‘Aladdin’ Review: The magic has run out

Aladdin
Disney
 
 

So far, in this current cycle of Disney maximizing our nostalgia for the movies of our childhoods by producing live-action remakes of them, there have been two kinds of adaptations released. One is a director-oriented retelling of a classic animated film, perhaps stripped of a few essential elements or updated in some fashion: think David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon or Tim Burton’s Dumbo, which bore the mark of their craftsmen, even if they were, ultimately, a corporate product. These often do poorly at the box office, and are a risk critically, as Dumbo showed off (I, for, the record, liked that movie). The other is the slavish adaptation, where animated films aren’t so much remade for the screen but rather translated to the third dimension, shot-by-shot. Though there might be some sort of artistry going on there — just look at what Jon Favreau’s done with The Jungle Book and the upcoming Lion King remake — there’s a profit-based incentive in keeping things close to the original. Just look at how much money Beauty and the Beast made a few years back: People do, for whatever reason, want to see their childhood favorites given new life.

The supposed bridge between these two worlds looked to be Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, which would boast a number of the director’s hallmarks — a non-linear story, heavy action — alongside the musical aspects of the original. Those hoping for Ritchie’s stamp to be affixed prominently to the film will be disappointed, to say the very least. And those excited to simply relive their childhood for a few hours will be quite happy with the Aladdin that they’ve received on screen.

This remake of the 1992 animated classic can’t even vaguely live up to the original, and wasn’t intended to do so. It is the cinematic equivalent of shutting up and playing the hits, and what new aspects are brought to the film by Ritchie’s involvement either make the film excruciatingly longer than it needs to be or barely make much of an impression. Some sand off the more problematic elements of the original movie, which is honestly for the best, but for this film, which contains a plot so universally recognizable at this point that one could do a Grant Morrison eight-word summary of it — Street Rat (Mena Massoud), Kindly Princess (Naomi Scott), Evil Sorcerer (Marwan Kenzari), Magic Lamp — to not really innovate in any meaningful way is shameful. It’s a damn shame to see Ritchie go from something like King Arthur to this, as it felt, at least, that he gave a shit there. Here, he is hidden behind a wall of producers, all making their own choices and removing him from the process. 

Yet it’s not all a wash. Massoud’s performance as Aladdin nearly offers a non-cynical justification for this film’s existence; it’s hard to believe that Disney didn’t jump at the chance to cast him from the get-go, instead choosing to sit on their hands through another month of stalled-out pre-production. He is essentially the celluloid bandit made flesh, and he captures the ideal form of the character with ample charm, grace and a winning smile. Scott is good, especially when feeding off of Massoud’s infectious energy, but she’s saddled with the film’s worst musical number, a new ditty called “Speechless” composed by the La La Land scribes alongside original composer Alan Mencken, which feels astonishingly out of place and overwritten, even for a show tune. Her handmaiden, as played by former SNL cast member Nasim Pedrad, gets most of her solid laugh-lines, and it feels that, were it not for the film’s desire to acknowledge the animated movie’s original ending, she perhaps could have been incorporated to Jasmine’s character and allowed Scott to really show off her comedic talents. But they’re not bad, together, honestly. 

However, things start getting rougher as you go further down the cast list. Jafar, as played by Kenzari, may be one of the least intimidating Disney villains in recent memory, and his anemic performance can’t rise up to the task of selling the film’s third act. Kenzari seems both bored and constrained by the role, and he just can’t compete with the child-terrifying Rasputin-like presence the evil sorcerer was in the original film (this might be related to that whole “sanding off the problematic edges” thing, however). Even worse, the normally-dependable Billy Magnussan shows up for two scenes as a comic relief suitor for Jasmine and flounders around for a scene or two in need of some sort of direction or guidance beyond his awful attempts at a pan-European accent. And, finally, we get to the character you’re all waiting to hear about: Iago, the talking Parrot, as played by Rogue One and Serenity stalwart Alan Tudyk. He’s no Gottfried, and you’ve got to think enough time has passed for that comic actor’s sins to have been forgiven. 

Oh, you wanted me to talk about the blue guy! Well, Will “Big Chungus” Smith, playing the Genie, is about as miscast as you can possibly get in a movie. For one, his singing isn’t great — I honestly wish they’d just leaned in and let The Fresh Prince drop bars like bombs all over this motherfucker. But, in some way, it’s easy to see why they cast him, aside from the “last bankable movie star” thing, given the changes made to the narrative. You see, Genie’s here to also give Aladdin advice about his love life in addition to fulfilling all of those wishes, which makes this the worst of all possible Hitch remakes. I’m kind of joking when I say that, but it made me kind of wish that this had been pushed further in the romantic comedy direction, as Smith and Massoud generally have a good chemistry when both human. But that’s the problem with the Fresh Prince’s casting, and even the approach that Ritchie took in adapting this film for the third dimension: the effects work done to bring the Blue Genie to life aren’t that great.

Smith just isn’t a good replacement for Robin Williams, whose ability to improv and improve his given lines was unparalleled, and the filmmakers didn’t have to worry about a perceived “uncanny valley” for their character to fall in, given that in no way did the Genie resemble a real human being. What you saw in that first trailer is, in fact, what you get on screen, and it’s just as weird to look at when blown up to IMAX, and it just looks bad, especially when a number like “Friend Like Me” depends on the effect to work and constantly amaze. It’s another poor translation of an animated film’s style to the compliment the live-action approach, much like the servants in Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast.

That visual unpleasantness informs almost every second of Aladdin, of which Guy Ritchie’s signature style is present for about 180. That’s right: there are about three minutes of this film where a filmgoer acquainted with Ritchie’s previous filmography might recognize his fingerprints. A few are the large CGI-heavy action sequences that I imagine Ritchie included from his original pitch for the film (one can almost see the pre-viz paintings done as test concepts), and others are based in shot selection. But on the whole, it’s mainly a bore. Viewers who previously complained about the bland cinematography in recent films like Dumbo or in any Marvel movie will have a field day with this one, as the style and CGI buries what must have been a massive effort on Ritchie’s part to evoke both the classic Hollywood musical and a Bollywood delight. This is no more evidant than in the film’s supposed signature number, where hundreds of dancing extras in clad bright garb, assembled for a showstopper like “Prince Ali,” are pushed off the screen by computer generated monkeys and emus running through the parade route. The dance sequences aren’t terribly choreographed, and they’re properly filmed, but they’re boring: you can almost hear the director let out a yawn when the performers get to work. 

But regardless of what the movie gets wrong or right, this new Aladdin is still kind of a pointless and ephemeral cultural object. Let’s engage in a brief thought experiment here: there’s probably a 90-minute cut of this somewhere in the Disney Vault, one that maintains the original film’s storytelling economy but preserves this version’s necessary touch-ups. It would be, perhaps, significantly less of an arduous watch, as it’d be missing most of the 40-minutes of riff-filled padding that really kills Ritchie’s movie before it can even get started. Even then, no matter how fun or vibrant it might be, that ideal live-action version of the Aladdin tale wouldn’t be able to match the animated movie’s stylistic polish, problematic warts and all, so the question remains: why watch this when you could be watching that? Your older kids aren’t going to want to pull this slog-fest off of the DVD shelf or start it up on whatever streaming service it ends up on, and your younger children will inevitably gravitate towards something shorter and more suited to their interests. And you, perhaps an ‘80s or ‘90s child with fond memories of seeing Aladdin and Jasmine take to the skies atop their magic carpet: outside of the initial nostalgic rush of your childhood memories made flesh, how many of you will remember or rewatch it? There is no shelf-life meant for this film, and it will vanish from the cultural consciousness by the time that Godzilla crashes his way back on to screens next weekend. So why bother with it in the first place?