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Aladdin
  • Composed by Alan Menken
  • Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
  • Disney / 76m

The pace of Disney’s releases of “live-action” versions of their animated classics shows no sign of abating. None of them seems to get much traction with critics but so far they have mostly been very lucrative, so I guess they’ll keep going until there’s only Home on the Range left. And then maybe someone will have the great idea of doing animated remakes of them all, to keep going for a few more years. Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a very bright, colourful, visually-dazzling spectacle which seems to me to be one of the better entries so far.

While for some reason they don’t seem interested in using the great Alan Menken on any new films (which is extraordinarily strange), Disney are very happy for him to come back on these remakes and rework his magical songs as well as provide the scores. The 1992 Aladdin was of course one of his many classics even if there was some tragedy along the way for Menken and the film when one of its chief creative forces (and lyricist) Howard Ashman passed away. Tim Rice provided the lyrics for the remaining songs; and this time round The Greatest Showman‘s Pasek and Paul have updated a few songs’ lyrics and worked with Menken on a new song.

Alan Menken

First up of course is “Arabian Nights” so we get to hear Will Smith. He’s no great singer (and sounds rather autotuned out of existence in this song in particular), but his biggest problem – and technically speaking I’m not entirely sure this is his fault – is that he’s not Robin Williams. Williams wasn’t a great singer either but the Genie’s songs were specifically written for him to sing and while Smith does a pretty decent job of walking the line between paying homage to a vintage performance and bringing enough of himself to it when he’s not singing, in the songs it’s a bit of a problem. Still, the arrangements are generally modernised to suit him a bit more and he does come into his own to an extent in “Prince Ali” which is actually pretty dazzling. “Friend Like Me” – the Genie’s signature number – is updated to give him a few French Prince-isms, and a whole lot more in the end titles version (which I hate).

By far the best sequence in the film is the early “One Jump Ahead” sequence and vocally, Mena Massoud as Aladdin does very well. He brings energy to everything and acquits himself nicely. Naomi Scott as Jasmine is so beautiful she could be forgiven anything, but pleasingly there’s nothing to forgive because she’s fine at singing as well. The new version of “A Whole New World” – it’s easy to forget given its ubiquity that it’s such an incredibly good ballad – isn’t going to displace the Brad Kane and Lea Salonga version, but it’s decent enough. Scott/Jasmine’s big moment comes in the new song “Speechless” which is presented in two parts (quite a distance apart in the film) which evolve along with the character. There is also a single full-length version of it for the album – a rare case where it’s actually the end credits arrangement of a Disney song that’s going to end up on the playlist you maintain very carefully for your four-year-old daughter (OK, perhaps that’s just me). I like the song – I understand to an extent the criticism it’s received for being too different from the other songs, but on its own terms it really is lovely.

There is more of an ethnic Arabic element to the orchestrations of the songs this time round (along with the push a bit towards The Greatest Showman), and this extends to Menken’s instrumental score as well. While the songs are what he does best of course, his orchestral underscoring has become more and more impressive over the years and at the risk of making people think I’m an even bigger idiot than they did before, I think while the original versions of the songs will never be supplanted, the underscore is a more satisfying musical beast this time round than the Oscar-winning original. It’s just bigger, more colourful, deeper and richer, even if some may bristle at the more modern sound to the action sequences in particular.

Melodically, much of it is unsurprisingly based on the song melodies, including “Speechless”, and Menken devotees will also be delighted to find a couple of subtle quotes of “Proud Of Your Boy”, an unused song from the original film. The early “Aladdin’s Hideout” is jaw-droppingly lovely, leading without pause into the gorgeous “Jasmine Meets Prince Anders” with the first hint of “Speechless” in the score. I love the Hollywoodised “Arabian bazaar” style of “Breaking In”, gently comic and delightfully colourful. In fact that stylised version of Arabic music figures prominently throughout – it’s a style I’ve always liked and here the composer gets to have a lot of fun with it. (The belly dancing-style “Harvest Dance” arrangement of “Speechless” is great.) Jerry Goldsmith fans might not be surprised to hear a couple of licks of inspiration from The Mummy; the inspiration for the opening of “Jafar Becomes Sultan” might be more of a surprise (but I won’t spoil it here).

The middle section of the album becomes somewhat more tender and often romantic. “Never Called a Master Friend” is really touching, first really big action comes in “Escape from the Cave” which is a thunderous piece – as I hinted earlier, there isn’t the intricate subtlety of the original, but I think Menken pulls this off well. Later, “Carpet Chase” is even more modern but there are enough flourishes of colour there to keep it interesting and it’s followed by “Jafar Summons the Storm” which is as subtle as a hammer blow to the head – in the best possible way. There is real darkness in the big action finale “Jafar’s Final Wish”, more so than you might expect. After this we come to the gorgeous finale “Genie Set Free”, at nearly six minutes by far the album’s longest cue, then the much briefer “The Wedding” (a rousing “A Whole New World” instrumental) and a big “Friend Like Me” finale.

Let’s make no bones about it, Alan Menken is great – the best at what he does. If the best we can hope for these days is these reprises of his past triumphs then – while it may not be what we would really want – I’ll take them all day long. Aladdin is a rich, colourful work with masterpiece-level songs getting not-quite-masterpiece performances and a thoroughly entertaining 45 minutes of score.

Rating: ****

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