I was not convinced.
When it was first announced, I didn’t think that Guy Ritchie was the right choice to helm Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin. Not to say that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. can’t make a good movie, but he faces an uphill battle by not only exiting his action genre comfort zone and directing a children’s musical, but one that had to establish itself beyond the cash-grab characteristics of the material. The trailers weren’t doing the film any favours either. Entering into the cave of wonders, you were introduced to a very blue Will Smith. I’ll get to him in a bit.
After the internet turned its attention to the next blue abomination, the sand began to settle and the discussion arose as to whether Aladdin might actually be good. At a minimum, it could deliver on those delicious and profitable feelings of nostalgia some have for the original 1992 film and at the most, it could deliver unto audiences a completely new and fresh retelling of the story. It does neither.
Aladdin (played by Mena Massoud) is a cunning and agile street rat living with his pet monkey Abu in the expansive Arabian kingdom of Agrabah. One fateful day, he is presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), Grand Visier and advisor to the Sultan. The task is simple: Journey into the cave of wonders and retrieve a supposedly ordinary lamp. Things quickly go sideways and upon rubbing said lamp, Aladdin meets the Genie of the Lamp (Will Smith in all his blueness). The Genie promises to grant Aladdin three wishes, which Aladdin sees as his chance to impress the Sultan’s daughter, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). But not all is smooth sailing as Aladdin learns some hard truths about being true to oneself, while Jafar schemes to get his hands on the lamp in order to ascend to total power and might.
The irony of Aladdin 2019 is that the element that people have the most concern about going in, turns out to be the most consistent and successful parts of the film. Will Smith was never going to one-up Robin Williams. The standards as set combined with the more expressive medium of animation would never allow for that. Knowing this, Smith sets out to be more like himself. It honestly felt like he was reprising his role as the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (the Prince is even made reference to in a joke), and that kind of energy pushed by Smith’s charisma makes for certainly not a superior Genie, but still an entertaining one. Even his CGI appearance is not that hard on the eye, and he undergoes more of an arc than he did in the original film. There is an air of romance around his character and before you go write that off as trite, know that it is played with complete sincerity and full of charm.
Another headline is the performance of Naomi Scott. Princess Jasmine was a great character to begin with. She’s an ambitious go-getter, with a drive to undercut the traditions that have governed Agrabah for generations. Any attraction harboured for Aladdin is secondary to the goal of being recognised as a leader and standing up for oneself.
There is clear passion in Scott’s acting. She has presence and while the writing is choppy, the motivations are there and subsequent audience sympathy. Backing this up is the new, additional music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land), who composed it alongside the original film’s composer, Alan Menken. Menken’s revised orchestrations are excellent. The opening number sets up an epic atmosphere around Agrabah that I was not prepared for, and Smith’s rendition of “Friend Like Me” really reflects the subtle extravagances of the Genie.
But on all other fronts, Aladdin is clumsy. Possibly the most expensive and ambitious pantomime ever shown in a cinema, it fails to conjure up a reason to exist beyond the original animated outing. The cinematography is very colourful, but Guy Ritchie is clearly uncertain on how to block his actors when in the musical spotlight. The choreography of the musical numbers fail both ways in giving the characters too little or too much to do. Mena Massoud is having to accentuate lines while busy being One Jump Ahead of the law, something which was much more easily achieved via animation, and Scott is anything but Speechless (I enjoy my puns) as she paces back and forth along the same terrace. The cinematography is a mixed bag. It is very colourful, and there are moments when the music characterises the vastness and majesty of the desert, but Aladdin and Princess Jasmine’s journey on the magic carpet is brought down to Earth by a lack of weight. You cannot experience a whole new world when it looks completely flat and fake. A problem that the rest of the production suffers from is the overall cleanliness and sense that it is all one big stage. It may be a musical, but it still needs to feel authentic.
The writing also doesn’t do anyone any favours. The biggest casualty of this is Jafar, who has gone from a downright sinister villain to just another power-hungry opportunist. Marwan Kenzari does not deliver a wide range of expression, and the fact that he is saddled with obnoxious CGI rendering Iago the parrot does not help. Mena Massoud is also very derivative, having much better chemistry with the Genie than Princess Jasmine. All this is in a film that tries too hard to mimic its animated counterpart.
In the grand and growing pantheon of live-action Disney remakes, Aladdin tows the line more like Beauty and the Beast and less like the modified stories of Dumbo and The Jungle Book. But what it makes up for in its faithfulness to the original is lost in an uneasy and faulted execution. Ill writing and underplayed acting are the elements holding back what would have been a colourful retelling of Aladdin and his adventure, supported by a very likeable Genie. I applaud Will Smith for his performance and his interpretation but anything otherwise, it is a wish wasted.