Will Smith’s Genie charms in ‘Aladdin’

By Tom Von Malder | Sep 21, 2019
Photo by: Walt Disney Home Entertainment Mena Massoud's Aladdin takes some tips from Will Smith's Genie during the live-action version of "Aladdin."

Owls Head — Aladdin (Disney, Blu-ray or standard DVD, PG, 127 min.). When Will Smith appears as the Genie, “Aladdin” takes off as a film, at times becoming very much a spectacle. Those who enjoyed the 1992 animated version (see below) should enjoy this as well.

In a framing device, Smith also plays the Mariner, who opens the film by telling his two children the story of Aladdin. We then see street urchin Aladdin (Mena Massoud of TV’s “The 99,” “Open Heart” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”) traveling around the market place, engaged in minor thefts with his pet monkey, Abu, assisting him. Aladdin has a good heart, though, and he helps a young girl escape, after she takes bread, without paying for it, and gives it to some starving children. While she identifies herself as Dalia and Aladdin assumes she is a slave of Princess Jasmine’s, she, of course, is Jasmine.

The escape/chase sequence, set to the song, “One Jump Ahead,” is well staged by director Guy Ritchie, who is better known for his action films, including two “Sherlock Holmes” films, “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

To stay on the music for a moment, the overall score is very good, but has lesser impact than say “Beauty and the Beast,” even though the composer for both is Alan Menken and the lyricist, at least initially, also was the late Howard Ashman, who penned Genie’s “Friend Like Me” song and “Prince Ali.” After Ashman’s death, Tim Rice came aboard and wrote the lyrics for “One Jump Ahead” and the one true classic here, “A Whole New World,” which is performed on a flying magic carpet as Aladdin gives the sheltered Jasmine an overview of their city, Agrabah. Smith performs “Friend Like Me” as a rap with melody and then an end-credits version with DJ Khaled.

As Aladdin, Massoud is handsome and likable enough to be a suitor for Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who is being forced by her father (Navid Negahban as the Sultan) to marry a prince because that is the law. Jasmine feels she is intelligent enough to rule by herself. Meanwhile, the Sultan’s vizier (Marwan Kenzari as Jafar), thwarted by his attempts to control the Sultan into war, decides he should marry Jasmine. In addition to his magical cobra walking stick, Jafar is aided by evil parrot Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk).

As part of Jafar’s power play, he forces Aladdin to enter the Cave of Wonder, guarded by magic, to retrieve an oil lamp, which turns out to house the Genie. In addition to being able to grant three wishes, Genie also dispenses many life lessons to Aladdin, whose real wish is to be taken seriously by Jasmine as a worthy mate. Smith and the editing are terrific during “Friend Like me,” with its many Genie changes, accomplished through motion-capture and computer graphics.

In addition to the songs, there is a good, sweeping orchestral score by Menken. Extras are fewer than normal for a Disney film, but include a couple of good ones, led my Massoud’s video journal, much shot during filming in Jordan (10:39). The other standout is the deleted duet, “Desert Moon,” sung by Aladdin and Jasmine when they first meet (2:20). Other extras look at director Ritchie (5:28); Smith as the Genie (4:31), including doing some of his Big Willie rapper style singing; bloopers (2:07); six deleted scenes (10:44), including Prince Anders presenting the Sultan with a cannon and Genie recalling some previous bad wishes; and three music videos (11:33). While “A Whole New World” is sung by Massoud and Scott in the film, the two music video versions are the end-credits version performed by Zayn Malik and Zhavia Ward and a Spanish-English version, called "Un Mundo Ideal," performed by Zayn and Becky G. The other music video is “Speechless,” performed by Scott. Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 2.5 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Aladdin: The Signature Collection (1992, Disney, Blu-ray + DVD, G, 90 min.). This is a reissue of the original animated film, which featured Robin Williams as the voice of the Genie. Scott Weinger, then 15, voiced Aladdin, while Brad Kane was the singer, and Linda Larkin voiced Princess Jasmine, while Lea Salonga sang the part. Jonathan Freeman voiced Jafar. Alan Menken’s music score and the song “A Whole New World” both won Oscars, while its other Oscar nominations were for Best Sound, Best Effects/Sound Effects Editing and the song, “Friend Like Me.” In addition to the music, the film was most noted for Williams’ vocal performance as the Genie. Williams won a Golden Globe, as did the score and “A Whole New World.”

This new edition comes with three new bonus features. Especially good is Weinger, 27 years later, revisiting Disney Studios, with his mother, Barbara, as well as traveling to New York to reunite with Larkin and Freeman – the two leads talk about how their lack of singing ability could have cost them the roles – and then a visit with Menken outside of NYC. Menken has Weinger sing the deleted song, “Proud of Your Boy,” and, after a little instruction here and there, says Weinger probably could have sung in the film. The very nice piece (30:27) also includes clips of Weinger recording lines for the film at age 15.

Also new is a short look at the voice actors working in the studio, including Kane (2:58) and two alternate ending versions of a song, once performed by lyrist Howard Ashman and the other sung by Bruce Adler, who sang the role of the Peddler. The film also can be watched in a sing-along mode. Carried over from previous editions are the Darren Criss-hosted look at the creation of the “Aladdin” Broadway show (18:52) and two audio commentaries: one by producers/directors John Musker and Ron Clements and co-producer Amy Pell; and the other by supervising animators Andreas Deja, Will Finn, Eric Goldberg and Glen Keane. There also is a brief introduction to the classic bonus features, more than three hours of which are available digitally with purchase of the Blu-ray. Grade: film and extras 4.5 stars

Robin Williams: Comic Genius (1978-2009, Time Life, 5 DVDs, NR, 841 min.). While Williams became a true movie star, including voicing Genie for the original animated “Aladdin” (see above), he got his start as a stand-up comedian. This new retail release, exclusively available at Walmart and taken from the 22-disc Time Life collection, contains all five of Williams’ HBO specials. They are “Off the Wall” (1978), “An Evening with Robin Williams” (1983), “An evening at the MET” (1986), “Live on Broadway” (2002) and “Weapons of Self Destruction” (2009). Bonus features include rare archival footage of Williams’ early stand-up routines; raw footage from HBO’s promo shoots and press interviews; People Choice Awards honoring Williams and E! Press Rom footage; newly produced featurettes “The Early Years,” “San Francisco: Where It All Began,” “Comic Genius” and “TV’s Best Guest”; and exclusive new interviews with Lewis Black and Williams’ manager, David Steinberg.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (Lionsgate, R, 130 min.). Dare one say overkill? So many die in this third chapter that the filmmakers no longer supply a body count. This time Wick Keanu Reeves) is given an old friend (Halle Berry as Sofia), who is just as proficient in killing – plus she has dogs who are skilled, trained attackers. And while the script delves into Wick’s past a bit – he is from Belarus? – and the structure of the High Table, it really raises more questions than it answers, while definitely setting up a fourth chapter.

For those not familiar with the films, Wick is a recently widowed former member of the High Table, an organization of secret assassins that is run by strict rules. When High Table-connected punks kill the dog his late wife left him, Wick swings back into deadly action, even though he had successfully, and uniquely, left five years earlier. At the end of the second film, though, Wick killed a member of the High Table on the neutral ground of the NYC Continental Hotel. For that transgression, Wick is declared “excommunicado” at the start of this third film, with a $14 million bounty on his head and literally hundreds of assassins willing to cash in.

With less than an hour to go before his sentence begins, Wick rushes to the public library to retrieve some items hidden in a book. One assassin decides to attack Wick in the library before the sentence officially begins and Wick beats him into submission with just the book. It is a fun action sequence and the first of many eye-opening ones here. Others includes a motorcycle chase in which Wick has to fend off sword-wielding attackers. Wick also uses horses as weapons and rides a horse down NYC streets. Later, Wick finds his way to Casablanca and old friend Sofia. After a high-octane fight sequence, Wick finds himself walking in the desert, still wearing his black suit.

The finale fight occurs in a two-story glass house atop the Continental, which makes for interesting angles, deceptive views and a lot of broken glass. Meanwhile, an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) from the High Table has put both Winston (Ian McShane), the Manager of the NYC Continental, and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, who starred with Reeves in the “Matrix” trilogy) on final notice because they helped Wick.

The extras emphasize all the training Reeves and Berry put in over six months so they could perform most of their own fight scenes. There is the plot-driven “Legacy of the High Table” (10:57); a better look at the fights and action (9:44), including Mark Dacascos, who plays Zero, an admirer of Wick who wants to be the one to kill him; a look at the fight training (9:55); a look at the horse riding stunts and the wire work used to accomplish it (5:10); how the motorcycle chase was put together (6:35), very informative; on filming in Morocco and Wick meeting The Elder (Said Taghmaoui) (10:15); training the five Belgium Malinois dogs to do stunts (8:04); behind the glass house set (7:10); on the editing (8:57); and a behind-the-scenes look at the John Wick Hex game (6:54). Grade: film 3.5 stars; and extras 3.25 stars

The Dead Don’t Die (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 104 min.). Here is a zombie movie from writer-director Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger Than Paradise,” “Night on Earth,” “Mystery Train”), who tackled vampires in his 2013 satire “Only Lovers Left Alive.” “Dead” is very droll for the first half, with Bill Murray (in his fourth Jarmusch film) and Adam Driver paired as rural Centerville cops, Chief Cliff Robertson and Officer Ronnie Peterson, respectively. We initially see them investigate a stolen chicken complaint by Farmer Frank Miller (Steve Buscemi) by trying to track down Hermit Bob (Tom Waits in heavy beard).

The film begins as a smart send-up of Donald Trump’s environmental policy. Apparently, oil fracking in the Polar regions has affected the Earth’s rotation, axis and length of day – all of which somehow lead to the dead rising from the grave, and, as they have ever since George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” the dead go around snacking on humans. Rocker Iggy Pop plays one of the first two zombies resurrected (they probably did not need much makeup).

On several occasions the characters, Deputy Ronnie in particular, break the fourth wall. As we hear the title theme song played on the police car radio, Ronnie explains to Cliff that it is the theme song of what they are experiencing. He later has a discussion with Cliff about the film’s script and the bad ending that he knew all along was coming.

The cast is star-studded as it also includes Rosie Perez as TV news reporter Posie Juarez, Chloe Sevigny as Officer Mindy Morrison, Danny Glover as Hank Thompson, Carol Kane as drunk Mallory O’Brien, Tilda Swinton as new funeral director Zelda Winston and Sturgill Simpson, singer of the oft-heard title song, as the guitar zombie. The three young people who arrive in town in a 1968 Pontiac LeMans are played by Selina Gomez, Austin Butler and Luke Sabbat.

Once the zombies get going in full stride, the film loses some of its steam and the foray into mocking consumerism is only funny for a brief moment, before it becomes too heavy. Basically, the dead keep repeating the name of one thing they still carve, whether in be Skittles of Chardonnay. Of course, Romero himself attacked consumerism in his “Dawn of the Dead” zombie film, set inside a shopping mall. The typical showdown with the zombies ending was a letdown. The one cool touch throughout is that when the zombies are beheaded, a puff of black soot is emitted.

The extras are very limited: a very short interview with Murray (1:21); a quick look at the cast (2:47); and six-part behind-the-scenes bits of silliness (5:16). Grade: film 3 stars; extras ½ star

Kung Fu League (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray + DVD, NR, 102 min.). This film, directed by Jeffrey Lau (“Kung Fu Hustle”), is a mixed bag and somewhat confusing in spots. However, it opens with a great action sequence, includes a very pretty love song set to a nice montage and ends with some unique martial arts fighting, in which one combatant has a suit with a computer that predicts his opponents’ moves.

The protagonist is Fei Yingxiong (Ashin Shu), a clumsy, poor geek who daydreams and draws martial arts adventures while working at a comic book company – the opening action sequence, which takes place in the rain, is part of the fantasy book he is drawing. Fei also pines hopelessly for Bao’er (Madina Memet), a colleague he has loved for years, but has never dared to court until the day he tries to put a love letter in her bag, but instead is seen as a thief and fired. Fei than uses his birthday wish to summon the help of four fighting legends from history, who somehow do emerge in 2018. Two of them end up at a movie studio, which adds to the confusion, but it is fun to see them ride horses the wrong way down an expressway and then take the horses on the subway.

The four are Master Wong (Vincent Zhao), Master Huo (Andy On), Chen (Chan Kwok Kwan) and Ip Man (Dennis To). Also confusing is that two of the four apparently are after the same woman, 13th Aunt, in the past, and three of the four are from the same time period and location. Fei also has competition for Bao’er, as their boss (Zhang Ziwen) also covets her. He is the one behind a World Wushu contest that has a $30 million prize that Fei hopes to win, even though he has no martial arts skills whatsoever and the four experts’ attempts to teach him are unsuccessful.

The amusing out-of-time bits are the best; another includes a visit to McDonald’s. The finale fight with the jacked-up super suit borders on the silly. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 2 stars

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