Film Review – Aladdin (2019)
Disney’s shameless practice of remaking their classic animated films into cynical live action cash grabs continues with Aladdin (2019). Perhaps I’m being a little too facetious with that last sentence. There’s nothing inherently wrong with remakes, some of the greatest pictures ever made were redone from previous works. Heck, even some of Disney’s very own remakes were good, especially Cinderella (2015). But there’s something off putting in the way their recent ventures have done little to differentiate themselves – heavily relying on nostalgia to get people into the theater. It was problematic with Beauty and the Beast (2017), and the issue persists here.
You may asking, “Allen, why can’t you see this movie for what it is and not compare it to the animated film?” It’s hard to do so because the production compares itself. Director Guy Ritchie (who co-wrote the screenplay with John August) can’t help but lift plot points, character designs, jokes, and dialogue from the 1992 film and paste it here like a carbon copy. Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice’s Oscar-winning music also make a return. This isn’t like Shakespeare, where artists get to interpret Romeo & Juliet in their own unique way. This is a deliberate attempt by a studio to capture the same lightning in a bottle by pretty much doing the exact same thing.
For those who are unfamiliar: the story involves a kindhearted thief named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) who lives in the fictional city of Agrabah. The city is lead by a good but naïve Sultan (Navid Negahban). The Sultan’s grand vizier is Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), an evil man who lusts for power. Aladdin falls in love with the Sultan’s headstrong daughter – the princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) – when she sneaks away from the palace in disguise. Despite being in love with her, Aladdin believes the only way he can win her heart is to rise above his social standing and become a prince. Luckily for him, he comes into the possession of a magical lamp and a powerful Genie (Will Smith) who will grant him any three wishes he desires. Problem is, Jafar is aware of the Genie as well, and has his sights set on stealing the lamp from our hero.
In terms of production, Aladdin is a colorful place to visit. The set design and art direction render Agrabah with the vibrancy of a fantasy world. The sets have a façade that clearly looks like it was built on a stage, but that adds to the fantastical quality of the aesthetics. The costumes are beautiful – from the royal garb, sparkling dresses, to even Aladdin’s “street urchin” clothing. I am not familiar with the cultural elements that inspired the designs, but from an uneducated point of view they are all eye catching, jumping off the screen with bright, majestic colors. At the very least, Aladdin has some gorgeous visuals.
It’s when we dig deeper that the cracks start to show. The narrative unfolds without a lot of urgency or significance. From Aladdin trying to be true to himself, to Jasmine’s attempt to be her own person, to the danger of Jafar obtaining the lamp – the dramatic tension never really gets off the ground. It seems Ritchie and his team expects us to be familiar with this story. Instead of letting the plot breathe and develop naturally, the pacing bounces around from one point to another, without letting the scenes leave an impact. In an attempt to build Jasmine into a more dynamic character, she is given two new musical numbers that involve her standing up for herself. However, the scenes are placed awkwardly into the plot, shoehorned in such a way that it actually dilutes her agency instead of strengthening it. And speaking of new songs, a big omission was “Proud of Your Boy,” which was cut from the animated film but was a major addition to the Broadway show. Why are some songs added but this one was not?
What about the Genie? Promotional shots of Will Smith as the blue CGI character were met with mixed results. It’s strange to see a familiar face such as Smith’s transformed into a computer-generated blue giant. It’s a problematic look for someone so famous (the production seems aware of this, which is why Smith is portrayed mostly in human form). When it comes to performance, Smith gives it his all. Robin Williams’ portrayal in the previous film was so iconic that it would be impossible for anyone to match it. Smith does his best to bring his own personality to the role without trying to impersonate Williams’ comedic style. It doesn’t help that Smith is not a good singer, and thus songs like “Friend Like Me,” and “Prince Ali” are slowed down to hide his vocal shortcomings. He talks through much of the lyrics instead of belting them out melodically. On the flip side, Smith does provide a ton of screen presence and a fun-loving attitude, and that goes a long way toward making the Genie feel convincing.
Everything about Aladdin is “fine.” The performances are fine, the action and adventure are fine. The musical performances – including “A Whole New World” – are fine. But like most forgettable remakes, Aladdin comes up short in establishing its own identity. The production was so focused on making us remember the past that it did little to make the present memorable. While I’m sure families will go into this and come out satisfied, I can’t help but think: What was the point?