Aladdin comes to theaters this weekend and leading up to the film’s release, fans and critics expressed a ton of skepticism about Smith’s Genie, both in terms of his strange appearance and the pressure of having to fill Robin Williams’ gigantic comedic shoes. Smith himself even admitted that when he was first offered the role, his initial instinct was “hell no” because Williams “smashed that role.” It felt inevitable that Smith would crumble under the weight of impossible expectations.
Mild spoilers for the new live-action Aladdin follow. (Though because this is basically the same plot as the animated Disney version, these aren’t really “spoilers.)
The good news? While his unique look does take some getting used to, Smith actually does a pretty solid job as the Genie. Is he as good as Williams? Not even close but, in fairness, we’re talking about one of the most iconic and beloved voiceover performances of all time. And to Smith’s credit, he resists doing an impression of Williams and instead gives the Genie a more laidback, know-it-all energy that makes his rapport with Aladdin extremely fun to watch. Plus, given Smith’s music background, it’s no surprise that he does a nice job with the musical numbers (‘Prince Ali’ is especially fun).
Yet while Smith managed to avoid dragging down the remake with his performance, unfortunately, Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar pales in comparison to his animated counterpart. In the original Aladdin, Jafar establishes himself one of the greatest villains in Disney history, alongside Ursula, Scar, and Captain Hook. He’s cunning, desperate for power, and, like Aladdin, is always one step ahead of everybody else around him. He’s like the Littlefinger of Agrabah, using chaos and deception to climb higher up the social ladder, willing to stop at nothing until he’s at the top.
In contrast, live-action Jafar feels like a generic villain who lacks the deviousness and malevolent energy to secretly be pulling the strings. Rather than have him motivated by power, the live-action Aladdin makes him seem like he is a paint-by-numbers bad guy who just wants to do evil because that’s what bad guys are supposed to do, right? He loses every argument he has with the Sultan and Jasmine, and even when he steals the Genie from Aladdin to becomes Sultan, he never feels like a sincere threat.
In a movie full of giant dance numbers and magic carpets and spectacular set pieces, Kenzari’s subdued interpretation of Jafar feels wildly out of place. Typically, overacting is seen as a negative but in this case, he may have been better off swinging for the fences, as an over-the-top villain would have been far preferable to a bad guy who is fine but ultimately forgettable.