Starring Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad
Director Guy Ritchie is a peculiar choice to helm Disney’s live-action remake of the 1992 animated film “Aladdin.” Will Smith is an even more curious choice for the role of Genie, made iconic by the late Robin Williams. After dodging some initial controversy over Smith appearing in “blue-face,” Ritchie’s version, which runs about 40 minutes longer than the original, weaves in and out between elements that work and others that face-plant into the Arabian sand. The excitement for #hotjafar, after casting model turned actor Marwan Kenzari doesn’t pay off with his performance on screen. Other big screen newcomers Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott as Jasmine are more impressive. Nostalgia hits full force when they take that magic carpet ride together, new elements and songs are added but these live-action repeats continue to prove that they were better off with the original animated version.
An orphaned vagabond named Aladdin (Massoud) sings about his troubles while dodging vendors he’s robbed. He also gives to his fellow homeless on the street, which apparently excuses his crimes. He meets a young woman also trying to feed the poor, unaware that money pays for goods. Aladdin helps the young maiden out of a tight spot, enchanted by her beauty and kind heart. “You must be a handmaiden to the princess,” he guesses. Only discovering later she is Princess Jasmine (Scott) of Agraba. He also discovers a magic lamp in a dark cave thanks to the sultan’s prime minister Jafar (Kenzari), who covets the lamp’s power. Aladdin retrieves the lamp and ultimately discovers its power, a magic Genie (Smith) who grants him three wishes. However, all he can think about is getting back to Jasmine and being with her.
“Aladdin” too often toggles between ‘oh that’s different from the animated version’ and ‘please make it stop’.
It’s ironic the things you don’t notice watching these stories as a child. How nearly every Disney character is an orphan with no parents. How Aladdin is good despite the crimes he commits, but it’s fine because he shares what he steals with the poor. How you know Jafar is evil because he’s out past dark screaming into a cave shaped like a tiger. Ritchie’s screenplay isn’t without some embedded adult humor, especially involving washing Jasmine’s pet tiger who is referred to as a cat. Saturday Night Live star Pedrad lands many of the films earned comedy moments. It’s Will Smith desperately trying to separate himself from Robin Williams portrayal that comes off as too much. His performance is so big and robust it steals or at least depletes the importance of the title character. His singing and dancing aren’t atrocious, but also nothing to brag about. When he utters the word “fabulize,” he’s nearing the threshold of toleration.
“Aladdin” could have been worse, and as someone who has never supported these remakes, this film does rise above some of the more faithful adaptations putting a 21st-century spin on the 18th-century folk tale. This is especially obvious regarding Jasmine’s role. She is no damsel in distress. This Jasmine has an identity, motivation, and will not be rendered “Speechless.” Ritchie decided to create Agraba entirely from special effects instead of a location shoot. With a story that was already going to require so much artificiality, the lack of a real locale hurts the authenticity. Again, why not just leave it animated if you are not going to take us to a more believable world? “Aladdin” too often toggles between ‘oh that’s different from the animated version’ and ‘please make it stop’. Nitpicking occurs when cinema fails to fully engage the audience. Massoud’s shaved chest hair bumps are strikingly noticeable and distracting, is natural such a bad thing? Kenzari’s changing fingernail lengths are also bewildering. Ok, so Jafar wants long fingernails, he is evil, that works. Then he’s thrown out of the palace, his nails are shown short, normal. He gets back in the palace and they are long again.
Ritchie’s “Aladdin” is neither good or bad, it lands near the same middle ground as most of these live-action remakes.