While Guy Ritchie’s live-action “Aladdin” recaptures the timeless magic of its brand, the question remains whether this $1 billion-dollar earner can work its magic on Academy voters. Although its robust global revenue is somewhat of a surprise considering it followed Tim Burton’s low-performing “Dumbo,” Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King” is and always was going to be the record-breaking talk of the year. Amassing over $1.5 billion and already proclaimed as the early frontrunner for Best Visual Effects, “The Lion King’s” manifested destiny of eclipsing its competition – yes, even the glitzy and sparkling “Aladdin” – seems all but complete. However, if there’s a glint in His majesty’s armor, it’s in the “Best Original Song” category.
Songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Oscar winners for “La La Land”) alongside legendary Disney composer Alan Menken wrote a truly empowering new ballad for “Aladdin” about women reclaiming their voice after being repeatedly silenced by men. “Speechless” has every bit of that catchy exhalation of autonomy in its lyrics that Kristen and Robert Lopez’s “Let It Go” has. As Jasmine, Naomi Scott performs the showstopper with unyielding conviction during a pivotal moment of internal self-motivation. Repeating such a mesmerizing number on the Dolby Theatre stage would be a jaw-dropping moment, potentially as memorable as this year’s piano-side duet between Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.
While Beyoncé’s “Spirit” for “The Lion King” (co-written by Ilya Salmanzadeh, Labrinth, and Beyoncé) is a moving reminder of Simba’s faith in the Heavens, its monotheistic undertone could alienate some voters who might be ignorant of the song’s cultural authenticity. Likewise, the new “Frozen 2” track will have the challenge of outdoing “Let It Go,” a Disney Princess power ballad tethered to the popularity of its progenitor. Moreover, Josh Cooley’s “Toy Story 4” doesn’t have a song in contention for the category, thus giving “Aladdin” a firm foothold in this race. If anything, Guy Ritchie’s re-imagining of the world’s favorite “Arabian Nights” tale can make a wish (or three) to repeat Oscar history.
26 years ago, the original 2D-animated “Aladdin” walked away from the 65th Academy Award ceremony with two Oscars. The hand-drawn classic dominated the music field, winning “Best Original Song” for “A Whole New World” and “Best Original Score” for its theme. The “Aladdin” legacy is aiming for its third Oscar, and as such it would be fitting if “Speechless” produces that trifecta. Much like past awards contenders whose campaign focused on a sole category for accolade attention, there stands a high likelihood that Disney will push hard for consideration in Original Song and nothing else. However, the costume and production design departments might refute this potential single-visioned goal.
Gemma Jackson served as production designer for “Aladdin,” and isn’t a newbie to the Oscar club. While not an Academy Award recipient, Jackson was previously nominated for her period work on Marc Forster’s “Finding Neverland” and is an Emmy winner for HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” This category is shared with the set decorator, in this case Tina Jones, who both collaborated and won the Emmy for the aforementioned fantasy series. Dressing Princesses, handmaidens, sultans, viziers, and charming “street rats” is the very stylish Michael Wilkinson. This designer delivered beguiling fashion in 2013’s “American Hustle,” for which he was subsequently Oscar-nominated. Finally, if for some reason the Academy is bedazzled enough by Will Smith‘s Genie design or the many magical wonders of Agrabah, Nicholas Bennett, Mark Bakowski, and ILM’s Daniele Bigi (who already received a Saturn Award nomination for his work on the film) could wiggle their way into “Best Visual Effects.”
Finally, we have to address the giant genie in the room. When Will Smith was first cast in the most gargantuan role of all, many scoffed at the decision. The skepticism exacerbated after the initial trailer came out, many wondering if Smith would tarnish Robin Williams’ incomparable legacy by thriving in caricature, not spirit. This concern was instantly dispelled once audiences had their feature-length input. Not only did Smith honor Williams with an abundance of personality and heartwarming compassion for “Al’s” cause, but he made the singular character his own. Although he’s an ancient and magical being, Smith brought out a humanistic side to the Genie, delving into issues of enslavement and playing second fiddle to the “leading man” that the original would’ve never dared address. In this respect, Smith offered dimension to one of Disney’s most lovable heroes.
With Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” on the horizon and “Aladdin” rejuvenating Smith’s box office, superstar status, a “Best Supporting Actor” nod isn’t outside the realm of possibility. What helps is having this awards season spun as the narrative of the “movie star.” If Brad Pitt is a “Supporting Actor” frontrunner for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” for wowing audiences by doubling down on his Hollywood persona, Smith could very well be seen in the same celebrity luminescence for “Aladdin.”