Written By: Kyla M. West
I can clearly recall the world’s reaction to Disney’s release of the live-action adaptation of Aladdin (2019). Panic? No. Confusion? Concern? Whatever it was, the internet’s jimmies were rustled when Will Smith billowed out of an antique lamp, clad in blue, bulbous, animated glory. As with every announcement of the new films that attempt to reconstruct our childhood nostalgia by adding 21st century flair, a flood of precipitous critiques ensued. Naturally I, too, poked and prodded at the minimal footage that was revealed. Most of my anxiety focused on how anyone could fill the original cast’s shoes. Like many 90’s babies I know, Robin Williams’ passing had a poignant and tangible affect on me. It would be a mortal sin to try and imitate his legacy. Lea Solonga’s famed pipes was another big undertaking. The live-action movies have yet to really nail this aspect; a pretty significant component to recreating a Disney Classic, if you ask me. However, if anything would send me running to grab my pitch fork, it was if Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) didn’t don a teal garment at some point.
Alice in Wonderland (2010), Maleficent (2014), and Cinderella (2015) should have been warning enough that these films wouldn’t be recreating their animated counterparts scene-for-scene. If we’re being honest here, I think that whooshed over a lot of people’s heads. If we’re being really honest here, is Maleficent (2014) really all we get for Sleeping Beauty (1959)? Where is this poor woman’s redemption in screen time and character development? What happened to her iconic voice, a nod to operatic technique which I’ve spent years trying to emulate on long drives and showers? Another time, in another review. For now, I digress.
The Jungle Book (2016) may have set expectations by staying fairly close to the animated feature while tipping its hat to Rudyard Kipling’s original books. By the time my birth year movie, Beauty and the Beast’s (1991) re-creation came to theaters in 2017, the emotional tumult of high standards and nit-picking scrutiny post-screening peaked. This year is chock-full of them: Dumbo (2019), Aladdin (2019), Toy Story 4 (2019), and The Lion King (2019) are all hitting the big screen. I really only come across the public’s reactions incidentally, but that alone can be exhausting! At this point, my general approach to Disney’s new live-action remakes is to go into the theater with an open mind and a grain of salt. Okay, more realistically, an open mind and 1.5 pounds of Bavarian pretzel that costs more than the price of the movie ticket.
It took two agonizing weeks from its release, but we finally made it to the theater. Similar to Dumbo’s (2019) March debut, there had been little to no chatter across my newsfeed about the film, which I still find surprising. As my priorities would have it, I had gotten a sneak peek of the soundtrack, courtesy of François. Alan Menken had never let me down before, but could the actors do it justice? I’d hoped with all my heart that Smith would turn to his Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1996) days and get jiggy with the same spunk and charisma in order to bring Genie to life. And what about our up-and-coming actors? The trailer had me hopeful that Scott was packing secret diaphragm power since my last encounter with her in Terra Nova (2011).
My husband and I snuggled into our fancy adjustable theater seats and tossed a blanket across our laps for good measure. What I can tell you is that we started the feature with warm fuzzies, and ended with them, too.
That is to say, generally speaking! As a die-hard Disney fan, there is plenty to critique here, but overall they did fine. Sure, they skipped over parts and redirected the storyline; replaced Iago’s comedic relief with Dahlia, the Genie’s random love interest; we didn’t really get to…see a whole new world; Abu showed off some R2D2 squeals, and everyone needed a few more voice lessons…but like I said before, I wasn’t expecting a perfect recreation. Has there ever been a live-action film that’s successfully brought 2D animation to fruition on the silver screen? Perhaps they’re best saved for the bright lights of Broadway.
What really struck me about this movie was the soundtrack. Though the Disney powers-that-be granted my wish for the Fresh Genie of Bel-Agrabah, I felt Aladdin’s (Mena Massoud) main songs were a bit – and I cringe by writing this – dilapidated. Massoud could have pulled the numbers off if they’d stayed loyal to the original soundtrack. Instead, the last music that Alan Menken wrote with the late Howard Ashman (RIP) were replaced with pitchy, off-beat, and distractingly stylish vocals. I can’t quite place if it falls to the responsibility of the actor or director to make the final call, but it pains me to see such childhood memories portrayed as having more concern for the performance than the emotion that should have been behind the lyrics. And whoever decided to change Prince Ali’s lyrics from “We heard your Princess was a sight lovely to see” to “We heard your Princess was hot, where is she?” should probably be punched. We get the derogatory undertones made obvious in the rest of the movie, but c’mon, people. Keep the Genie respectful.
But let me tell you what really got my blood pumping. Snuggled up as we were, my heartbeat doubled, and I grew ever-conscious of the ba-dumping that I was convinced could be seen and heard from under our blanket. As soon as the tender piano notes gave way to Scott’s warm vocals, my interest piqued to the new take on the fiery desert rose that is Jasmine. Like most new songs introduced to a well-known soundtrack, my first impressions usually lean toward feeling awkward as I try to place the tune with what I’m more familiar with.
That said, Scott gave her entire being into delivering this empowerment piece, “Speechless”. Her demonstration of strength added a little insult to injury to how they introduce her character; incapable and timid about jumping across Agrabah’s rooftops, when her cartoon could pole vault the Arabian Desert before breakfast. While Scott’s voice had just enough oomph to give me goosebumps (though I wanted more), it was her raw emotion in these scenes that convinced me she took this seriously. As 2019’s Jasmine aspires to become Agrabah’s next sultan, her solo and reprise pieces on the patriarchy hit a little closer to home than I expected. My face grew hot as my memories flickered along with each lyric; recalling the many times of being verbally run over, my experiences overlooked, my strengths discredited, and my identity readily replaced by the glazed stare of licentious ego.
Take for instance, one evening volunteering for a hunting banquet in college. Someone had won a gorgeous .20 gauge shotgun in the raffle, and I’d been running items to each winner. It was evident I’d been viewed as no more than a fair-faced table runner all evening, presumed ignorant to anything that had to do with the event besides my trusty roll of red paper tabs. When I brought the shotgun to its new owner, his eyes dropped below my chin before he had the gall to utter, “You probably think this is just some dark, shiny piece of metal, huh?” I was speechless at the moment; too rattled and polite to inform him that I’d been hunting since I was ten.
So I may not have been trying to change archaic rules surrounding Middle Eastern leadership, but I sure as hell haven’t held my tongue since. In fact, I now represent Washington State as an Ambassador for Artemis Sportswomen, and actively seek to engage women in sporting conservation. “I won’t be silenced” the lyrics beckon, and I only wish I knew this rally cry earlier.
Needless to say, this 2019 adaptation of one of our beloved Disney classics did a lot to appeal visually, somewhat audibly, and certainly in its script. The warm fuzzies we left with were largely attributed to the humor throughout, and the visual effects that help bring these stories to life. Not to mention, there’s a truckload of nostalgia in seeing these films in the theater again – I for one am glad to have an excuse to see more of the stories we love, flaws and imperfections in all. Though it will never replace the original, I’m happy to add some of these new takes to my Disney playlist. As for the infamous element of Disney magic that is proving difficult to capture in live adaptations, be patient, dear readers. As we were told back in 1953, “all you need is a little faith, trust, and pixie dust” before these dreams can really come true.