Disney’s Aladdin; 2019; written by John August & Guy Richie based upon the 1992 film. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Starring Will Smith, Mena Massaud, Naomi Scott Marwan Kenzari. PG. 126 minutes.
Disney’s relentless onslaught of live-action (or photorealistic animation for Favreau’s fantastic Jungle Book) remakes continues with the Guy Richie (Snatch, Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels, the godawful King Arthur -review- of two years back) update of 1992’s Aladdin, originally directed by Disney animation stalwarts Ron Clements & John Musker (Moana, many others). As so far, and likely to mention for each of them, these redos have been a mixed bag, from the incredible work of Jungle Book, to the cloying Beauty and the Beast, to the awful Dumbo (review). In a slight change of pace, Aladdin itself is a mixed bag, wildly uneven. But not without its charms.
Disney first adapted the Arabian folk tale in 1992 in animated form, and followed it with two direct to video sequels: the truly terrible Return of Jafar and the pretty good albeit with bad animation Prince of Thieves. Between these was a TV show, but I don’t think I ever watched it. The basics of the plot are expanded from the 1992 take of the folk tale. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street rat thief diamond in the rough. He’s sent by villain Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) for a magic lamp. Unfortunately for the ambitious Jafar, Aladdin uses the lamp and its wild, wisecracking Genie (Will Smith) to attempt to win the heart of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Jasmine wants to break free from the limits placed upon her by the Sultan, to both see the world and be sultan herself – no prince needed. We’ll all seen the original (I’m surprised if you haven’t), and the rest generally follows that film, while making some changes along the way.
Where the film is the strongest is when it adds to the bones of 1992. The second act gives more time to grow Aladdin and Jasmine’s relationships through more than a single encounter – including a hilarious awkward arrival of Prince Ali at the palace (jams..). Jafar is given a little more backstory, not a great deal to be distracting, but enough. I will quote Les Miserables for a moment “I was once like you you; I am from the gutter too.” This Jafar is a little more down to earth; but as much as I miss cacklingly, mustache twirling Jafar, he might not have fit as well. In toning down Jafar, we lose an Iago with personality, although we do get Alan Tudyk for squawks and repetitions. Jasmine in particular is given more agency; her desires are more than just plot points to get to meet with Aladdin. An additional character of handmaiden Dahlia (SNL’s Nasim Pedrad) is added to give Jasmine someone to talk to privately that isn’t a tiger; allowing an expansion of her character, and allows Pedrad to steal the show. Pedrad’s expressive, hilarious, and colorful performance pulls the magic carpet from the feet of all the other performers. Pedrad and Will Smith’s Genie that is. It is an uphill task to play a character so beloved as Robin Williams’s Genie. For the most part he is able to separate himself from Williams and make the Genie his own and he does a fun, admirable job at it. He only falters when he is forced to directly step in Williams’s footsteps
Where it doesn’t quite work is when it hits the familiar “hey, here’s something you know!” bits. That first act is rough, and not a diamond in it, just rough. Lifted almost directly from the 1992 take, it comes off like a ABC Live production at best, or a Disneyland stage show at worst. It is forced and artificial. Mena Massaud’s Aladdin doesn’t help lift it above, but anchors into this level; he’s cornball and as out-of-place as the bad green-screen.. the distractedly bad green-screen. Took me straight out of several scenes in the palace and really kept me from enjoying “A Whole New World”. I admit it’s hard to make it seem real for two people on a floating carpet in a myriad of locations, but it crashed hard. The songs all crashed hard. Guy Ritchie’s direction isn’t suited for musical pacing and each time a song starts the energy dissipates. As great of a rapper and scene-stealing his performance of Genie may be, but Will Smith can’t sing sing Broadway-style. His flat voice made me wish for Emma Watson’s bad autotuning of Beauty and the Beast (I know I’m complaining about both ends of this spectrum). The added song where Jasmine Thanoses her way through the palace singing about personal freedom stops the movie dead in its tracks as it screams to be the new “Let It Go.”
Even at its best, 2019’s Aladdin never feels more than a blatant nostalgia cash-grab, barely breaking through the “hey, remember this?” vibe that I felt also sunk the Broadway stage version. Even the additions I liked have the feel of manufactured to jump around criticisms of the 1992 version, just done less obvious than the direct references of Beauty and the Beast. Aladdin is never truly able to elevate itself past its predecessor. But hey, it’s better than Dumbo.