If we were granted three wishes about the live-action remake of "Aladdin," the first one would be easy: We wish we didn't have to wait 40 minutes for Will Smith to make his entrance as the genie.
Don't misunderstand; there's nothing glaringly wrong with the movie up to then. Stars Mena Massoud (as the title character) and Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine) are both solid performers. But there's a big difference between a solid performance and an electrifying one.
It's the latter that we get from Smith. He imbues the big blue wish-granter with explosive energy, effusive spirit and a soupçon of snark. This telling doesn't need a magic carpet; it's Smith who makes the movie take flight.
Tackling the role that the late Robin Williams turned into the centerpiece of the 1992 animated version took nerve. We can spend hours arguing about who wears the character better, but there's no debating Smith's impact on this film. Everything changes when he pops out of the magic lamp, and a movie that had been moseying along leisurely suddenly roars off at warp speed.
The Disney company's fascination with its Broadway version of "Aladdin" is evident early and often. Production numbers grow exponentially in scope until we reach Prince Ali (Aladdin in disguise) entering the city in a pull-out-all-the-stops spectacle that would make a Bollywood filmmaker blue with envy. (The Broadway influence continues all the way to the closing credits, which are shown over a dance sequence in which the entire cast gathers and the principal players boogie up to the camera to take their bows.)
The animated film drew criticism — albeit lightly at the time but more vociferous of late — for telling an Eastern story from a Western perspective. That's still an issue, but director Guy Ritchie dampens that impression a bit through casting that's mostly culturally sensitive.
Although he grew up in Canada, Massoud was born in Egypt. And while Scott's father is British, her mother is Indian. Many of the supporting roles also are assigned to people of Eastern descent. And the story's villain, the traitorous, power-hungry Jafar, who is plotting to overthrow the kingdom, is played by Marwan Kenzari, who was born and raised in the Netherlands but whose family is Tunisian.
The movie opens with Jasmine having concealed her identity as princess to sneak out of the castle and mingle with the people. She meets Aladdin, a street urchin who survives through petty thievery. He doesn't recognize her, and they start flirting.
Fast-forward through two reels of so-so interplay, and Aladdin — finally! — unleashes the genie from the lamp. His first wish is to become a prince so he can woo Jasmine. He goes to visit her at the castle, where she doesn't recognize him, and they start flirting.
One big difference with the animated film is this movie's overt feminist stance. Although hinted at 27 years ago, now Jasmine's frustration over the sexism that relegates women to seen-but-not-heard status is given loud and emphatic voice. Because women are not allowed to rule the kingdom, her aging father needs her to marry a prince from a foreign land who can take over his throne, a notion that Jasmine finds insulting.
"I was born to do more than marry a useless prince," she storms.
Although rated PG, this film isn't quite as kid-friendly as the earlier one. The content isn't the issue so much as the length — it's over two hours, which is stretching the limit of many youngsters' attention spans — and the sedate pacing of the first act. We weren't the only ones who were happy to see Smith arrive.
And, yes, we still have two wishes left.
We'd use one to tone down the climax, which turns into such a loud, hypercharged battle of superpowered beings that we wouldn't be surprised if the Avengers showed up. That might help with marketing, but it doesn't blend well with the rest of the movie.
As for the third one, we'd wish that those viewers who think the 1992 version can't be matched would give this one a chance.
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392 @stribstrick
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG for characters in peril.