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The Performances in ‘Aladdin’ Deserve Praise, But the Cultural Criticisms Should Be Heard – Review

To talk about the newest iteration of Disney’s Aladdin, let’s move past the obvious:

Disney wants to use its animation library for live-action films. Any review that focuses on this as a negative point is kidding itself. You’d do the same if you had their library and their reach. Why should a giant not repackage itself? On a similar note, Will Smith is not Robin Williams. This should also be obvious. So, let’s pay our respects to the colossus who was Robin Williams – but let’s not use him to overshadow what Will Smith brings to the film.

A few quick praises on the technical side of the film. This is Alan Stewart’s first major feature as cinematographer. It’s always nice to see a creative who has been working hard to get the level up they deserve. Gemma Jackson’s production design also shines in this film. Her past work includes some of the famous Game of Thrones episodes (“Mhysa” andRains of Castamere”). Both Stewart and Jackson are creative partners that director Guy Ritchie has brought along from King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and they both seem to be on the team for his next film, The Gentlemen. So it’s no surprise that they put on a huge showing to help the look of Guy Ritchie’s vision.

Mena Massoud as Aladdin (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

Disney, it seems, has learned their lesson of representation (to a certain extent). I’m thankful for that. I’m happy to celebrate the performance of Mena Massoud, a Canadian of Egyptian origin. We are certainly getting closer to what Scheherazade (had she actually existed) may have intended when she spun her thousand and one tales on those Arabian nights for King Shahryar. To his credit, Mena Massoud does justice to his titular character. He is every bit as charismatic and lovable as the Aladdin of the animated film. Kids and parents alike are sure to find his performance charming.

Will Smith (when he gets to be Will Smith and not a CGI muscle-bound genie) is fun and engaging. His magnetism, in those moments, draws you in. For those of us who are fans of Will’s work, it’s good to see him getting to play on screen. You can tell he’s having fun. Which in turn, translates to the audience having fun with him.

But the shiny, shimmering star of this film is undoubtedly Naomi Scott. The new and goal-oriented Princess Jasmine. While the execution of the film paints her in the most pointed way possible, you can’t help but fall in love with Scott’s performance. She is more believable in scenes where she takes over by her strength as an actress than in scenes where she has to cower and cry because of Marwan Kenzari’s portrayal of Jafar. The “Speechless” moment in the film doubles down on the character’s goal. For what it’s worth, I’m glad a woman of color gets to make her stirring speech through a song that may well become the anthem for the next generation of women.

Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

None of this is by accident. It’s all by design. The primary architect of that design is John August, a fellow USC alum who has been an inspiration to many of us since his days of Go and Big Fish (I religiously listen to his podcast, Scriptnotes). The not so obvious situation in a big studio film is that the writer’s original intent or talent often gets muddied and muddled throughout the filmmaking process. To be very honest, that happens through no one’s fault. It’s the nature of the genie. There are no moustache-twirling Jafar type executives trying to undo the good work of a lovable writer. Everyone is trying to make something good and meaningful. But when all is said and done, those efforts may not result in the best product. It’s why filmmaking is incredibly hard. And, as enlightened audience members, we should learn to appreciate the effort and leave the binary world of “I hate this” or “I love that” film.

That being said, as a minority filmmaker writing for a site that champions minority fans and creatives alike, I would be doing my readers a disservice if I didn’t talk about some of the unintended, but problematic issues raised in the execution of this film. It’s not meant as a criticism but intended to be a plea of sorts; to be a teachable moment. I can only hope someone somewhere in a position of power thinks I have a valid point and takes note.

Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Will Smith as Genie (Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios)

I get that Disney intends to target the American audience first. But in the days where the global box office generates more revenue, why can’t there be a little more care and research devoted to getting a few cultural notes right? Let’s start with how we pronounce the titular character’s name. Why not at least attempt to say it as it would be said in the Middle East? Especially, when you’ve done the work of hiring actors who could easily do that. Similarly, Jasmine wants to be “the Sultan.” But “Sultana” would be the proper female iteration in Arabic. It doesn’t take any power away from the title she wants. Also, the dance number in the palace could easily have benefitted from consulting with a few Bollywood choreographers who do such things much better and more frequently.

But the biggest unintended problem is that the “above the line” representation in this film seems to end with the actors. As big a fan as I am of director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels is one of the best feature debuts and I study it constantly) and of writer John August (who I have already gushed about), why can’t we have writers and directors who could clearly represent this story better? I ask this because I am thankful for all the things that this film does right. Watching the credits roll, I couldn’t help but applaud Disney’s inclusion both in terms of cast and crew. It celebrates so many individuals of minority origins. This communal win is no small achievement. But I certainly dream of a whole new world where we could have writers and directors that are representative of the story as well.

Aladdin is in theaters now.

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