At this point we’re just going to have to get used to the idea that these live-action Disney remakes exist and process them as movies apart from some kind of trend or phenomenon. No one wants every review to open with some kind of treatise on the nature of pop-culture, nostalgia, and diminishing returns. Disney is in the business of keeping brands popular and relevant so they can continue merchandising them and this is just another way to do that in the same way as making toys, clothes, games, rides, hotels and sequels. That’s all there is to their strategy.
There latest remake is Aladdin which, unlike the remake of Dumbo released in March, is one of the Disney Classics people generally remember the plot and more than two songs from. There’s very little chance anyone going into this won’t know how everything will play out and the writers don’t pretend otherwise. Styled largely in the stagebound, deliberately artificial, sing-to-the-camera aesthetics of over-the-top Bollywood dance musicals and pop jukebox karaoke sing-offs like Mamma Mia!, Aladdin dashes madly from set piece to set piece with each bit barely held together by brief quiet moments where the characters might as well just turn to the audience and say “That was fun, right? Okay, now let’s get to the next Big Thing we’re either recreating from the original or the next Big Thing we’ve changed because we’re acknowledging it doesn’t really work anymore!”
There actually turns out to be more of the second than you’d think. There’s been a lot written about how the “Remake Cycle” has served a secondary function of letting The Mouse take a mulligan on addressing both the nitpicky narrative issues and thornier social/political problems of their originals in the wake of YouTube nostalgia reviews becoming so wildly popular with Millennials. Given that the original Aladdin famously had jokes made at the expense of Arab and Middle Eastern culture edited out just a year after it’s 1992 release, there’s quite a bit getting toyed with here including depictions of the supporting cast, song lyrics, and a general approach to presentation.
The story is still basically the same. Evil wizard Jafar needs Aladdin, a common street criminal with a heart of gold, to get a magic lamp from a cave so he can take over the city of Agrabah. Aladdin agrees to the plan in hopes of securing the fortune and fame he thinks he needs to impress strong-willed princess Jasmine. Instead he meets a wisecracking wish-granting Genie who helps disguise him as a wealthy suitor. There’s palace intrigue, a magic carpet, a just be yourself message. Look we’ve all seen Aladdin.
The main storyline shake ups involve the palace intrigue business, fleshing out what exactly all the fighting is about and giving Jafar some cursory backstory and motivation beyond just being evil. In this case, he’s an ambitious former thief in his own right who wants to be Sultan so he can remake Agrabah from a peaceful trade kingdom into an aggressive military power with strong borders (SUBTLE!!!). Instead of being angry at being forced to marry because that sounds crummy, Princess Jasmine is mad because doesn’t care about getting married. She’s a politically-minded reformer who wants to ascend to the role of Sultan herself and is obviously the most qualified person in the court to do so, but can’t because of the nation’s sexist traditions. It seems like every remotely politically themed movie subplot will continue to be about the 2016 U.S. presidential election. You might as well get used to it.
This means that the stretch of story where Aladdin is hanging around the court pretending to be Prince Ali is the most changed in this remake. Really it’s the best part of the movie precisely because everyone involved is being more or less allowed to do their own thing and make a new movie instead of bending into the shape of an earlier one. This is especially true for Will Smith’s Genie who is probably the best character in the film when he’s actually allowed to do something original.
The thankfully small number of bits where he’s asked to recreate the rapid-fire sight-gag comedy of the late Robin Williams’ cartoon Genie are about as ill-advised as many had feared. But when Smith is allowed to play a Genie HIS way, as a magical, put-upon but wisecracking life coach, he’s a really terrific character. That’s possibly because he’s just kind of playing the title character from Hitch again and it reminds you how weird it is that they never did a sequel to that film. Either way, the too-brief stretch in the middle where the film turns into a wholly different thing from the original — a kind of a four-way romantic-comedy between Aladdin, Jasmine, Genie and Jasmine’s handmaiden — is easily the most charming part of the script.
Otherwise, the film fails to stand out. Mena Massoud is a particularly bland and forgettable Aladdin while Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is interestingly conceived on the page but never comes off particularly menacing or intimidating. Guy Ritchie’s direction is more restrained and anti-frenetic than ever. It feels like they might have strapped giant weights to all of his cameras or pumped him full of melatonin before each shoot.
The standout apart from Smith is Naomi Scott, whose turn as Jasmine is probably the walking definition of a breakout star-making role. An astonishing beauty and a hell of a singer, she gets the requisite “new for the soundtrack” belter solo number in the vein of Frozen’s
“Let It Go.” With the reworked plot, Jasmine gets a bit more to do in a third act that surprisingly dials back on the animated version’s action in favor of a mostly dialogue-driven finish.
Aladdin is a pretty average film, existing more as a tribute to the original than as a movie in its own right. Since most people are just going to go to hear the songs and see sort of new variations on their favorite scenes, it will probably deliver. It’s unfortunate that you can see the makings of a different, more interesting movie almost breaking out. But at least it’s not Dumbo.