The forced delivery of lethargic live-action Disney remakes continues with Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, the worst of a batch that has already gifted us forgettable, over-designed reimaginings of films like Beauty and The Beast. Sure, turning these films into live-action features makes good business sense for Disney, but these films have to answer the question of why they’re necessary when the animated originals were already good, the answer seems to be, “Well, they’re not really better, but they have expensive CGI and at least one new song.” It’s not the best starting point for a movie, and it’s seen clearly in Aladdin, a film that’s not a disaster, but also doesn’t make a solid case for its own existence. The songs have new arrangements that aren’t much, it’s thirty-eight minutes longer but little of its an improvement, and to put it simply, it just lacks the magic (no pun intended) that made the original become so beloved. It’s just Disney cashing in on its IP and hoping that you’ll buy a ticket to a brand you recognize and have nostalgia for rather than just staying home and watching the original animated version.
The major story beats remain the same: Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street thief who runs into Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) while she’s in disguise on the streets of Agrabah. When he tries to woo her, he’s captured by the wicked high-ranking leader Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) and in exchange for freedom and untold riches, Aladdin agrees to get a lamp from the mysterious Cave of Wonders for Jafar. When Jafar betrays him, Aladdin manages to get the lamp back where he then discovers it holds the Genie (Will Smith), who will grant him three wishes. Aladdin, knowing that Jasmine can only marry a prince, wishes to be a prince, but learns the value of simply being himself. The live-action version then tries to expand the story by having characters talk about their motivations like Jasmine wanting to be sultan but she can’t because its the law, and Jafar letting us all know he has an inferiority complex.
Naomi Scott & Mena Massoud in Aladdin
The first act of Aladdin is rushed, yet also seriously drags, to a point where even a song like “One Jump Ahead” doesn’t really have the punch it needs despite Aladdin doing parkour all over Agrabah. It isn’t until Aladdin meets up with the Genie that the movie finds its rhythm, and that rhythm is basically “What if Hitch from the movie Hitch could do magic?” Aladdin is a bumbling guy who’s not confident around the beautiful woman, and it takes his beleaguered, smooth-talking wingman to help him out. And this works surprisingly well and helps the live-action Aladdin get a personality of its own. Throughout this entire film what’s most surprising is how well the Genie is handled. Yes, the blue CGI version of the character is a bit of an eye-sore, that you soon get used to somewhat. He looks rubbery and uncanny, and ultimately cartoony in a way that’s not at all endearing. Which is a shame because the actual character of the Genie manages to do what I thought was practically impossible and give it a life outside of Robin Williams’ unforgettable vocal performance. The Genie in the animated movie is primetime Williams, and they’ve managed to harness that manic energy and let it flow through Smith so that he leaves his own stamp on the character. Making it turn out that while many were worried about the Genie in this remake, we should have actually been worried about everything surrounding him.
While Aladdin delivers a fresh take on the Genie, the rest of the movie isn’t so lucky. The performances from the rest are simply fine, with no one really standing out. Sometimes it even feels like you’re watching a more expensive Disney Channel movie where no one knows quite how to pitch their performance. It also doesn’t help that the world doesn’t feel lived-in at all, with the costumes consistently looking fresh out of the box even when someone’s either in the middle of the desert or living on the streets. Despite the energy director Guy Ritchie has brought to his past films, his Aladdin feels stifling and constrained, so that even when you have a big number like “Prince Ali” it comes off as small and cheap because of his framing. Which is like many of the songs, rather than lending luster to his version of the story (written by Ritchie and John August), only highlight its incoherence. “A Whole New World,” sung as Aladdin and Jasmine take a moonlit carpet ride above Agrabah and other picturesque locales, conveys neither the novelty of flight nor the wonder of discovery. The visuals are tired and perfunctory green-screen placeholders. One of the new songs, belted out with great conviction by Scott, is called “Speechless,” a ham-fisted attempt to paste some power-princess feminism into the film that feels almost condescending.
Will Smith in Aladdin
As the movie lurches into its third act, you can really feel how bloated the whole production has become. As we get to see laughably bad moments where characters argue over the loyalties of minor supporting character Hakim (Numan Acar), the Head Guard, which slows the picture to a crawl. For a movie that should be lively and whimsical as the Genie, that energy doesn’t really carry over to the rest of the picture, especially when Smith isn’t on screen. Through it all I understand the filmmakers don’t want to make a carbon copy of the animated features they’re remaking. But what’s unfortunate with Aladdin is that there are clear moments when they’ve found something new and then the film falls under the weight of over-explaining character motivations or trying to throw in additional elements that just don’t work. Aladdin serves its purpose of being an IP that Disney can easily sell, but it’s a film that’s a lacking creative endeavor, carrying very little of the magic the original harnessed and ultimately never proves it’s even necessary to exist.