May 17, 2019 10:20 am

COMMENTARY: Aladdin’s visuals look incredible, but Disney needs to take risks with fresher stories

Co-stars Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and Will Smith share their excitement for Disney's live-action remake of "Aladdin" at the premiere in London.

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This week Disney revealed a one-minute clip of Will Smith’s “Prince Ali” performance in the highly anticipated live-action remake of Aladdin.

While the set looks undeniably spectacular, dazzling in a myriad of colour, parading peacocks, confetti and camels, it still received an underwhelming response by many.

READ MORE: Internet reacts to Will Smith version of ‘Prince Ali’ in upcoming ‘Aladdin and it’s not good 

Since the film’s announcement, the remake has been met with a myriad of skepticism and negative commentary. From Princess Jasmine casting controversies to doubt whether Will Smith could fill the larger-than-life shoes of beloved Robin Williams, who voiced the iconic genie in the original 1992 animated feature, this upcoming film has been scrutinized tooth and nail.

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However, unlike the cynics, I’m quite excited about Aladdin. For starters, comparing animation to live-action is like apples to oranges so I find those arguments moot.

But from what I have seen of the live-action version, the visuals look incredible. And while some are calling Smith’s performance of “Prince Ali” lacklustre because he’s not singing, I think that’s part of the character he envisioned for his Genie.

“[J]ust the flavor of the character would be different enough and unique enough that it would be in a different lane, versus trying to compete,” he told  Entertainment Weekly.

READ MORE: Will Smith previews Genie character, raps ‘Aladdin’ song ‘Friend Like Me’

Smith also expressed Williams’ performance “didn’t leave too much room for improvement” and he wanted to hold on to that nostalgia while injecting the human Genie with a little ’90s “hip hop energy.”

That may explain a little more rap and less sing-song in his particular numbers. But rest assured, to know Disney is to know they like to surprise and don’t ever give it all away, so I’m pretty confident that clip is just a fraction of what Smith is going to bring to the big screen for his big blue debut.

I’m also particularly excited about seeing Princess Jasmine “come to life” because as a South Asian woman, I know how captivated I was by the animated version. Up until the original, I hadn’t seen a princess that remotely had any semblance to me, so a princess with dark-hair, dark-eyes and clothing reminiscent of my own culture was a pretty big deal for my 13-year-old self.

“Having a Disney princess that looked something like me, I think was really powerful,” Naomi Scott said, recalling the animated film and her excitement in taking on this new role.

WATCH BELOW: Trailer for Aladdin ‘Rags to Wishes’

Now, as a mother myself to a young daughter, I see how my own little girl gravitates in her fantasy play to characters that she relates to, like Shimmer & Shine, who wear bindis, tikka and other Indian-inspired jewelry, much like she does. I’m excited for her to see this film and be inspired by a positive heroine that she can see some of herself in too. And much like the hugely successful modern day superhero films, it’s those human emotions and connections we see in their real-life characters which are so powerful, especially in real settings.

With parts of the film shot in Jordan’s majestic Wadi Rum Desert, Smith said the portrayal of Arabic culture was also heavily discussed on set and that it was important for him that the film “be a love letter to the region, [we wanted] kids around the world to see it and say ‘I want to go there.’”

So with all that said, I certainly think there’s a lot to be excited about with Aladdin. But what I would really be excited about is Hollywood investing a little less into recreating old tales when there are so many new stories with new story-tellers to tell them. Because I think the real gems are in the stories that have yet to be told.

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Earlier this week, I finally worked up the nerve to watch Get Out. I like a good scare, but I have not experienced a thriller like this ever — the satirical horror by director Jordan Peele is sheer brilliance with so many spine-chilling twists and turns.

Last week, I saw an early screening of Blinded by the Light, directed by Gurinder Chadha of Bend It Like Beckham fame. The story revolves around a young Pakistani teen, Javed, growing up in Britain in the ’80s. Amid the racial and economic turmoil of the times, he writes poetry as a means of escape until he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen, whose powerful lyrics help him find his own voice.

I absolutely loved this film. Told through a lens of compassion and understanding, it needed a story-teller like Chadha, who appreciated Javed’s strict father wasn’t some unreasonable “other,” but someone he deeply cared for as he grappled with his duality of identity, as so many of us do. I cannot express the powerful emotional journey it took me on. From literally laughing out loud to choking back tears, I was pulled in deep from the very first scene until the credits rolled.

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In the vein of stories untold, with upcoming summer films like Late Night, about a late-night talk show host’s world turned upside down when she hires her first and only female staff writer (produced by Mindy Kaling with director Nisha Ganatra) to the imaginative tale of Yesterday directed by Danny Boyle, about a struggling musician who discovers the Beatles have been wiped from history after a freak global blackout erases and uses his songs as his own to rise to fame, I hope we’ll be seeing more stories like this.

These are the types of films I’m really excited for — stories that are original, stories that include new and diverse faces, voices and thought behind and in front of the lens.

As a movie lover, and someone who has worked closely with movie studios for over 15 years, I have deep respect and admiration for the immense creative effort that has gone into the production of Aladdin. But I also know Disney’s stronghold and whole-heartedly believe it is capable of so much more creativity.

The company has shown it with ingenious Pixar films, like Coco, Toy Story and Inside Out. It has expressed it through beautiful culturally driven films like Million Dollar Arm, McFarland and Queen of Katwe. It has witnessed for itself the deep desire for diverse heroic tales with the success of blockbuster hits like Black Panther.

And while Disney has found a trusted formula for immense financial success with franchises and re-makes — I am hopeful that it also takes on more risk for reward.

Ultimately, my hope is for Disney and all of the movie studios to rise to the occasion and start telling more completely original stories with new storytellers, because those stories, the ones that we have never experienced in any way before will take us to a truly whole new world.

Meera Estrada is a cultural commentator and co-host of kultur’D! on Global News Radio 640 Toronto.

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