Aladdin | Guy Ritchie | May 24, 2019
Disney has been on a roll with live-action remakes of their animated classics, mining their vault for properties since the early 2010s – starting with the fairytale classics (Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast) and continuing with more fantasy/fable tales (The Jungle Book, Christopher Robin, and this year’s Dumbo). Now, Disney has returned to their 1990s properties (following 2017’s Beauty and the Beast) with a remake of Aladdin from – of all people – Guy Ritchie.
Aladdin follows the eponymous street urchin and pickpocket (Mena Massoud) and his CG monkey Abu in the fictional vaguely Middle Eastern city of Agrabah. After a chance encounter with the disguised Princess Jasmine (Power Rangers’ Naomi Scott), Aladdin is smitten and awkwardly tries to court her, but he’s captured by the Sultan’s (Navid Negahban) scheming vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) to aid in the retrieval of a lamp – containing the Genie (Will Smith) – from the Cave of Wonders. Needless to say, if you saw the 1992 original film, you know where the film goes from there.
Much like the other Disney remakes – which mostly scream of nostalgic cash grabs with minor progressive updates – Ritchie’s Aladdin does little new with the original source material. There’s some variation from Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio’s original script, as John August and Guy Ritchie made some updates, but there are verbatim portions that aren’t so much shout-outs as they are carbon-copied. Jasmine, thankfully, gets more to do, but most of that is somewhat fruitless rebelling against the patriarchy and class system in Agrabah. In addition to Jasmine’s expanded role, there’s an added half an hour, most of which is awkward moments and new minor characters – Game Night‘s Billy Magnussen as Prince Anders of Skanland, Nasim Pedrad as Jasmine’s handmaid Dalia, and Human Acar as head palace guard Hakim. Unfortunately, these new characters and minor plot points do little to help move the film along, which makes the film feel closer to its 2-hour-plus run time than the roughly 90-minute animated run time.
In a similar vein as the script, returning composer Alan Menken’s score didn’t particularly stand out, and the songs throughout the film (including Jasmine’s new song “Speechless”, written by Dear Evan Hansen & La La Land’s Pasek and Paul) tend to hit the right notes – but thanks to some Autotuning. And that’s including Will Smith’s takes on “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”. The musical numbers themselves (including a dance sequence around the mid-point of the film) are lively, but don’t quite match the tempo or animated energy of the original. Additionally, the three aforementioned musical numbers look very Bollywood-lite and feel a little too modern or anachronistic for the roughly pre-1000 CE time period. And that’s not to mention the Will Smith and DJ Khaled cover of “Friend Like Me” over the end credits.
Apart from these overarching technical elements, Aladdin lacks Guy Ritchie hallmarks and overcompensates with CGI spectacles. Guy Ritchie is known for British gangster-y films that use slow-motion here and there, but the few slightly slow-motion moments in Aladdin – including in “One Jump Ahead” – left me questioning their necessity. As for the CGI, none of the creatures – primarily Abu, Jasmine’s tiger Rajah, and Iago (voiced this time by Alan Tudyk) – or the Genie ever had me convinced they were real. For a film that relies on a heavily CGI Genie at least half the time he’s on-screen, Smith’s CGI’d face rarely passes the Uncanny Valley test. It just looks … off.
Having seen a few of these live-action remakes (Alice, Beauty, and now Aladdin), I still can’t begin to see much of a reason for Disney to make them, outside of a nostalgic cash grab and brief win at the box office. While some of the earlier films did more to stand out from a production and set design standpoint, the more recent films seem more staged and by-the-numbers – maybe in part because of the Broadway adaptations. As mentioned above, the production value in Aladdin feels very Bollywood-lite – mostly the group musical numbers. This leaves an overall hollow feeling, much like parts of Dumbo. Is that to be expected from the rest of Disney’s 2019 live-action releases (the photo-realistic Lion King in July, the Maleficent sequel in October, and the Disney+ exclusive Lady and the Tramp in November? We’ll have to wait and see there.
All that said, Aladdin isn’t the most original Disney live-action adaptation and while I had my slightly cynical gripes, I’m coming to realize I might not be the target market for these Disney films. Sure, the nostalgia factor will draw in adults, but it’s for the kids. From the CG animals to the musical numbers, the film puts spectacle over substance – despite a bit of a drag halfway through the film – and all for the younger audience. The adults, meanwhile, will likely blanch at the rapping Genie moments and “DJ KHALED!” getting in the way of their nostalgia.