Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writers: John August, Guy Ritchie
Perhaps the single most famous scene in the 1992 animated classic Aladdin is when the titular street rat, disguised as a prince, sweeps the beautiful princess off her feet onto his magic carpet and shows her a whole new world. Singing the iconic Menken-composed song that would win him and lyricist Tim Rice an Oscar, the couple embark on a magical, physics defying, geographically illogical journey into the clouds and around the globe, marvelling at all the wondrous, hand-drawn sights the animating team could dream up. Having now watched the live-action remake’s equivalent of that scene, it really makes me wonder whether Ritchie and his team fully understood the irony as they were filming it. We are after all talking about a film whose whole premise isn’t to show us a dazzling place we never knew but to take us back to a familiar place we already know. Spontaneity and novelty give way to obligation and nostalgia and yet these two characters still sing the same old song about beholding incredible new sights, broadening their perspectives and pursuing uncharted horizons. The oxymoron would be laughable in its thematic emptiness and shamelessly weaponised inter-textuality were it not already a consistent feature of Disney’s unyielding chain of reliably profitable photo-realistic remakes. Once again Disney has produced a movie that re-enacts its predecessor so closely and customarily that it’s left me wondering all over again why they even bothered.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t anything to enjoy or that the movie doesn’t offer a couple of new twists and spins. The story however remains fundamentally the same. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a poor kid living in the slums of Agrabah who, with the help of his pet monkey Abu, steals in order to get by. Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is the daughter of the Sultan (Navid Nebahban) and lives an unfulfilling, sheltered life that requires her to be married off to a prince. The two meet one fateful day when the princess sneaks into the city and are immediately smitten with one another. Aladdin however is a street rat, something the world never lets him forget, and so it looks like the beautiful princess will forever be kept beyond his reach. That is until the Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) approaches him with promises of wealth and power beyond his dreams if he’ll only complete one task for him: enter the forbidding Cave of Wonders and retrieve a lamp. Jafar of course has no intention of keeping his promise, but his double cross backfires and Aladdin ends up trapped in the cave still in possession of the lamp. He gives the lamp a rub and *poof* out pops the Genie (Will Smith), a magic, omnipotent being with the power to grant three wishes. Aladdin thus hatches a plan to woo and marry Princess Jasmine with the Genie’s help, but Jafar is still determined to take the lamp and use it for his own nefarious purposes.
On a scale from Alice in Wonderland (doing something almost entirely divorced from the original) to Beauty and the Beast (basically a shot-for-shot remake), Aladdin is undoubtedly closer to the latter. It follows the old and familiar path so religiously that when it momentarily strays or digresses, it’s as if the movie has been freed from captivity like a genie from his lamp. And yet these departures are so inadequately scarce that the movie is never able to develop a personality or style it can call its own. One such variation is the attempt to give Jasmine more agency in the story, an idea that climaxes with her singing an empowering ‘Let It Go’ style solo of her own entitled ‘Speechless’. It’s a song about her refusal to be silenced by the patriarchy that Scott sings the hell out of, but it’s so awkwardly wedged in and is so disconnected to the rest of the film’s mode that its inclusion feels more like a corporate calculation than a narrative payoff. They likely could have made the song’s inclusion feel more organic in a movie that devoted more of its time towards Jasmine’s arc, but such an approach would have necessitated a more drastic restructuring of the narrative as a whole, an undesirable prospect for a film that’s more interested in capitalising on an existing property through explicit mimicry than it is in telling an updated story with a timely message.
The possibilities of the film that could have been are most evident in the actors’ performances. Massoud has the right amount of charm and energy for a likeable protagonist and he’s particularly good at straight-faced comic deliveries, but that aspect of his performance only gets to shine in those few instances when he isn’t repeating bits and gags we remember from the first film. Scott brings a fiery passion and graceful dignity to her role, hinting at a resolve that goes beyond a desire to see more of the world. Oftentimes Disney heroines in positions of royal authority are shown to be rather ambivalent about their statuses and seek some form of escape from their responsibilities; Jasmine, in contrast, has the will to be a leader to her people, and a capable and compassionate one at that, but is being constricted by a culture that she wishes to change. When acting opposite each other in those scenes that are copy and pasted directly from the animated film, it is their talent and chemistry that save those moments from feeling like a clumsy high school re-enactment of the stage musical. When they get to break free from the original for a little while and trade jabs in the kind of wisecracking banter that Guy Ritchie knows how to do well, that’s when they really get to shine.
Smith has a much tougher sell to make to those viewers who love the 1992 classic for Robin Williams’ iconic performance. That they cast Will Smith in the role as opposed to a famous comedian/impressionist like Jim Carrey or Bill Hader seemed promising at first as it suggested that they were determined to take the character in an entirely different direction rather than settle for a pale imitation. However the movie can never bring itself to commit to the idea fully and instead has Smith stand in this awkward middle ground between Williams’ Genie and the Fresh Prince of Arabia. After a career of over three decades, Smith remains one of the most naturally charismatic stars in Hollywood today but he can only bring so much personality to a role that requires him to spend 60% of his time imitating a character that was built so specifically around the persona of an equally idiosyncratic star. Within that tension is, I think, not only the biggest problem with this film but with all the Disney live-action remakes in general. The movie’s main selling point is the nostalgia it inspires, but that ardent worship of nostalgia over all else leaves little room for creativity and inspiration. The 1992 film was conceived and designed as an animated fantasy/adventure and it lives on today largely because of a phenomenal performance brought about by an ideal marriage between performer, character and format. You cannot translate these things into a live-action form and expect them to remain tangibly the same.
While the story in the original film flourished in its animated setting, here it too often seems constrained by the limitations of live-action filmmaking. Or perhaps the issue is more with conventional filmmaking, which is pretty disappointing considering what an unconventional director Ritchie often is (in ways both good and bad). One small moment that helped me appreciate how good the 90s Disney cartoons were at making a little count for a lot happens right before the magic carpet scene when Aladdin holds his hand out to Jasmine and says, “Do you trust me?” The line matters because he says it earlier in the film and it ignites her recognition of him. To make sure this point was not lost, the animated film took the care to frame Aladdin in the exact same way on both occasions, emphasising the reoccurrence in visual terms. Not so this time around thanks to the movie’s generic cinematography and editing. Jasmine’s performance signals to us that Aladdin’s line has triggered her memory of him, but there’s nothing in the way that the shot is composed to reinforce it. So much of the film is arranged in such a routine manner and relies so heavily on CGI that few moments truly dazzle and captivate the viewer the way the animated film did throughout. The musical and action sequences feel slower, the world feels smaller, and the designs (especially that of the Genie) lose in spectacle and wonder what they gain in photo-realism. There’s a common misconception behind these remakes that live-action is more legitimate and ‘real’ than animation and these films continue to prove that snobbish, narrow-minded assertion false.