A film review by Craig J. Koban June 6, 2019

ALADDIN (2019) jj

2019, PG, 128 mins.

 

Mena Massoud as Aladdin  /  Naomi Scott as Jasmine  /  Will Smith as Genie  /  Marwan Kenzari as Jafar  /  Navid Negahban as The Sultan  /  Nasim Pedrad as Dalia  /  Billy Magnussen as Prince Anders  /  Alan Tudyk as Iago  /  Frank Welker as Abu (voice) / The Cave of Wonders (voice)

Directed by Guy Ritchie  /  Written by John August and Guy Ritchie

Contrary to what many people think, I don’t despise all Disney remakes of their past animated properties. I thought PETE’S DRAGON, for example, was an absolutely stupendous remake and one of the best family films of its year. And it legitimately improved and expanded upon its antecedent.   

But that also wasn’t a remake of a cherished/iconic classic that was adored by both critics and audiences. There’s a cynicism to Disney re-imgining their animated films into live action regurgitations, like the recent BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and now ALADDIN, because they’re all about soulless technique and regurgitating all the beats of past and far superior work for cash grab purposes.  Watching the original 1992 ALADDIN there was a sense of innocent and joyous discovery. There’s really none of that with the live action “upgrade”; it’s made without much creativity, wit, or sense of wonder. And that’s why I have a big problem with most of these Disney remakes.  ALADDIN has some moments of superficial visual splendor, but it’s an aggressively pedestrian and generic kind of needless remake without much of a genuine heart. That, and it pathetically feels like a high school musical with a budget in the hundreds of millions. 

There are very little - if any - embellishments made to the iconic original here, outside of a few minor changes here and there.  Providing a plot synopsis for this new version may seem unnecessary, but for the very few of you on this planet that have not see the '92 version, here's the deal:  The titular character (Mena Massoud) is a petty street thief in Agrabah, who one day has a chance encounter with the beautiful Princess Jasmine (POWER RANGERS' Naomi Scott), who journeys out into public in disguise so she can see how the commoners live.  When the smitten Aladdin tracks her back to her palace (and also to return one of her lifted bracelets), he learns that - gasp! - she's actually a princess that's being positioned by her father to marry the next suitable prince that comes her way.  Realizing that he doesn't have a proverbial chance in hell with her, seeing as he's a lowly peasant,  Aladdin feels dejected...that is until he meets Jafar (Marwan Kenzar), who uses the young lad to help him gain access to a secret Cave of Wonders to retrieve a magical lamp (granted, Jafar wants to use the powers of the lamp to release its genie to grant him world dominating powers).  Well, Aladdin manages to make it out of the cave with the lamp, but rubs it himself, which unleashes the all-powerful genie (Will Smith), who grants him three wishes.  Predictably, Aladdin ask to be made a prince (for obvious personal gain with Jasmine), but just when things look like they're about to go Aladdin's way the evil Jafar shows up and makes everyone's lives extremely miserable. 

 

 

As for the positives, I will say this: ALADDIN looks pretty spiffy and provides an ample amount of big screen scale and spectacle with introducing viewers to the live action world of Agrabah (the opening sections and introduction to the city are done with long and unbroken shots, signaling the arrival of Aladdin on the streets below, which is pretty nifty to watch).  Now, director Guy Ritchie is, at face value, a very odd choice to helm a family friendly film like this, especially a romantic musical to boot.  He acclimates himself reasonably well, but there are times when he seems a bit reticent as to how he's supposed to quarterback the film's multiple musical numbers.  There's some odd creative choices peaking through here and there, like a very distracting instance of Ritchie using sped up motion during one number (in this instance, the actors still weirdly sing at normal speed), which feels like it all doesn't match and hold together.  Ritchie doesn't seem to have faith enough in his performers to simply let his camera linger on them and let their vocal power sell the movie. 

And the song recreations range from mediocre to serviceable throughout.  Some of them - including "Prince Ali" and "Friend Like Me" - sound more like loose jam sessions than a full on effort.  Only "A Whole New World" feels like it contains anything approximating an energetic pulse.  One thing that's interesting to note is that the legendary and late Robin Williams - who famously voiced the genie in the original film, in one of the most beloved voice performances of all time - had no formal singing training when he accepted his gig, but his renditions of the songs felt uniquely his own.  When Will Smith - an actor and musician of bountiful street cred - belts out his versions of them they seem to lack personality.  When it comes to Smith's appearance in the film taking over a role that has become such a legendary part of Williams' career, comparisons between the pair seem inevitable.  Smith thankfully doesn't go for mimicking Williams, but rather infuses his own comedic flavor into the role and somehow miraculously makes the part feel newEven though he appears throughout the film alternating between human form and some highly questionable CGI as the blue skinned genie, Smith nevertheless seems equal to the Herculean challenge here and arguably might be one of the saving performance graces of ALADDIN redux. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the acting ensemble built around him barely make any sizable dents of lingering and lasting power.  As the main character, Massoud certainly is a handsome looking Aladdin and brings spunk to the role, but he's not especially a gifted singer, nor does he have much in the way of palpable chemistry with co-star Naomi Scott.  She, on the other hand, fares a bit better for not only being luminously photogenic, but also a decent vocal talent as well (Jasmine is also granted a new song in the film titled "Speechless" that attempts to rework this princess into a figure of female empowerment, which is a nice touch, but really isn't embellished much elsewhere).  The real issue, though, between herself and Massoud is that they simply don't make a pair of authentic lovers-to-be.  Even worse is the hopeless miscasting of Kenzari as Jafar, who never once comes off as legitimately terrifying villain and is frankly to understated in his performance to leave any mark.   

One of the main reasons for embarking on any remake of a film is to not only pay homage to what came before, but to also provide some fresh new takes on the material that will appease old fans and allure new ones in as well.  But, dear Lord, ALADDIN plays things so achingly safe when it comes to appropriating the '92 film beat for beat and rarely ever takes any chances with the material.  ALADDIN feels like a photocopy of an image versus an innovatively revitalizing interpretation of said image, which leads to an overall sensation of creative lethargy and flatness to the whole production.  The film employs a decent marriage of live action of sometimes good, sometimes not so good CGI to recreate the animated film of yesteryear, but all throughout watching it I felt like I was constantly asking myself whether there was really anything in the original ALADDIN that required improvement upon with a massive $200 million budget with actual actors and actual locations?  The visual dynamism and unending charm of the animation of old gives the film its sense of timeless vitality; there's so very little here that inspires similar vibes.   

ALADDIN also clocks in at over two hours, which also feels prohibitively wasteful (the original was a smooth sailing and brisk 38 minutes shorter, and the needless bloat here really shows).  It's bizarre how Ritchie and company essentially tell the same basic story of what came before - including the same song numbers - and pad the length here to watch checking levels.  But a semi-endurance testing running time is not the fundamental and unforgivable issue here.  The film's biggest sin is that Disney is just dryly preying upon fan's nostalgia for the original and, in realizing that they already have a built-in audience for their animated properties, are going back to well to serve up families discarded leftovers instead of offering up new cuisines.  I use this food analogy a lot when describing these live action remakes, but it perfectly embellishes what's wrong with them.  There's ample money and star power on screen in this new ALADDIN, and it's a technically proficient remake, but there's an alarming lack of tangible magic and wit here as well, something that not even the genie himself could bestow upon this redundant enterprise. 

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