A STRANGE NEW WORLD
Shocker! The ‘Aladdin’ Remake Is Not Entirely Terrible
Disney’s live-action remake of ‘Aladdin’ is by no means a masterpiece. Even with Will Smith’s horrifying blue Genie hamming it up, it’s successful at what it is: A fun kids’ movie.
The greatest surprise about the new live-action Aladdin film is that it’s not a total disaster.
We’re not sure what three wishes director Guy Ritchie used to rescue a production that was smothered by a magic carpet of bad buzz, from whitewashing casting controversies to Disney fans collectively aghast at the first look of Will Smith as the film’s iconic blue Genie. (“It is pure nightmare fuel!”)
In fact, Aladdin may be the most peculiar—and daresay even the most successful—of the recent spate of Disney’s live-action remakes.
It doesn’t have the casting genius of Cinderella, and comes nowhere close to approaching the production standard set by Beauty and the Beast, the technical wizardry of The Jungle Book, or the artistic reinterpretation of Dumbo.
But while we just listed the greatest attributes of each of those films, none seemed to justify their own existence with a reason beyond “gonna be a huge box office hit.” Like measles and impeachment, it seems like each generation is now also doomed to weather a new blatant cash-grab by the House of Mouse.
Aladdin could have easily followed suit, a street rat of a movie with no aim outside of stealing money from our pockets. Instead, it’s maybe the first of these remakes to seem to have an understanding of its audience and a clear vision of how to appeal to them. It’s for the children!
Admittedly, it’s unclear whether this was Ritchie or Disney’s intention, but it’s the first of these movies to seem squarely aimed at kids today. It’s an interesting departure, as this entire remake trend presumably grew out of the commoditization of millennial nostalgia. If not exclusively concerned with pleasing the now-adults who grew up watching these animated films, they seemed at least aware that the demographic would flock to theaters to witness these star-studded reimaginations.
This Aladdin, however, seems more concerned with being a fun kids’ movie, appealing to young’uns with no connection to the 1992 animated classic.
There’s a latent cheesiness to this remake, from the garish costumes to the distracting soundstage sets, green screen set pieces, and Smith’s hammy performance as Genie. Speaking in terms of nostalgia, it seems like one of those Disney Channel original movies that have earned a subset of wistful fandom in their own right.
Especially when Ritchie employs one of his many, many (many) tracking shots, shooting around the ensemble in disorienting close-ups, there’s a bit of a “putting on a show” quality to it all, like live theater being filmed. Buoyed by the Disney budget, even that will likely dazzle young viewers as much as it might make older Aladdin purists cringe.
There’s no “Whole New World,” at least in movie terms, that we’re being whisked off to on a magic carpet here. But when Aladdin reaches out his hand and says “trust me,” go ahead and do it. The ride isn’t as bumpy as you might have braced yourself for it to be.
There are creative benefits but, as we’ve learned with these remakes, maybe more challenges to turning cartoon characters human. It grounds fanciful worlds full of imagination in a sobering, sometimes even buzzkill reality.
The difference is most glaring, of course, when you have the playfulness that comes with animating to Robin Williams’ vocal gymnastics as Genie in the animated musical—and then Will Smith clearly breaking a sweat trying to keep up with that legacy in a practical performance. Even when it comes to the universe we’re being transported to here, in this case the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, things that are whimsical when animated look bizarre when made practical.
Ritchie seems to be doing his best to shake things up a bit in that regard, reinterpreting the showstopper musical number “Prince Ali” as an elaborate, surprise reveal-filled RuPaul’s Drag Race finale performance and shooting other songs, like the vigorous “One Jump Ahead,” as if they were action movie sequences. It’s more of a sweet spot for Ritchie, whose resume veers more towards the Sherlock Holmes and Man From U.N.C.L.E. variety than musical fantasy romances. This in turn introduces an undersung talent of Aladdin’s: Who knew he was the original King of Parkour?
This Aladdin, perhaps more than any of the other recent Disney live-action films, adheres rather strictly to the animated film source material, which might explain why it’s so successful as a “kids’ movie.”
We meet Aladdin (Mena Massoud), an orphan turned extremely sexy petty thief (though cruelly outfitted with a shirt in this movie), who in turn meets Jasmine (Naomi Scott), a princess desperate to be in control of her own destiny but shackled by her father’s insistence that she marry a prince. After their electric meet-cute, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), a dastardly adviser to the Sultan, captures Aladdin and puts his thieving skills to use to steal a lamp from a magical cave. When the cave collapses on Aladdin, he rubs the lamp, a Genie pops out, and he spends his wishes on passing himself off as a prince worthy of marrying Jasmine.
I shouldn’t need to waste more word count explaining what happens next; this is Aladdin, people.
Ritchie’s version does deviate in some ways. Following the precedent set by Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, Jasmine is given more autonomy and ambition, in this case the desire to break gender tradition and be a ruler herself. It’s all played out in a new, “Let It Go”-like power ballad, “Speechless.” And in a head-scratcher of a plot addition, Genie is given a human love interest in a new character played by a very funny Nasim Pedrad, joining the equally funny addition of a ditzy prince played by Billy Magnussen.
But with the hallmarks of the story essentially the same, these live-action remakes leave little in the way of surprise. What you get, then, is new movie crushes (Massoud and Scott certainly fit that bill), movie stars letting loose on a Disney playground (Smith has a ball), and a look at what is and isn’t possible with current film technology. What you don’t get a lot of is wonder.
It’s sorely missed but, again, not to disastrous effect here.
Scott is a firecracker as Jasmine and will suitably inspire many young girls. Massoud, though disappointingly wooden in his acting, is so damn cute that you won’t entirely mind. The first flash of his dashing, dimpled smile is more of an “exclusively gay moment”—at least in terms of the sexual awakenings we predict to happen while watching this—than anything to do with that notorious proclamation made about the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast.
Then there’s the Genie. Robin Williams delivers a singular voice performance in the 1992 film, perhaps the greatest of all-time. How could Will Smith possibly live up to that?
Despite looking like that one weird, husky guy in the corner of the gym sauna who makes uncomfortable eye contact with you as you enter and leave—a baffling character styling that had fans utterly unsettled, bordering on horrified, when the first glimpses of the Genie were teased—Smith is not bad in the role. He lands his jokes and seems to be having a ball. Your enjoyment of his schtick directly correlates with how “fun” you think it is that there’s now beatboxing in “Friend Like Me.” I didn’t mind it!
The truth is that the animated musical Aladdin, for all the rose-colored nostalgia that surrounds it, drags longer than most of the other musicals Disney released during that heyday, and this live-action version drags even longer. Not helping matters is a confusingly drab and damp performance from Kenzari as Jafar, a character so outrageously villainous he veers on queer camp in the 1992 version. Here’s he’s such a muted snooze that it nearly drives the film to a total standstill at its dramatic final act.
Does any of this mean that Disney has finally figured out what it wants to do with these live-action remakes? If anything, Aladdin proves that it’s as confused as ever about the endeavor. Like the previous films, purists and diehards will hate-watch and nitpick. Those wanting a good time will be swept away by the music. And a new generation which has no nostalgic connection to the 1992 animated film will simply enjoy a goofy and fun kids’ movie.
Aladdin isn’t great, but it’s not a disaster. At this point, expecting anything more might just be wishful thinking.