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Guy Ritchie’s live-action Aladdin is a lumbering, disjointed mess that works only in small spurts.
With a bloated runtime just north of two hours, the aspects of the film that don’t work have enough time to go from minor annoyances to infuriating shortcomings to curiosities that I kept thinking about after leaving the theater. There is a lot of Aladdin that flounders on its own, and even more so when inevitably compared to the 1992 animated version. But, but, there are a couple of great moments buried in here. I don’t recommend seeing this new Aladdin, but if you do, it won’t be a total waste of your time. At this point in the cycle of Disney trotting out its warhorses for another trip through the box office gauntlet, Aladdin is at least better than Beauty and the Beast.
RELEASE DATE: 5/24/2019
DIRECTOR: Guy Ritchie
The Disney classic’s 2019 update has enough bright spots to spark joy.
You already know what Aladdin is about, so plot synopsis is redundant. Suffice to safe, Aladdin 2019 stays true to the story of street urchin Aladdin, repressed Princess Jasmine, and the boisterous Genie. From Aladdin and Jasmine’s meet-cute in the streets of Agrabah to their ascent as a young power couple, Aladdin dutifully hits all of the story beats and adds in a few new ones to help pad out the runtime.
I’m as cynical as anyone when it comes to these live-action remakes that Disney keeps cranking out. Does anybody want to see these animated classics translated to a garish mix of CGI and “live action?” The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Cinderella, and Aladdin should only exist in their original forms. The remakes, even the better ones, only reinforce that thought. I’m not sure what viewers gain from these new versions. Remaking classics doesn’t beget more classics. Attempts to recreate the alchemy achieved decades earlier is a fool’s errand. There’s a great Abbas Kiarostami movie, Certified Copy, that explores the notion of art versus copies of art and the values of each. To date, I haven’t found much value in these updates.
Let’s start with the good stuff. Naomi Scott is the absolute best part of Aladdin. As Jasmine, Scott’s performance captures everything generations of people love about the princess but adds enough of her own spin on it. Jasmine is the only character I didn’t spend much time thinking about in relation to the animated version. Scott doesn’t create a new character, but she does create someone who stands on their own. She is also the only person who excels during the iconic songs. The best moment in Aladdin is Jasmine’s solo performance of the new song “Speechless.” It’s one of the rare moments where every element of the filmmaking coheres to create a genuinely magical feeling. Scott’s casting brought about its own controversy because her heritage is British and Indian and casting a brown person to play another nationality sparked Eurocentric criticism: England and India are nowhere near the Arab world, after all. Fair debates about inclusivity notwithstanding, she gives a great performance.
I’m also counting Will Smith’s Genie as a bright spot, so that should clue you into the level of praise I have for Aladdin. I, mercifully, did not see the trailers ahead of time, only stills of Smith’s blue monstrosity. I was aware of the online outrage machine raging against it, but that’s it. Smith, one of the most charismatic movie stars of the last 30 years is… charismatic. His Genie doesn’t have the manic energy of Robin Williams’ revered performance and that’s a good thing. Smith isn’t the same kind of performer as Williams, so the expectation should have always been that he’d go a different route. He does, and the result is solid. Smith is affable and slick, and even though he may not be the best singer, he’s clearly trying and having a good time.
Genie gets some added backstory, courtesy of credited writers John August and Ritchie. It’s superfluous, sure, but it does give Smith an opportunity to use his easy charisma. Ultimately, Smith salvages what felt like an untenable situation.
The unfortunate, glaring weakness of Aladdin is, unfortunately, the new Aladdin. Mena Massoud makes a noble effort, but his performance is most stilted. It feels like he’s trying too hard to capture the animated version instead of making the role his own. He’s uneven, and how you feel about his performance will dictate a large part of your feelings for the film overall. He does sell most of the key moments of the Aladdin-Jasmine relationship.
The biggest hindrance to Aladdin, however, is Ritchie. His kinetic, over-stylized filmmaking stopped working for me long ago, and it doesn’t work here. Ritchie is more toned down here than his early works, or more recent big-budget work on Sherlock Holmes or King Arthur, but the bursts of slow-mo, hyper-quick edits, and other flashes don’t add much. The early rendition of “One Jump” is oddly lifeless and visually dull. What should’ve been the film’s show-stopping sequence, the magic carpet ride of “A Whole New World,” is mired by distracting CGI that sucks the thrill out of the scene.
Fans of the original Aladdin will probably be underwhelmed by this new vision. This version of Aladdin is caught between trying to honor the original and struggling to find places to make its own mark. There are tweaks to familiar aspects that will most likely distract viewers. Alan Menken’s excellent original soundtrack is spruced up a bit with some new lyrics and touches. On the whole, the changes feel like they were done for the sake of change, which hardly ever works out. Most of the song and action sequences we know and love are recreated, now with annoying interludes that break up the songs and throw off the whole rhythm of the movie.
As a ploy to bring the magic of one generation and share it with the next, Aladdin frequently comes up short. That said, there is exactly one nostalgia play that works like gangbusters for viewers of a certain age. The movie’s parting gift is a Smith credits song. Yes, a Will Smith credits song in 2019. Friends, it is bliss.
This incarnation of Aladdin may be a lethargic, occasionally amusing movie that will not unseat the animated movie as the preferred format for this story. But, If nothing else, Aladdin sent me out with a smile on my face. If you’re inevitably dragged to the multiplex to see Aladdin, either by your kids or your curiosity, I hope that Will Smith song makes you smile, too.
Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.