** SPOILERS **
Hold Your Breath, It Gets Better
"The monkey knows the way," Aladdin (Mena Massoud) tells Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) as they both escape the palace guards after them, and anyone who has such loyal friends as Abu the monkey and the Magic Carpet is well worth knowing. Director Guy Ritchie's dazzling Aladdin brings the classic Disney cartoon and the splendorous fictional Arabian world of Agrabah to life in all its vivid, colorful glory. This is a nearly miraculous production full of endearing charm, genuine wit, and eye-popping beauty, starting with its two leads and their meet-cute: he's an orphaned thief who's dismissed as "riff-raff" and a "street rat" while she's an intelligent and headstrong princess forcibly sheltered in the palace since the death of her mother. They're both stunningly attractive, clearly into each other, and they obviously belong together. "You should be Sultan," Aladdin later assures her and it's clear that when all is said and done, Jasmine will not just rule Agrabah but Aladdin's heart as well - and he'll thoroughly enjoy being ruled by her for the rest of his days.
We all know the story: the malevolent Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) wants to be Sultan but he needs the power of the Genie (Will Smith), who lives in a magic oil lamp hidden in the Cave of Wonders (voiced by Frank Welker, the voice of Megatron), to make his evil wish come true. Jafar kidnaps Aladdin, the "diamond in the rough" and the only person allowed to enter the cave (although Abu goes with him so the magical cave is clearly okay with a monkey tagging along). Inside the Cave of Wonders are treasures and riches beyond imagination, unless you're Scrooge McDuck or Smaug, in which case, you're familiar with piles of gold coins you can swim in. But there's also the lamp, which Aladdin retrieves, which means he's now the master of the Genie and the Three Wishes he can grant.
Following in the late Robin Williams' footsteps as the Genie is a daunting task but Will Smith rises to the challenge with a performance that's funny, razor-sharp, and unexpectedly emotionally moving when it counts: he's both exasperated mentor and supportively loyal friend (reluctantly at first) to Aladdin as he turns the street rat into the fictional (fresh) Prince Ali of the even more fictional kingdom of Ababwa - complete with Smith leading a musical number accompanying Prince Ali's arrival in Agrabah that brings the house down. But there's a key difference with this Genie: he's all man too and he has the hots for Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), Jasmine's eligible handmaiden who is quite interested right back. But the relationship between Aladdin and the Genie is sharply-written and poignant, especially when Aladdin ultimately delivers on his promise to free the Genie so he can live a normal life.
With a clever screenplay by Ritchie and John August that adapts the classic cartoon but also adds a few interesting new touches - mainly modernizing Jasmine with a fierce independent streak, progressive worldview, and a new, ultimate destiny - Aladdin astoundingly hits all of the high points of its beloved magic carpet ride. The costumes, sets, and production design are spectacular and, thankfully, Scott is a powerful vocalist who belts out her part of "A Whole New World" and has an additional new song all her own. Meanwhile, Massoud is a charming Aladdin while Abu and the Magic Carpet are each remarkably loyal and endearing sidekicks. Ritchie's Agrabah is a sight to behold: a wonderous, immersive kingdom that should be its own Disney theme park. Although Kemzari's version of Jafar is a different flavor of sinister from the cartoon that takes a little getting used to and perhaps Gilbert Gottfried not voicing Iago the parrot is a bit of a letdown as well, even then, the movie just clicks and delivers genuine pleasures. Happily, Aladdin is a gorgeous fantasy and a new fantastic point of view of one of Disney's best fairy tales.