I’m “biast” (con): …but see no need for these live-action remakes
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Disney’s current self-imposed chore of mounting live-action remakes of all of its animated films continues to prove itself mostly an exercise in pointlessness and frustration with the second of its redos of the 1990s Disney Renaissance musicals.
I’m tempted to just copy-and-paste my review of 2017’s Beauty and the Beast here, because this new Aladdin suffers from all the same problems: it’s a watered-down pastiche of itself, like one of those on-ice horrors, or the movie equivalent of how a musical’s soaring and enrapturing character showtunes get deliberately blandified and drained of all personality for the end credits on their way to the pop charts. This Aladdin appears to have been shot at the Arabia Pavilion at Epcot Center — the one that doesn’t exist yet, but surely will soon — its setting of the invented city of Agrabah a clichéd delusion of the Middle East. It’s somehow even more cartoonish for being live-action, and about as authentically exotic as a shopping-mall food-court kiosk: Halal Dolly, anyone? (Don’t worry: Aladdin is entirely free of even the most oblique reference to Islam. Wouldn’t want to scare off the bigots.)
Like 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, 2019’s Aladdin inevitably lacks the mojo of the original animated version, and it’s difficult to see how anyone could have imagined it would be otherwise. But surely this was made even more challenging with the assignment of this movie to director Guy Ritchie, whose filmography is full of gritty crime capers, even when gritty-crime-caper is wildly inappropriate, as with his last movie, the all-misfire King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. Ritchie is not exactly known for tripping the light fantastic, but we can at least be grateful that he didn’t go full Ritchie on “street rat” Aladdin.
But the director seems hesitant — or unable — to embrace that ineffable daydreaminess that makes a musical work. A musical shouldn’t be this clunky! (Or, indeed, any clunky.) Characters here awkwardly break into stilted snippets of song at intervals that feel random; there’s no organic, melodic flow, and the musical numbers seem intent on crushing out emotion rather than giving voice to it. It’s as if the movie only reluctantly accepts that it’s a musical at all. The parade of the big showstopper number, “Prince Ali,” might as well be a daily procession at Disney World; it’s weary and rote, not in the least bit magical. The shoehorned-in new song, de rigueur if one hopes for an Oscar nomination, is a sub-par go-girl ballad for Princess Jasmine, an embarrassment next to the glorious 1992 songs by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice.
The story is lifted intact from the 1992 movie, with the street urchin Aladdin (Mena Massoud) wooing the royal Jasmine (Naomi Scott: The 33), daughter of the sultan (Navid Negahban: 12 Strong, American Assassin) of the city-state of Agrabah, with the help of a Genie (CGI’d Will Smith: Bright, Collateral Beauty), who disguises Aladdin as a suitable princely suitor for the princess. Except the new script, by Ritchie and John August (Frankenweenie, Dark Shadows), somehow manages to pad out the original film’s 90 minutes by an additional 40 minutes without feeling like it’s done anything substantial with all that extra runtime. It is, however, now a solid 40 minutes into the movie before we even get to the Genie, who was the real draw of the 1992 film, thanks to a thoroughly bonkers voice performance by Robin Williams. And suddenly it kind of makes sense that the movie had seemed unenthusiastic about introducing us. Smith probably would seem more charming and funny if we didn’t have the improvisational fleetness of Williams to compare it to… but we do have that, and it’s impossible not to compare the two performances. Worse, despite the obvious boatloads of money thrown at the film, the CGI that transforms Smith into a giant blue Genie who floats on a gaseous, legless lower body is often uncomfortable to look at, for the usual uncanny-valley reasons but also because, in an unacceptable failure of craft, his sightlines are often completely wrong, and he appears to be looking somewhere other than where he ostensibly is.
This new Aladdin is perhaps the first instance I can recall of being sorry that I saw a film in IMAX: the huge format only amplifies the movie’s problems… which also include a total lack of chemistry between the romantic leads and the complete lack of any bite at all on the part of the villain, Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar, vizier to the sultan. It might be a whole new world here, compared to the original cartoon, but it’s certainly not a better one.