‘Aladdin’ is visually stunning, rife with action
In the endless search to mine their own catalog for revenue streams, Disney’s most recent, live-action remake of the animated musical ‘Aladdin’ did not seem like a high priority. The original was beloved by many, but this version felt like more of a superficial cash-grab than a necessity.
Guy Ritchie was also not the most obvious choice as director. While he made a few gritty, stylized films early in his career, his resume of late has been rather lacking ( “Swept Away,” anyone?).
While “Aladdin” comes nowhere close to the heights reached by the most recent version of “The Jungle Book” (that evergreen Kipling tale has brought Disney quite a bit of fortune in various versions), it is certainly not the pile of elephant dung left behind by March’s remake of “Dumbo.”
Realizing the winning formula from the first film, this live-action take doesn’t stray too far from the script: Agrabah’s Princess Jasmine (played by an effervescent Naomi Scott) seeks life outside her castle, and while disguised as a commoner, is rescued by street urchin Aladdin (played by Mena Massoud). When Aladdin sneaks into the kingdom to visit her again, he is caught by the evil Jafar (played by Marwan Kenzari) and given the opportunity to escape death by retrieving a magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders.
Of course, in doing so, Aladdin unleashes the genie within (played in a hybrid CGI form by Will Smith), who gives him three wishes. Desperate to gain the attention of Jasmine, Aladdin wishes to return to the kingdom as the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Ali” with King Uncle Phil and Queen Aunt Vivian.
OK, perhaps I embellished a little at the end of that last paragraph, but it is what many may feared when first seeing the trailer images of Smith as the oversized blue genie. There are some changes within, and many actually strengthen the tale. Scott, for example, gives Jasmine almost equal measure in the film’s heroism department, despite her being a victim of the ancient traditions of arranged marriages. She’s also provided with a lively sidekick, Dalia (played by Nasim Pedrad), who adds much-needed goofiness to the proceedings.
While the filmmakers re-create the same structure as the animated film, the story often gets stuck in the details while creating odd cuts in the action that are questionable at best. The script, from John August and Guy Ritchie, attempts to widen the world in which the film is set, but it also expands the runtime an extra half-hour that just does not seem necessary. There are a couple new songs from original writers Alan Menken and Tim Rice, but none that seem to have the longevity of “Friend Like Me” or “A Whole New World.”
Also, Smith, even at his most expressive, cannot replace the memory of the late Robin Williams in one of his most iconic roles. To Smith’s credit, a character like the genie is enhanced by animation, and despite the copious amounts of CGI and body paint added to him, it all comes off rather stiff and stilted. These were the same issues that I had with the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” remake, as there were several times when Emma Watson’s eyeline was not matching Dan Stevens’ beastly visage.
As heavily reliant as the film is on music, “Aladdin’s” new cast was perhaps not tailor-made for the challenge. Massoud is handsome enough, but when it comes to carrying a soaring musical number, he fails to reach the heights of his magic carpet. And as a singer, Smith is a hell of a rapper.
Regardless, “Aladdin” is not the ill-conceived disaster that some were predicting. It’s visually stunning, rife with action, and constructed with a lot of care. But once this lands in the home-viewing market to compete with its animated original, there will be little discrepancy over which version will be selected to watch time and again.