Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott
The biggest surprise to Disney’s live-action reimagining of its animated classic Aladdin is that it’s not as bad as its trailers suggest. But when all you can come up with for a movie is faint praise for clearing the low bar set by its own marketing, you have to wonder if there’s a point to revisiting the whole thing in the first place.
More live-action fun:
Director Guy Ritchie acquits himself well not just in the action sequences, but in the big musical numbers as well. There’s a calling card sequence in the beginning where heart-of-gold street urchin Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets incognito princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) at a souk, and then proceeds to elude disgruntled merchants and imperial soldiers through the colorful maze of alleyways in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Agrabah. It’s a tightly edited chase sequence—with Aladdin displaying a breathtaking talent for parkour—designed to remind you that you’re in the hands of an action maestro. (Never mind that Ritchie seems to be one of those directors whose filmography gets blander the more bloated his budgets get.)
Soon, Aladdin is recruited by the megalomaniacal Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) to enter the Cave of Wonders and retrieve a magic lamp that can bestow enormous power on whoever wields it. One double-cross later, and Aladdin becomes the new owner of the lamp—and the master of the genie (Will Smith) that resides within it.
Smith doesn’t make an appearance until well into the film’s running time, and you can almost feel the narrative breathing a sigh of relief that it doesn’t have to keep the audience’s interest going as strenuously. Despite fanboys maligning his blue-tinged complexion and the off-putting vibe of his artificially jacked-up torso, Smith basically owns the movie from the first moment he appears onscreen, carrying it on the shoulders of his manic performance.
Smith is a handy avatar for Aladdin; like its marquee star, the film leaves it all on the table. From the candy-colored sets to the eye-popping visual effects to the electric, Bollywood-tinged musical numbers (Agrabah seems to exist somewhere between the borders of India and Jordan), one cannot accuse the new Aladdin of slacking. But like its star, you can see the effort. Just as you can almost spy the tendons in Smith’s neck popping as he tries to duplicate in the cumbersome physics of motion-capture what Robin Williams accomplished effortlessly with just his voice and an animators’ stylus, so does the 2019 version of Aladdin creak under the mandate to equal—if not top—the magic of its 1992 predecessor.
The effect is most apparent when Aladdin enters its third act, as Smith’s genie is muzzled by the villain. Absent its supernatural plot engine’s parlor-trick antics, and with only an incoherent musical number from an emancipated Jasmine titled “Speechless” going for it, the film sputters.
The biggest tweak live-action Aladdin made to the original is giving Jasmine the ambition of being the next sultan of her kingdom, making her the most multi-dimensional Disney princess yet. Still, one wishes Ritchie and his co-screenwriter John August had done away with more of the Middle Eastern stereotypes. Or given this new version some real-world subtext for being made. While the kiddies will probably love the eye candy, Gen-Xers who are old enough to remember watching the 1992 animated feature in theaters may look upon all the heavy lifting and ask: What for?