‘Aladdin’ Review: A Live-Action Remake That Can’t Hold a Lamp to the Original
I can’t say for sure Will Smith’s Genie will give me nightmares. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. He just looks so ... weird, like the original Genie of Aladdin decided to try to win the Mr. Olympia contest. Why is the Genie so shredded? Why would a Genie have abs?!?
While I can’t answer the practicalities of that question, on a more abstract level it probably has to do with the issue at the core of most of Disney’s recent live-action remakes, which is that they have to translate the looks of characters who were never intended to appear in human form. And so it takes an act of cinematic Frankensteining to make it happen. As with any Frankenstein-y experiment, there are some risks — like, say, a Genie that looks like the love child of the Blue M&M and Lou Ferrigno’s Hulk. Or a monkey that looks like an actual monkey dressed in a little hat and vest. In animation, that somehow makes visual sense. In “live-action” (AKA realistic CGI) little Abu makes Aladdin seem like a vain goofball. What kind of person forces his pet monkey to dress like him?
It’s been a few years since I’ve seen the animated Aladdin. (I wanted to rewatch it before reviewing this new version, but Disney has used its phenomenal cosmic power to keep the movie out of print on DVD and Blu-Ray and to make it unavailable on legal streaming platforms.) In my memory, I seem to recall the film kicking into gear when the Genie shows up. The new Aladdin, directed by Guy Ritchie, is almost the opposite. The human leads are both exceedingly attractive, with flirty chemistry. Their costumes are beautiful, the colors are vibrant, and the songs (mostly from the original cartoon) are unforgettable. Then Jafar forces Aladdin to retrieve the magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders and the whole thing falls in on itself.
This is not Will Smith’s fault. He works his magical vapor trail of a butt off trying to replace Robin Williams, who gave possibly the greatest vocal performance in the history of animation in Disney’s first Aladdin. Smith sings. He dances. He raps. He breaks the fourth wall. He goes “Wooo!” and “ha-ha, ha-ha” like it’s the late ’90s again. He maybe tries a little too hard. The fun isn’t infectious so much as it is contractually mandated. And when he’s in his blue form — the Genie appears as a human when subterfuge is required — it’s hard to concentrate on anything but how unnatural he looks.
Although some plot points have been changed — including a few significant ones involving the Genie himself — the story remains basically the same. Lovable thief Aladdin (Mena Massoud) falls for beautiful Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), but she must marry a prince to satisfy the demands of her father, the Sultan of Agrabah (Navid Negahban). The Sultan’s scheming vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) blackmails Aladdin into swiping the magic lamp, but Aladdin uses it to turn himself into a prince instead. Assorted palace intrigues, love stories, and dance breaks ensue.
The dance breaks are often futzed with; either played faster or slower than the on-set performances, perhaps as a nod from Ritchie to his earlier action films like Sherlock Holmes. And none of this cast, with the possible exception of Scott, have the pipes to hold a lamp to their predecessors. (Scott’s reward for her superior singing voice is the film’s one new song, “Speechless,” which is a minor disaster.)
In addition to the newly swole Genie and the carefully attired Abu, there are also more naturalistic versions of Jasmine’s pet tiger Rajah and Jafar’s loyal bird Iago, who was previously a loudmouth with the voice of Gilbert Gottfried and now becomes a more standard-issue talking parrot. (IMDb tells me Alan Tudyk provided his voice, but you’d never know it from the film.) All of these characters had so much personality as cartoons. Rendering them in three dimensions robs them of that. There’s a kind of tyranny of realism at work in almost every scene. (Only Aladdin’s magic carpet maintains its charm, thanks to some fabulous character animation.) This Aladdin can’t be as big or as free as it wants to be, or once was.
Ritchie did at least assemble a likable cast. Massoud and Scott look the part, and they provide about as many sparks as a children’s film will allow. (The film might as wel be rated PG for mild wooing and brief glancing.) Nasim Pedrad has fun with a new character named Dalia, a handmaiden to Jasmine. And I chucked at the total lack of ambiguity around Jafar’s villainy. He even does one of those bad guy evil laughs where the camera pulls back to the ceiling while he cackles with unbridled, unholy glee. At least one character remained a cartoon, even in live-action.
But there’s still nothing that this Aladdin does better — or as well — as the original. Even the parts pulled directly from the 1992 Aladdin by Ron Clements and John Musker, like the songs, have lost something in translation. (The whole new world of “A Whole New World” now looks like a generic CGI city.) The nicest thing I can say about 2019’s Aladdin is in its best moments it reminded me of a movie I liked a lot as a kid.
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