Jr.-as-Sherlock-Holmes-punched-in-the-face-in-a-brawl, the Guy Ritchie flair in this movie is at a 3. If you went into Aladdin not knowing who was in the director’s chair, you probably wouldn’t even notice Ritchie’s brief flourishes. But there is a little Ritchie-ness cracking through the seams, most apparent in a scene where Aladdin is tied to a chair and pushed out a tower window into the sea when—bam!, my prince gets the slow-motion treatment. Abu the monkey also gets his own slo-mo spotlight. And whenever Aladdin is evading people through the bazaars and alleys of Agrabah, the action is staged impressively, as Ritchie’s penchant for staging kinetic sequences shines through. Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between.

Is the Disney Remake Train Already Going Off the Rails?

Disney didn’t help its case promoting Aladdin, as the trailers didn’t highlight any of the film’s standout moments. (There’s a great scene where Aladdin-as-Prince-Ali is trying to charm Jasmine and the sultan and begins rambling about different jams; it’s so uncomfortable and hilarious.) And if the studio always planned to drop one of the musical sequences ahead of time, “Friend Like Me” would’ve been the one to go with. Even the audio version’s pretty good!

But the most concerning aspect of the Aladdin remake—especially on the heels of the tepid critical and commercial reception to Tim Burton’s Dumbo—is whether Disney’s attempts to revive every animated property as a live-action spectacle are getting off track.

The concerns for Aladdin don’t necessarily lie in its box office totals, which are projected to be quite good; the concerns are about what the movie, as part of a trend, means for Disney in the long term. The Lion King remake—boosted by the vocal talents of Donald Glover and friggin’ Beyoncé, and some truly stunning CGI if the trailers are any indication—looks like a safe bet to also make a killing at the box office. (And the prospect of a live-action Mulan is undeniably enticing.) And Disney should wind up with more hits than misses, especially since the company is appealing to audience nostalgia. The larger concern, though, is that remaking all its old properties means fewer opportunities to create new original content. For better or worse: Pre-established IP remains king, and Aladdin is par for the course.

Is DJ Khaled Somehow Involved in This?

So wild that you’d ask—yes, he is! If you stick around for the end credits, you will be subjected to two special words. These words are a harbinger of dank beats, A-list artists, and an unfounded hatred of cunnulingis: “DJ KHALED!” That’s right. We truly live in the darkest timeline.

All told, the best way to describe the new Aladdin is probably how Nasim Pedrad’s handmaiden describes the prince himself: “Clumsy, but in a charming sort of way.” It is much better than the trailers would’ve indicated, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing that demands repeat viewings. The new Aladdin is, for better or worse, a movie you will probably enjoy on a transcontinental flight (or magic carpet ride) four months from now.