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.
Whether fans like it or not, Disney is seeking to remake their animated classics one nostalgia trip at a time – with an industrious efficiency which, unsurprisingly, has precluded much artistic triumph to date.
Unsurprising to few who engaged with its marketing, this live-action re-do of the beloved 1992 animated hit Aladdin is a fascinatingly wonky concoction, as cobbled together with indifferent graft by Guy Ritchie.
Ritchie, better known for his lower-budget, verbose, blokey-bloke crime capers, is far from a natural fit for material like this, especially compared to the fairly inspired roster of filmmakers the Mouse House has recruited for the likes of Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh), The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau) and even Dumbo (Tim Burton).
Hot off the critical and commercial dud King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, it’s tough to imagine what Disney saw in Ritchie which indicated him qualified to helm a mega-budget live-action translation of a cherished animated film. And with little shock at all, Ritchie’s distinctive filmmaking personality is almost entirely swallowed up here by the demands of the tentpole sausage factory.
Right from an opening sequence where Aladdin (Mena Massoud) cheekily robs a street vendor and acrobatically traverses Agrabah’s streets, Ritchie feels thoroughly out of his depth. Shots are crudely chopped together without much consideration for the basic grammar of action direction, making it tough to savour the hero effortlessly outwitting his pursuers. And on a broader level, there isn’t a single image in this movie which doesn’t feel like it was storyboarded by a committee of execs long before Ritchie even came aboard.
But don’t feel too bad for the filmmaker, as he not only helmed the joint but also served as its co-writer, a further baffling appointment and one he seems even less qualified for. You can perhaps acquiesce that Ritchie might be able to pen some witty rat-a-tat verbiage for the titular hero, but bringing clarity to all manner of fantasy nonsense? That’s not Ritchie’s bag at all, and he clearly struggles – even with the aid of Tim Burton’s regular scribe John August (Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie).
And honestly, it’s the script which fails both audiences and the game cast the most. While Ritchie and August ensure to cover the expected beats of the source material, the dialogue is almost exclusively comprised of clumsy exposition, denying viewers the opportunity to glean plot, subtext or characterisation through more subtle, visual means; everything is lit up in neon for the most base of audience members.
These droning, overbaked dialogues are largely responsible for Aladdin running past the two-hour mark, clocking almost 40 minutes longer than the original and outstaying its welcome for most of those minutes. Little effort is made to expand the story or characters in a meaningful way for the live-action medium, and so its runtime simply feels unnecessarily distended.
There is one major commendable amendment to the source material, however, and that’s the film’s notable female empowerment tenor. Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is rather feistier and more assertive than in the animation, oft-bemoaning her place as an object to be fawned over, and decrying a grossly patriarchal kingdom which can’t even entertain the possibility of her inheriting the title of Sultan from her father.
It won’t surprise many how this thread is resolved, but it was an open goal for Ritchie to make, and given how Renaissance-era Disney is far from perfect in the gender politics department, lending Jasmine greater agency is most welcome.
If there’s anything approaching consistency in this film, it’s found in the central performances – three-fourths of the quartet, anyway. Canadian up-and-comer Mena Massoud seamlessly captures the plucky cheekiness of the animated Aladdin, even if he’s ultimately outclassed by the effervescent Naomi Scott, who ably conveys the character’s simmering frustration while knocking the musical renditions out of the park. Her performance of the new song “Speechless”, a solo outing where Jasmine calls to be heard among the all-powerful boys’ club, is as close as Aladdin gets to being genuinely soul-stirring.
And yet, the easy show-stealer is Will Smith, who routinely bats off dodgy CGI and the limited script to make his Genie an unstoppable tidal wave of charisma. If audiences have scarcely seen this lively, fun-loving Smith in recent years, it’s certainly a fitting refresher course, and Smith seems to be loving just about every minute of it.
Rather than deign to imitate Robin Williams’ indelible portrayal of the character, he instead tailors it to his own personality, and while hardly supplanting Williams, Smith is nevertheless the ballast without which this film would ride enthusiastically into oblivion.
There’s little point defending Ritchie’s choice of villain, though, as Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is an affect-free, nasal bore to which charisma and charm both appear to be allergic. In straying from the moustache-twirling qualities of the animated baddie, this version leaves the film with a colossal void of personality; you know why the bad guy is doing the bad thing, but do you really care?
If Kenzari’s Jafar gives off the air of a vacuum-sealed pod person version of the cartoon equivalent, it only speaks to the film’s wider inability to recapture the vibrant magic of its inspiration. The third act, awash in blurry, repellent CGI, desperately ups the ante in an attempt to match the visual majesty of the animation, but because the effects so often resemble a Vaseline smear, it hasn’t got a hope in hell.
It goes without saying that a reverence for the original Aladdin will make this flabby new take a smoother ride, but even then, is this half-hearted approach really the best that Disney could put together? Save for an energetic Will Smith performance and some peppy tunes, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is a soulless, plastic-injected facsimile of the 1992 animated classic.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.