Aladdin

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.

★★

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King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisby, Djimon Hounsou, Aiden Gillan, Jude Law, Eric Bana

Director: Guy Ritchie

Writers: Joby Harold, Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram


There have been many unlikely combinations in art between subject and style that have worked splendidly despite expectations and preconceptions. A Second World War Western by the director of Pulp Fiction? Excellent! A hip-hop/rap musical about the US’s first Secretary of the Treasury? A masterpiece! An absurd yet melancholic TV show about a horse who used to be a sitcom star? Incredible! So when I saw that Guy Ritchie of all people was going to take on the King Arthur mythos, I was ready to give it a chance. His style is one that I’ve enjoyed in other movies before and he already made it work with another unlikely subject in Sherlock Holmes, so maybe there was something to this idea. In this case though, it doesn’t work. This version of the British legend is so stupid, so silly, and so dull that I’m inclined to take the version with the coconuts, the Trojan Rabbit and the Knights Who Say Ni more seriously.

Many years ago in a great battle where Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana) defended the kingdom of Camelot against the warlock Mordred, his treacherous brother Vortigern (Jude Law) orchestrated a coup and used dark magic to slay the king and seize the throne for himself. Uther’s son survives the usurpation and drifts away on a boat that ends up in Londinium. The boy is found and raised by prostitutes and grows to become Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), a strong fighter and streetwise scoundrel. When a confrontation between Arthur and some Vikings goes badly, Arthur is taken by the king’s men and put on a ship to Camelot. There the Blacklegs have been forcing young men to try and pull out a sword stuck in a stone nearby. Arthur successfully removes the sword and is overwhelmed by its power. After he is subsequently taken prisoner and learns the truth of his heritage from Vortigern, a mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisby), an acolyte of Merlin (Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Film), rescues him from his planned execution with the aid of the Uther’s former knight Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou). The mage and her team then enlists Arthur to embrace his legacy and help them overthrow Vortigern.

This movie takes pretty much the opposite approach to the Clive Owen film, which sought to depict a demystified, historically authentic King Arthur. Ritichie is instead more interested in modernising the myth and having some fun with it. This Arthur is less of a medieval nobleman and more of a 21st century lad, roughing it up and talking in slang. His crew is made up of other rough, tough misfits such as Back Lack (Neil Maskell) and Wet Stick (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and they are a multicultural bunch, complete with their own martial arts master in Kung Fu George (Tom Wu). They crack wise, get into fights, and plan their ruses the way the characters in Snatch would plan their heists. This is all fine in theory and Guy Ritchie is the kind of stylistically over-the-top director mad enough to pull it off. In theory, a contemporary King Arthur film with cockney banter, acrobatic, slow-motion sword fights and an array of enormous CGI creatures should’ve at least been good fun. The film however is anything but, and that is because it Ritchie exhibits absolutely zero restraint and moderation on his style.

It is one thing for a director to have a distinctive storytelling style that adds a fun, interesting twist to the narrative, it is another thing entirely when that style usurps the narrative. The movie is so overloaded with rapid edits, haphazard shifts in time and space, hectic ­mise-en-scène and blaring sounds that all the important things like story, dialogue and character get lost in the chaos. There are so many things happening all at once that nothing at all is happening. Nothing means anything in this film because nothing is allowed to sink in and be processed. Whether the film is being serious and trying to have an emotional impact, such as the moment when Arthur learns who he is and what happened to his father, or when the movie is being silly and cheeky and trying to have a laugh, such as when Arthur delivers one of those stories within a story that Ritchie likes so much recounting his encounter with the Vikings, it all rushes past like a blur. The film just doesn’t know when to stop and let a moment play out or when to let a crucial piece of information or plot development linger just long enough for the viewer to absorb it. It’s like Guy Ritchie made a 10-hour movie and then screened the whole thing in fast-forward.

It is entirely possible that the reason Ritchie went so overboard with his style is because the movie itself offered little else of substance or worth. The story is so determined to keep moving forward that it never actually gets anywhere. When Arthur lifts Excalibur from the stone and discovers that he is the heir to the throne, the objective from that point on is making Arthur the king. That’s fine except it feels more like an obligation for the plot than a progression, considering that we never really see Arthur displaying qualities of heroism or leadership. It doesn’t help that Hunnam plays him as a smirking rogue; I had a harder time rooting for him than I did for Jamie Campbell Bower’s rather bland take on the character in the otherwise solid Starz series from a few years back. Jude Law can be quite entertaining in his  scenery-chewing role as the villainous, slightly camp Vortigern but that’s about it. When a movie understands its story so little that it ends up detracting from one of its pivotal moments with an embarrassingly distracting celebrity cameo for the ages, you know you’re in trouble.