When my friends started becoming dads, I noticed a change in them. Guys who used to be immature or reckless — young, in other words — suddenly took on a new persona. It’s not that kids caused them to grow up, not exactly, but they certainly tried to play the role of a father, wearing the guise of what they considered a dad to be. Some emulated their own father. Some tried to be the exact opposite of their old man. Others created an idealized dad, maybe one they’d always wanted as a kid. Whichever particular model they chose, though, what mattered is that they were no longer themselves, and often it was surprising to see the pal I used to know morph into Adult Dad Guy. Sometimes, they noticed it, too. I’ve had more than one of them say to me, almost in disbelief, “Oh man, I can’t believe I’m a dad.” They were different degrees of beleaguered, sheepish, amused, startled and relieved when they said it — almost as if they were wondering, “How exactly did this happen? How did I get here?”
I have a hunch that Will Smith is not one of those guys for whom becoming a dad was some profound transformation. I’m not saying he’s a bad dad or doesn’t take fatherhood seriously. It’s just that the man has radiated a dad vibe for most of his public life. Even when he was starting out as part of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, lamenting “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” there’s always been a corny, straight-laced quality to his demeanor. The 50-year-old performer actually became a dad relatively young — his son Trey, born to first wife Sheree, turns 27 this year — but in the past few years especially, he’s leaned into the idea that he’s the good-time, fun-loving middle-aged dude. Let Dwayne Johnson and Chris Pratt worry about being No. 1 global superstars. Smith just wants to hang back and operate the grill at the Hollywood summer picnic — while also being one of the biggest names in the world, of course.
Smith has never been more of a dad than he is in the new live-action Aladdin, where he plays Genie. You may remember that Robin Williams made the role his own in the 1992 animated original, playing him like a stand-up routine mixed with a vaudeville act mixed with a cocaine bender. Smith does it like your dad might if he had filled in for one of the goofy smaller roles in the school play. There’s something adorably dopey about Smith as Genie. He doesn’t inhabit the part so much as he tries it on for size, knowing that you know that it’s a bit silly what he’s doing. That’s okay, though: You know how dads are.
This transition to Father Will has been a long time coming. For about a decade, he was Hollywood’s most exciting young star. If 1995’s Bad Boys proved his ability to carry an action movie, the following year’s Independence Day demonstrated that he could transcend the material he was in and become the reason you’d see anything. Following that up with Men in Black — his best movie of this early period, and the one where he’s at his most charismatic — and then Enemy of the State, Smith was the epitome of big-screen cool, flashing a bit of the impish spirit that was always part of his Fresh Prince of Bel-Air persona. The start of his ascension to movie stardom was as improbable as it was delightful, almost as if he was taking us aside and saying, Can you believe me, this skinny Philly kid, has been let loose in Hollywood? Where other A-list celebrities such as Tom Cruise carried themselves like red-carpet royalty, Smith was a goofball. His movie stardom was like a prank we all got to enjoy — and the longer it went on, the more right he seemed in the role.
Smith has had his ups and downs since then — deserved Oscar nominations for serious work in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, hits with I Am Legend and Suicide Squad, but also critical drubbings for Seven Pounds and Collateral Beauty — and along the way, like all movie stars, he’s gotten older and lost some of his hip factor. It’s always interesting to see how aging actors respond to these challenges. Cruise, for his part, has simply doubled-down, focusing more and more on thwarting the inevitable decline of the body by giving himself increasingly challenging Mission: Impossible stunts. Smith still does action movies, but a film like Aladdin feels like a natural progression for him. For years, he was the king of the Fourth of July event picture. Now, he’s yukking it up as Genie, coasting on our collective affection for Mr. Big Willie Style — and, really, is there a lamer trying-too-hard-to-be-cool nickname than Big Willie Style? Such a dad move.
Of course, Smith has actually played dads, too, with mixed success. He was superb as a struggling father in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness, but he really seemed to be passing the reins to the younger generation with 2013’s After Earth, a disastrous sci-fi drama that, like the previous film, costarred him alongside his son Jaden. Truth is, Jaden’s really the lead of After Earth, playing the character who must save the day after his noble soldier father is severely injured in a spaceship crash. After Earth is an awful movie, but it’s fascinating in terms of Smith’s career: He and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith produced the film, which very much felt like an official declaration to his audience that they should now consider Jaden their Hollywood prince. (They had done a similar thing in 2010 by producing a remake of The Karate Kid that starred their son.)
It’s not that Smith didn’t want to still make movies, but the emphasis on Jaden was a noticeable public downshift so he could reposition himself as a proud papa. You could see that same intent in his recent cameo at his son’s Coachella appearance. Sure, maybe the truest dad move would be to just take a bunch of embarrassing photos of your kid, but Smith went his own way, rapping alongside his son to “Icon.” The idea wasn’t to steal Jaden’s thunder — it was to be a goofy dad having fun with his boy.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Smith’s films are almost secondary to his other pursuits these days. Beyond his Instagram posts, he also does Will Smith’s Bucket List, his Facebook show where he takes on challenges he’s been afraid to tackle in his life, everything from Bollywood dancing to running a half-marathon to scuba diving. Other dads settle into a comfortable old-man routine — Smith is the guy who wants to try new things. If this is his midlife crisis, it’s been pretty fun to watch.
This downshifting has taken its toll creatively. Smith hasn’t made a great movie in quite some time — neither a really terrific dramatic film nor a spectacular blockbuster. (2016’s Suicide Squad was his biggest hit ever in the U.S., but it’s also among his worst.) There doesn’t seem to be the same drive that there once was. Also, his comedic chops, which often veered toward the broad even in his heyday, have now mostly calcified into “oh, dad” cheesiness. That’s the spirit in which he attacks Genie in Aladdin, mugging a little but mostly serving as the wise-cracking father figure to young Aladdin (Mena Massoud), who’s trying to win the heart of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Basically, Smith is a big blue single dad in the new movie, and when the script tries to give him his own love interest, it’s just sort of dorky. Smith is fun in Aladdin — he even does some rapping and singing — but he’s mostly there to have a good time and make sure that we have a good time. He doesn’t want to get in the way.
There are plenty of different types of dads out there in the world, but Will Smith is shaping up to be the kind I most relate to. He’s not like my own father — I’ve never heard the guy rap — but I suspect that, if I’d ever been a dad, I might have been like Smith. Kinda goofy, never intimidating, really just there for you, probably a bit embarrassing. Years ago, in the first Men in Black, Smith famously put on a pair of sunglasses and let the world know that he made that suit look good. He was right. A generation later, he’s a blue CG genie dadding it up in Aladdin. He makes that work, too.
Here are three other takeaways from Aladdin.
#1. Nasim Pedrad is the best thing about the film.
Before Aladdin’s release, because most of the talk surrounded Smith’s casting as the genie — and, of course, the controversy regarding the film’s cultural authenticity — I somehow missed that Nasim Pedrad was in the film. One of my favorite recent Saturday Night Live alums, Pedrad never quite became the household name I expected. When she left the show in 2014, it seemed like she was set up for TV stardom, landing a role as one of the costars of the forthcoming John Mulaney sitcom Mulaney. In recent years, just about everything Mulaney has touched has been successful … except Mulaney. The show suffered from bad ratings and even worse reviews and was quickly canceled. Since then, Pedrad has stayed busy, appearing on everything from Scream Queens to New Girl, but she’s struggled to find a great spotlight for her talent.
In Aladdin, she plays a new character, Dalia, who’s Jasmine’s handmaiden. I’d forgotten that Pedrad, who was born in Iran, actually played Jasmine back in her SNL days:
Dalia is clearly meant to be Aladdin’s comic relief, as well as serving as a love interest for Genie. Forgetting for a moment, if you can, that there’s a 13-year age difference between Pedrad and Smith, she’s easily this cumbersome film’s best, loosest element.
One of the problems with this live-action remake is that it tries so hard to be faithful to the original film that it feels like mimicry — everybody’s so scared to mess anything up that the movie seems to walk on eggshells. Pedrad is not; she delivers every line with that same tossed-off confidence that’s always been her M.O. And because the Jasmine/Aladdin love story has always been a bit bland, the movie needs her feisty turn to inject a little life — especially when Dalia and Genie (now in human form) start courting one another. This overlong film doesn’t need another love story, but she’s such a kick that I ended up rooting for Dalia more than Jasmine to get her happy ending — and that Pedrad keeps finding bigger and better opportunities for herself.
#2. Online people are mad that Gilbert Gottfried isn’t playing the parrot.
The original Aladdin garnered plenty of rave reviews for Robin Williams as the genie, which inspired speculation at the time that he might land the first-ever Oscar nomination for a voice performance. (That didn’t happen, although a legend sprung up that the film didn’t get a screenplay nod because Williams improvised so many of his best lines.) But there’s another contingent of Aladdin fans who swear by a different comedic voice actor in the film: Gilbert Gottfried, who played Jafar’s evil henchman parrot Iago.
For years, Gottfried has been known as a consciously abrasive stand-up whose extreme style is very much part of the joke. He turned that persona on full blast for Iago, giving us a wisecracking bird with a menacing, cackling voice.
Gottfried has gone on to do other voice work — memorably the Aflac duck, until he got fired for what the company considered offensive tweets — but Iago remains his most beloved performance. (His connection to Aladdin was further strengthened by his appearance in the Oscar-nominated 2016 documentary Life, Animated, about a young man with autism whose love of Disney animated movies provides a way for him to communicate with those around him.) And once viewers found out that Gottfried wasn’t doing Iago for the new film — that job went to Alan Tudyk — the internet went a bit crazy, even if fans didn’t know how to spell Gottfried’s name:
Whether or not Gottfried felt slighted, he spent some time earlier this year retweeting people’s unhappiness with his not being asked back to the role, including some folks who demanded a boycott of the new Aladdin. For those curious, Tudyk is perfectly okay in the role, but the character isn’t nearly as memorable as in the original — which is the same thing you could say about this live-action remake in general.
#3. The parody Will Smith end-credits raps rule.
Right before Aladdin came out, colleagues were telling me that they’d heard that Will Smith was going to rap during the end credits. But we weren’t sure if that was the truth or just a rumor started up because of the great Will Smith parody raps that have sprung up over the last couple years. Turns out that, yes, Smith does rap a little at the end of Aladdin. But it’s nowhere near as great as those parodies.
For those not familiar, the parody raps came to the world courtesy of Demi Adejuyigbe, a writer on The Good Place and one of the hosts of the podcast Gilmore Guys. The premise of the parodies was always the same: Adejuyigbe would go on Twitter to express surprise that Will Smith had written a rap song to accompany the end credits of some random film, such as Arrival. Then Adejuyigbe would run the credits with the fake Smith song, which was meant to sound like the artist during his Fresh Prince days. It was never not hilarious:
Of course, when Smith’s casting in Aladdin was announced in 2017, Adejuyigbe had to do a Fresh Prince parody. “I really liked the Aladdin one that I did,” he said a year later. “When I first did the Arrival one I was like, ‘This is really fun to do,’ and the rhyme scheme in that one is really good. But with the Aladdin one I thought I improved upon it. Also, the Get Out one I really liked because that’s the one that was so clearly a mimic of one specific song and I don’t know if a lot of people got that it was directly a parody of ‘Nightmare on My Street.’”
Oh, we noticed, Demi. Nicely done.