Directed by Guy Ritchie.
Starring Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Alan Tudyk, and Frank Welker.
A kindhearted street urchin and a power-hungry Grand Vizier vie for a magic lamp that has the power to make their deepest wishes come true.
As Aladdin disastrously tries to court Princess Jasmine, he turns to Genie and asks how he is doing. His response is “clumsy but charming”, and there is no more succinct description of this latest live-action Disney remake of Aladdin than those three words. It’s a story most of us have fallen in love with at some point in our lives, and one that younger generations will probably take a liking to whether it’s the beloved animated 1990s classic or this bloated and extravagant live-action version, simply because the core of the story remains true to itself. Even as a jaded and cynical viewer that sees no difference between Jafar and the industry conquering corporation itself (and someone that had a good laugh at the expense of the remake’s early trailers with unfinished CGI), it’s hard to bemoan a lesson in being yourself that features such beautiful songs and enriching looks at Arabic culture. It’s not necessarily nostalgia driving these live-action Disney remakes to be successful, but more so the simplicity of retelling a proven story. Dumbo tried to do its own thing by being a sequel for the most part, which could be why it underperformed.
Although, there is the fact that the more iconic of a film being remade, the harder it is to get right the aspects that launched it permanently into the pop-culture zeitgeist. Will Smith has impossible shoes to fill trying to capture the irreverent energy and zaniness of Robin Williams, and obviously, he falls short, but in all fairness when he is allowed to essentially be a Will Smith Genie instead of leaning into mimicry, it works. For a while, there is uncertainty about the whole performance (it doesn’t help that Disney’s idea is to throw as many visuals as they possibly can on the screen and pat themselves on the back like it’s creatively intelligent), doubly so considering there isn’t much chemistry between Will Smith and Mena Massoud’s Aladdin (his acting is definitely spotty and lacks the required emotion to deeply draw viewers in) but there comes a point where it feels like director Guy Ritchie used one of his three wishes on magically creating a bond for his actors.
When Aladdin is falsely presenting himself as an Arabian Prince, subsequently crashing and burning his attempts at flirting, the resulting back and forth banter between him and Genie generates laughs. Will Smith is allowed to crack jokes that put Aladdin down, riff on the entire deceitful endeavor, and also loosen up the unnecessarily serious mood. It just takes nearly an hour to get there, which is both frustrating and somewhat admirable. There is undeniable effort to flesh out Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) as a character; not only is she given her own song to perform (at two different intervals in the film), there is an empowering journey of her trying to prove her worth as becoming the next sultan of Agrabah and assert her voice surrounded by men as one vital to listen to. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Jafar is now a Trumpian figure that wants to invade all other lands. That’s all fine (even if a few of the same exact plot beats don’t quite work in live-action and kind of make Jasmine appear dumb more than anything) but the filmmakers also can’t help but turning as many scenarios as they can into something superfluously bombastic.
Take the acquiring of the magic lamp, which for some reason needs to extend the collapsing cave by minutes without ever coming across as anything but a shallow and self-indulgent excuse to satisfy audiences with digital effects. Then there’s Genie himself, who has been given an additional subplot regarding his human life that does not need to be here, but I’m guessing that’s what it takes to get a somewhat bankable star like Will Smith on board for the project. Aladdin begins and ends with Genie. A 90 minute animated film has been stretched to over two hours and that length is felt during the final act, which again, takes its sweet time overall going through set piece after set piece as it introduces new characters (someone apparently said “how about a love interest for Genie while we are at it”) and further defines existing ones. Billy Magnussen also disorientingly shows up as a prince vying for Jasmine’s affection, and he scores a few laughs, but it’s all too much piling on a narrative that doesn’t need it and already stands tall as is.
A director such as Guy Ritchie known for frenetic pacing and zippy editing seems like a surefire choice for a musical involving parkour, sorcery, genies constantly materializing objects into existence for telling jokes, and colorful dance choreography, but much of Aladdin falls flat. The wardrobes are fine and aesthetically pleasing but the colors never truly radiate, the song and dance numbers start off slow before admittedly finishing strong with energetic showmanship and quick-cutting camera movements alongside acrobatic feats, and the sequences of parkour are far too brief to register as exhilarating. If it weren’t for the song lyrics or serviceable performances (and in some cases the aerial views capturing some of these gorgeous views), all of it would be a dud.
This is a bumpy magic carpet ride that goes on many detours; the live-action remake of Aladdin does successfully update the themes of the story to fit a feminist perspective, but also comes at the expense of needlessly adding even more to the story and filtering the excitement through the lens of every other blockbuster out there. It’s not distinct, there is no whole new world here, it’s Aladdin reimagined pretty much the exact way you expect Disney would do so in 2019. For whatever reason, I still never wanted to get off that magic carpet ride; it’s suitably entertaining and inoffensively fun with catchy tunes and the occasional striking visual.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com