Will Smith puts the true magic in ‘Aladdin’

Will Smith in “Aladdin”

It’s a whole new world, all right, when it comes to the Disney studio’s latest effort to turn one of its animated classics into a live-action feature.

The results were mixed in trying that recently with “Dumbo,” and again, there are points on both ends of the scale of success with “Aladdin.” Given the exotic setting, you know it’s going to be a big production – so the catch is to keep the songs and emotions from being dwarfed by the outsized visual value, which director Guy Ritchie clearly puts an emphasis on.

The true star of “Aladdin,” and this probably won’t come as a surprise, is Will Smith as the genie. Reinventing a role so strongly associated with Robin Williams is a tall order, and it takes someone who can inject his own mighty personality into the part. That would be Smith, whose genie is set free by young Aladdin (Mena Massoud) – who needs his help to win the heart of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott).

Another part of Smith’s magic is that by having him on board for star power, the film’s makers could cast the other roles rather freely, and they’ve done a good job there. Still, the overall approach shortchanges feeling for action, another reason why these Disney live-action retellings don’t necessarily replace the animated originals so much as supplement them.

With such credits as Robert Downey Jr.’s “Sherlock Holmes” capers and “Lock, Stock and Smoking Barrels,” Ritchie isn’t necessarily a logical filmmaker for a project so reliant on pure fantasy. In a way, it’s the same thing that happened with Tim Burton guiding the live-action “Dumbo”: The result can be an intriguing mashup of seemingly discordant elements, or it can be so far off the chart, you can wonder why the attempt even was made.

Since the figurative shots were being called by Disney executives, it’s certain that Ritchie was given something of a playbook to follow, to hit “Aladdin’s” necessary notes – certainly in the musical sense, but also in story terms. Still, a moviemaker brings his own sensibility, however famous the tale he’s telling is; this surely is Ritchie’s take on “Aladdin,” and it helps to be cognizant of what he’s done before in watching his work here.

With that said, many of the film’s patrons simply will want a fresh view of something they already know and love. The newer “Aladdin” casts its spell to a certain degree, but for the full experience, keep the cartoon in mind.

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin

Jay Bobbin has decades of experience covering the television and movie businesses, winning Tribune Media Services’ Crown Jewel Award in 2008 for his performance in the company. Over those many years of interviewing and writing, he has spoken with everyone from Robert De Niro and John Travolta to Paul McCartney and Tony Bennett … from Meryl Streep and Julie Andrews to Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

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