There’s been a lot written about Disney’s live action Aladdin adaptation, much of it related to Will Smith’s portrayal of the blue genie. Although many fans haven’t caught the big, all-powerful character in action yet, early looks at the sorcerer in the trailer didn’t have a lot of people pumped. In fact, a healthy percentage of those on social media openly expressed concern or frustration.
We have one of the most anticipated films of the year and are confident that audiences will fall in love with the Genie and all of the characters when it hits the big screen this May.
At Cinema-Con, more people heard from the Genie, who sang, danced and went for it with a hip-hop influenced version of “Friend Like Me,” which Will Smith has also performed on the press circuit ahead of the release of Aladdin. Some of the people around me were openly snickering and talking about how bad they thought it was.
The thing is, Will Smith’s version of Aladdin’s Genie is spectacular.
It would be hard to top Robin Williams in the role, but Will Smith doesn’t even try. Instead he brings his own energy and presence (although he keeps the hairdo). No doubt fans will recognize some similarities to Williams’ original version, particularly in lines like “itty bitty living space,” but for the most part, this is a nice, new creation, brought to life on the back of Will Smith’s lovable and unique energy. The result is one of the biggest reasons why Aladdin is a fun and breezy movie that does bring feelings of nostalgia, but also has a fresh new coat of paint.
The Genie is, by definition, a showy character. He’s loud, fast-paced and frantic. Given that and the fact that fans really liked the Genie in the original animated Aladdin, there’s no way there wouldn’t be some clear overlap between the new and original versions. The much-discussed rendition of “Friend Like Me” illustrates that and out of context, created a stir among those angry fans.
In context, however, it becomes very clear what a great job Will Smith did here. There are enough similarities that fans will recognize and appreciate the Genie, but there are enough clear differences here to feel original and unique. That’s not an easy line to walk. Only someone with the charisma and the grandiosity of Will Smith could pull off the showy, over the top parts of the Genie without feeling like a less impressive karaoke version of Robin Williams and yet still have the acting confidence to play some of his scenes with a much quieter and serious energy. He goes big without feeling like a copy and yet pulls back enough to have some real heart.
Recently, Will Smith revealed that he based his version of the Genie on the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air character who helped to kickstart his career back in the nineties. You can see that, but to me, that may be a bit too simplistic. Smith deserves more credit than that. You won’t see this and think, “Oh, that’s just a blue Fresh Prince”. Only after hearing the comparison will you think, “Oh, that makes sense.”
Guy Ritchie and Will Smith definitely put a lot of effort into making the movie feel different. Let’s talk more specifically about some of those differences with minor spoilers. So, if you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want to know anything, then go ahead and bail now.
Will Smith’s live action genie strives to be human, but also to find meaning in family. He actually has a love interest just like Prince Ali of Ababwa in the film, played by Nasim Pedrad. The two bounce off one another comedically onscreen, leading to some of the film’s funniest moments. The dynamic between the two also helps us to see a different side of the Genie’s personality that doesn’t typically have a chance to come out.
The basic formatting of the story helps with differentiation too. Guy Ritchie took a long-touted and recently confirmed fan theory and totally rolled with it in this new version, making the Genie the man telling the story of Aladdin, Jasmine, a magic lamp and Agrabah. This choice gives him more agency and allows us to interact with him outside of the narrative framework of the basic story we’re all familiar with.
Those choices, plus a few more I won’t spoil here, all serve to give us a Genie that is familiar and identifiable but also new, different and exciting, which is, I think what we all wanted. It would have been stupid to create a live action Aladdin that was a shot-for-shot remake of the original, filled with the same characters we’ve all around seen. That being said, it would have also been stupid to create a movie filled with characters so different from the original there was no point in even calling it Aladdin.
Sure, he’s big and he’s blue. Sure, the character Will Smith is playing is a little ridiculous and can’t ever possibly eclipse Robin Williams’ beloved original. But he gives a really good performance here, filled with charm and enough originality to keep fans entertained. It’s a performance that takes the zaniness of playing an all-powerful-but-blue being and strikes the balance between going big and pulling back.
Will Smith doesn’t deserve all the criticism he’s gotten over the past few months. He’s good in Aladdin. A lot of fans are going to love the choices he made with his character, and if nothing else, this should serve as a good reminder that sometimes it’s really hard to judge standalone scenes or trailers without the proper context. So, go see it and decide for yourself. Don’t take the grumblings on social media from people who haven’t even seen the movie as evidence you should stay away. I had a good time with his character and the larger movie, and I suspect a lot of others will too.