** out of ****
(for some action, peril, and mysticism)
Released: May 24, 2019
Runtime: 128 minutes
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad, Navid Negahban, Billy Magnussen, Numan Acar
This is a corporate-approved abomination.
It’d be a disservice to the original animated Aladdin to give its live-action remake a pass or mince words about how embarrassing it is, especially since it’s been so crassly perpetrated by Walt Disney Studios itself.
Not only is this belabored rehash a vulgar cash-grab that shamelessly capitalizes on the love for an enduring classic, but this Aladdin should stand as a notorious case study of what happens when shareholder pocketbooks drive creative decisions.
I use the term “creative” rather loosely as there’s nothing creative here. Yes, it’s longer than the 1992 version by 30-plus minutes, which means there’s some newly contrived content and more plot-threads padded in (most notably for Genie and, separately, Jasmine), but those additions are bland. Jasmine aside, whose character has the most welcome changes and growth, this mostly recognizable plot is an insipid carbon copy.
Aladdin is rife with shocking, problematic dichotomies. It’s full of energy yet completely lifeless. Design elements pop but its aesthetic lacks style. There are songs but this never feels like a musical. Digital effects are everywhere yet there’s no movie magic. Worst of all, Aladdin leans heavily into nostalgia without ever evoking it, thus failing at its whole raison d’etre.
Director Guy Ritchie, while known for kinetic actioners like Sherlock Holmes and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, always seemed like a bizarre choice for a Disney musical-romance, even one with such big action set pieces like this one. The end result is as wildly off as you’d expect.
Honestly one wonders, creatively speaking, how much of this movie is even his. Aside from one of his signature “slo-mo ramp inserts,” nothing here is recognizably Ritchie – or anyone else, for that matter. The whole thing plays like a checklist of studio-mandated banality.
Oh, where to start? The buff, ab-shredded, digitally gauche Genie may be the most obvious, but the best (or worst?) example is Jafar. Aside from his Arab ethnicity, Marwan Kenzari is as dull as one could imagine for such an iconic baddie. Little more than a spiteful political schemer with a sorcerer’s staff, Kenzari lacks the character-rich villainy that makes Jafar deliciously formidable.
I appreciate the Middle Eastern casting, but tweaks to a non-white Spaniard like Javier Bardem or Antonio Banderas, or an Indian like Irfan Khan, would’ve made the compromise more than worth it.
Jafar’s bird sidekick Iago isn’t funny anymore, either (sans Gilbert Gottfried’s voice and personality), reduced to a parrot that simply parrots. At least Billy Magnussen’s royal Nordic suitor is effeminately cheeky.
Then, of course, there is Genie, a VFX ripoff of what Robin Williams created but without any of his gonzo charisma. It’s hard to slight Smith for the ill-conceived gaffe (if this is the best looking option they had, I’d be perversely intrigued to see the worst), especially since his best scenes are when he’s allowed to be his natural-looking self rather than burdened by the blue makeover.
Sure, maybe he’s just a magical “Hitch” with three wishes to grant, but letting the Fresh Prince do his thing rather than mimicking Robin’s singular mania at least works, by and large.
Mena Massoud is very well-cast as Aladdin, but Ritchie doesn’t know how to use him, especially when it comes to comedy. Moments that should be hilariously awkward are just, well, awkward (even when paired with Smith, who’s also handcuffed). Massoud fares better as a romantic lead, but even there Ritchie restrains him to flashing his pearly whites and gazing with his doe eyes.
The best character makeover goes to Jasmine. No longer simply waiting for Aladdin to sweep her off her feet, she’s given noble ambition and courageous self-agency to challenge the patriarchal traditions, but even that plays out through empowerment clichés.
The same could be said of the most prominent new song that she sings, “Speechless” (by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Oscar & Tony winners for La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen), which is little more than a forgettable American Idol ballad that feels pulled straight from Pasek and Paul’s reject pile for The Greatest Showman.
For the songs we know, they’re newly done with modern arrangements, but that comes off more like pandering than reimagining.
Part theme park stage show, part video game, and barely a movie, with a broad tweeny tone more suited for the Freeform demo, there’s a lot going on in the new Aladdin; problem is, none of it gels or comes together.
One hopes that director Jon Favreau will do better by The Lion King in a couple of months but, even with that possible rebound, the live-action Aladdin feels like a betrayal of the Disney legacy.