REVIEW: “Aladdin” (2019)

mv5bmjq2odiymjy4mf5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzy4odi2nzm40._v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_I love Aladdin. It’s probably my favorite of the “Disney Renaissance films” and so, naturally, I’d be pretty hesitant about any new adaptation of it. The Broadway version mostly ended up working out, though I haven’t actually managed to see it – just heard the soundtrack and seem some of the officially released footage. It seems fun enough, but, for obvious reasons, it could never match the sheer energy found within the original animated tale. The same, it turns out, rings true for this live-action remake of Aladdin. The energy of the original isn’t there, nor is the creativity – of the Broadway version or of the original version. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not a good one either. Mostly, it’s just a boring rehash of a beloved classic with a few new twists thrown in in a lame attempt to make it seem more distinct. (Some spoilers ahead!)

Aladdin (written by John August and Guy Ritchie and directed by Guy Ritchie)
Aladdin (Mena Massoud), street rat, frees a genie (Will Smith) from a lamp, granting all of his wishes and transforming himself into a charming prince in order to marry a beautiful princess, Jasmin (Naomi Scott). But soon, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), an evil sorcerer, becomes hell-bent on securing the lamp for his own sinister purposes.

aladdin 01When you remake a movie as iconic as Aladdin, you have to walk a fine line. There are legions of people who adore the original animated film, so you don’t wanna risk changing too much and alienating them, but if you don’t change anything then what’s the point of remaking it in the first place? This is a problem this movie faces and it’s a problem it never manages to solve. On a plot level, it’s exactly the same as the original story. Aladdin finds a magic lamp and uses the Genie in order to get close to Princess Jasmine, culminating in the two of them having to stop Jafar from taking over the world. It’s basically the same story as the animated movie, just with an extra forty minutes of runtime – twenty of which could totally be cut. There are some little twists added here and there, most notably in regards to Jasmine’s characterization. She was always a bit of a proto-feminist in the context of the Disney princesses; her whole arc in the original film revolves around her refusal to be forced into a marriage. Here, that’s still part of it, but she also wants to be the first female sultan. It’s not a bad idea, necessarily, but it’s not executed all that well and is frequently completely forgotten about in the scenes where the film skews closer to the original and it also ends up essentially being her only characteristic, leaving her just as two dimensional as she was in the animated film. The other major change is giving Jasmine a handmaiden, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), and having that handmaiden be a love interest for Will Smith’s Genie. This actually works fairly well, though it does end up getting used as a big “shocking reveal” used to explain why the movie begins with a very human-looking Will Smith telling the story of Aladdin to his kids. It’s an obvious reveal that is apparent the moment the Genie displays any interest in Dalia. Plus, it ends up ruining the film’s framing sequence as it never returns to that scene at the end of the film; why set up a framing story if you never properly return to it?

aladdin 02Surprisingly, though, Will Smith’s Genie and Nasim Pedrad’s Dalia end up being the most enjoyable characters in the film. With Pedrad’s background in comedy, she proves to be the funniest character in the film – generating the vast majority of moments that actually made me laugh. Smith is pretty good as the Genie, too. He’s frequently forced to deliver lines in exactly the same way Robin Williams did in the original, and he doesn’t pull that off very well, but when he’s allowed to do his own thing, his take on the Genie ends up working pretty well and he does end up being a highlight of the film and a lot of fun. As for the rest of the cast, they do their best with what they’re given. Naomi Scott makes a good Jasmine, but Jasmine’s extremely two-dimensional writing really lets her down and hinders what she can do with the role. Marwan Kenzari still feels utterly miscast as Jafar – though, since they turned Jafar into a bratty character instead of the shadowy manipulator he once was, I suppose Kenzari’s performance works. But it doesn’t make the character any more enjoyable. Here, Jafar is just annoying. He starts out the movie a little bit sinister, but he mostly just whines more than he really threatens and the attempt at giving him a backstory falls flat on its face. I understand that are actually people who act like this and the character was probably modeled after them, but it’s a take that doesn’t work for the character. It turns one of the best Disney villains into a whiny brat. But that’s not really Kenzari’s fault and he plays this version of Jafar about as well as anyone could. It’ s just not an interesting take on the character. As for Mena Massoud, the marketing team really did him dirty. In every trailer and clip that was released, Massoud seemed extremely wooden, but he’s actually fine in the film, sometimes he’s even good! He plays Aladdin much less confidently – especially as Aladdin tries to woo Jasmine – than the animated film, but it mostly works. He’s not an amazing actor or anything, but I hesitate to blame some of the weaker aspects of his performance solely on him since it’s not like Guy Ritchie was giving any of these actors any particularly good direction, either. All the actors do a reasonably decent job given that I’d guess none of them were given any useful direction or a script that gave them much of anything to do.

aladdin 04Speaking of Guy Ritchie, he was absolutely the wrong choice to make this movie. Aladdin is a romantic comedy that is also a musical. Guy Ritchie basically tried to make it an action movie a lot of the time. Ritchie seems to have little interest in actually telling this story. The film is filled with random bouts of slow-mo scenes – including a really strange use in a musical number. He handles nearly all of the romance scenes exactly the same – the men are totally awkward around the women – and the joke very quickly gets old as it never evolves further than that and the women still end up falling for the guys even though neither guy gives their respective love interest any real reason to do so. The CGI in the film is mostly very poor. Ritchie clearly spent all of his money on the CGI for the Genie and even that character frequently doesn’t look good – so, thank heavens that the majority of his scenes are Will Smith looking like a normal human. Visually, the landscape looks nice but he failed to do any of the rest of the work when it came to crafting a visually interesting film. Additionally, Ritchie seems embarrassed that he was making a musical. Every time a musical number happens, he films it in such a way that it becomes nearly impossible to enjoy the musical number for what it is. The CGI in “Friend Like Me” is truly awful (as is the CGI for nearly any character who isn’t the Genie, and even then, his CGI isn’t particularly good); his visionless direction utterly robs “Prince Ali” of any of its energy until the very end of the number, by which point most of the audience is ready to just watch the original version of the song; his “A Whole New World” lacks any kind of the wonder found in the original; and his staging of Jasmine’s big new song, “Speechless”, drags the climax to a striking halt for a solid two minutes. Even the best songs couldn’t survive Ritchie’s direction, but this movie certainly didn’t have the best songs.

aladdin 03On the subject of music, the original Aladdin featured some great music from Tim Rice, Howard Ashman, and Alan Menken. Unfortunately, this movie did a poor job at replicating those great songs. There are only two songs on the soundtrack that are really any good – “Arabian Nights” and “Friend Like Me”, both of which feature new arrangements and a (slightly) autotuned Will Smith bringing a whole lot of energy to the songs – though, that energy is suspiciously missing from “Prince Ali”. Conversely, those new arrangements don’t work as well in any of the other numbers. They’re especially out of place in “A Whole New World” which trades some of its classic sound for a much more generic one. And, speaking of generic, there’s Jasmine’s new song, “Speechless”, penned by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It’s an utterly bland “Let it Go” imitation that features some horrifically trite generic “girl power” lyrics overtop an entirely unremarkable melody. Naomi Scott does her best to sing it, but she can’t save the song from being completely forgettable.

aladdin 05All in all, Aladdin isn’t a terrible film. It’s an utterly pointless remake of a classic film that’s weighed down by a mediocre script, some terrible direction, and a new song that is as bland as they come. But there are some good moments. Will Smith and Nasim Pedrad give some really fun performances and a couple of the songs get some rearrangements that end up being fairly fun. But mostly, it’s just a pale imitation of what came before it. It’s not a trainwreck or anything; it’s mostly just boring. I spent a good chunk of the film just feeling bored, wanting the movie to just get on with it or get to the next musical number – even though those numbers were mostly disappointing.  It’s a live-action remake that honestly could have worked if it had a director more suited for the subject matter, a stronger script, and was about twenty minutes shorter. I’m surprised that the film wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but it certainly wasn’t good either. I’d honestly just recommend that people watch the original movie instead of seeing this one as they’ll get to see the superior version of the story. But as a film, this remake is fine. It’s nothing special and it’s very obviously a cash grab, but it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen. I probably had more fun than I’d expected to, but that’s all down to the performances from the actors and not the film itself.

2.5 out of 5 wands.

 

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