On the open seas with Will Smith on a boat, begins the newest entry in Disney’s pursuit to bring their classics to younger and more impressionable customers (you know, the four-foot ones with a fragile piggy banks). The film truncates the narrator, with Smith as a then unknown character, telling two small children about the story of Aladdin. From this point on, admirably, this 2019 re-telling will not be a beat-for-beat adaption of the 1992 animated film. Unfortunately, Guy Ritche’s Aladdin, meant as a darker and more female conscious re-tooling, is a tonally inoffensive mess bereft of any reason for its existence.
For the most part, the film does follow the same plot points as the previous incarnation: The street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) pines for the love of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott, who might be the best part of this film) and a better life. He unwittingly falls prey to a power hungry Vizier named Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), promising to retrieve a lamp containing a genie (Will Smith).
One way the film diverges and expands on the 1992 animated classic, is by adding a tragic backstory to Jafar and crafting a tale where Jasmine isn’t a prize to be woo’d, but someone who aspires to take over the title of Sultan from her father.
Frustratingly, Jafar’s backstory lacks commitment within John August and Ritchie’s screenplay. The villain could have truly been a multi-dimensional character, even tragic. Instead, he ultimately reverts to your standard baddy (much as Kenzari gives an enlivening and theatrical performance, though with less menace than the material might call for).
Jasmine’s motivations, on the other hand, might be the best part of the film. Like Jafar, the tragic backstory applied to her isn’t fully realized. In fact, there’s probably a better re-imagining where Aladdin occupies a supporting part while Jasmine wrestles with the roles of women within Agrabah in relation to her mother. Nevertheless, Scott’s Jasmine refreshingly updates the cliched Disney princess to resemble more of a Moana-type leader than solely a Little Mermaid-esque bride.
Massoud’s Aladdin might be the least important and engaging of the four main leads. While he displays charm and charisma, and that awkward aw-shucks of “Al,” the character’s pursuits of love with the princess and to believe himself appear quaint in comparison to Jasmine’s larger goals. Even while Massoud and Scott display a sincere chemistry, Aladdin teems with too many backstories and motivations to remain coherent and consistent in tone for either of its heroes.
The most controversial component of the new adaption: Will Smith’s genie — takes a while to get used to. He remains in his smurf-Blue form for 20% of the film (if that), and harnesses his strongest moments without the mo-capping. In fact, when Smith is just himself he’s playful, charming, and funny, and reminds you of what made him an unmistakable movie star not that long ago. When he’s not, the drab and out-of-scale mocap distracts from his best qualities.
Nevertheless, Smith isn’t much of a singer. While Robin Williams could fill a hall with his voice, and the songs do call for such grandiose performances especially if one listens to Howard Ashman’s original demos, Smith’s voice sounds reedy while straining to remain on key. Some of the songs would do well without him, specifically ‘Friend Like Me.’
In fact, the trouble with replicating the musical numbers from the 92′ telling of Aladdin comes in the form of scale. That film might be the most dynamic of the classic Disney cartoons, with a vastness begging for the spectacle attached to a genie’s magic.
The musical portions here very much suffer from Ritchie’s busy camera movements, and even some limitations of the medium. For instance, the ‘A Whole New World’ sequence looks hurried and messy. Ritchie doesn’t allow for the sequence to breathe, instead opting for flashy camera spins that lack heart.
Oddly, Ritchie conversely demonstrates suffocating restraint with regards to the ‘Prince Ali’ sequence. The camera remains mostly planted to the ground, when the number probably calls for a Classic Hollywood set filled with hundreds of extras, large set pieces, and more aerial shots. Instead, save for the final seconds, the filmmaking remains flat.
The only sequence, and probably the best, that might trump the animated telling occurs in the Cave of Wonders. A bit like a Pirates of the Caribbean set, sparkled with jewels and gold, Aladdin and Abu’s trip through molten lava on their magic carpet offers the type of dynamic and opulent Ritchie camera movement required to instill a sense of danger and adventure.
The newest and only addition to Aladdin‘s soundtrack comes in the form of the Scott sung and Alan Menken and Pasek & Paul written ‘Speechless.’ Meant as the center-piece of Jasmine’s pursuit to define her voice and independence, the song makes for a powerful message. However, the music invokes the same trap Mary Poppins Returns fell into of confusing loud and bombastic with good. An okay melody, wrapped with an overwhelming vocal, pale in comparison to the classic and more playful compositions surrounding ‘Speechless.’ In fact, ‘Speechless’ tonally feels like it’s from a completely different film.
While the production and costume designs by Gemma Jackson and Michael Wilkinson, respectively, with their use of gilded regalia and colorfulness represents more realistic imagining than the 1992 iteration, the sets and costumes still feel less dynamic. Most of the sets appear claustrophobic, probably owing more to Ritchie’s opulent camera movement. Still, the production design and costume teams did admirably take care to create a vibrant tableau representative of Moroccan and Middle Eastern culture.
Many of the supporting characters that provided some comic relief in the animated Aladdin lack any type of characterization here. While Raja is difficult to replicate for various and obvious reasons, Iago has as much personality as a pull-string doll. Instead of funny quips, he’s a standard parrot who repeats clear-cut observations. While Abu, quite frankly, looks ragged and scary and receives less screen time than if the film had been animated.
Luckily, to fill their voids, August and Ritchie’s script call for the new character Dalia (Nasim Pedrad). Pedrad very much steals the show as the handmaid to the princess, demonstrating adept comic timing while her character becomes wrapped in a more intriguing and endearing love story than Jasmine and Aladdin’s.
When Ritchie’s film hits on those playful beats from Pedrad and Smith, the film sings. Instead, Aladdin remains a tonal mess. The film never decides whether to morph into a dark fable, a slick buddy comedy, or an empowering statement on feminism. In the process, Aladdin pleases no one.
Much like the previous Disney live-action offerings of late, the film is tastelessly inoffensive. Just decent enough that your kids won’t be disappointed, but not good enough to immediately order the Blu-Ray for future viewings. Frustratingly, when Aladdin does end with a ‘Friend Like Me’ rap during a post-credit sequence, one wonders why Ritchie’s direction didn’t take advantage of this facet of Smith’s talent. Like the rest of his film, the promise of such risks disappear like the Cave of Wonders into the desert sand.
Image courtesy of Disney Studios