BWW Album Review: A New ALADDIN For a Whole New World
With every new Disney remake, it's not just the movies' visual worlds that get revisited and updated, but their musical worlds too. Fortunately, the soundtrack for the live-action remake of Aladdin manages to tweak the classic score just enough to not sound like a pale imitation while keeping the core of the magic that's made it one of the most enduring scores of its generation.
As with its predecessors, this Aladdin opens with "Arabian Nights" with some variation of the Genie on lead vocals. With an expanded middle section and new lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, it's every bit the lush, familiar introduction you remember. However, it also has the unfortunate effect of exposing one of the movie's weak spots immediately: Will Smith's singing voice. Although he does fine on other songs on the soundtrack, Smith's voice isn't the most melodic, and he struggles to find his footing on this first song.
Luckily, Smith acquits himself much better on the two iconic Genie songs. "Friend Like Me" is the masterpiece it's meant to be. There's a contemporary, hip-hop twist to the song - enough to be noticeable, but not so much that it feels like a remix (that's saved for the utterly excellent and creative "end credits" version of the song that features DJ Khaled). Smith trips through the famous lyrics with all the pizazz you could want, plus a hint of rap. "Prince Ali," though oddly slowed down and with the movie's most puzzling and pointless minor lyric change, still conjures up the epic, madcap fun of the number we all know and love.
Both Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, as Aladdin and Jasmine, prove themselves to have strong, lovely vocals. Massoud leads "One Jump Ahead" with plenty of energy, and sings movingly on the two (yes, two!) reprises of the song that become Aladdin's musical through-line in the movie. While the second reprise, set late in the movie where the original was a bit musically thin, is a great and necessary character moment, the Disney geek in me can't help regretting that the early-story "Proud of Your Boy," which was cut from the original animated feature but restored in the Broadway adaptation, didn't make the cut here either.
Scott's Jasmine gets the movie's much-publicized new song, a Pasek and Paul tune called "Speechless." Scott sings it beautifully, with plenty of emotion and strong vocals. It's a song with all the hallmarks of a Pasek and Paul song, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that the pop-tinged tune with a broad-ranging melody sticks out from the original Menken/Ashman/Rice songs. It's a good song and a good character beat for Jasmine, whose character arc is updated from "wanting to marry for love" to "wanting to be the next sultan," but it's not as seamless an addition as it could have been.
Aladdin's signature song, of course, is the duet "A Whole New World," and here, both Massoud and Scott shine. Massoud actually sounds remarkably like Brad Kane, who sang Aladdin's songs in the animated feature. Scott and Massoud's voices harmonize beautifully, and the updated orchestration avoids imitating the original but without losing the soaring simplicity that's made this song so magical for nearly 20 years.
The same can't be said, unfortunately, for the "end credits" version of the song. Led by Zayn and Zhavia Ward, the pop cover simply overdoes it on the riffs. The pop-cover credits song is a Disney movie tradition, and they're usually excellent, but this one simply doesn't quite find the magic. Fortunately, the DJ Khaled/Will Smith "Friend Like Me" cover is delightful, creatively integrating rap into the patter-heavy song for a massively fun remix.
For the non-musical score, Alan Menken returns, mixing familiar themes with new sounds in the instrumental score. Menken's contribution to the Disney musical canon is unmatched, and it's a real joy to hear him continuing to expand on his iconic scores. All in all, the whole Aladdin soundtrack is a joy: maybe not a whole new world, but a beautiful familiar world for sure.