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Aladdin (2019)

DIRECTOR: Guy Ritchie

CAST: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Numan Acar, Alan Tudyk (voice)

REVIEW:

Hasn’t the novelty worn off yet for Disney throwing a lot of money around on scene-by-scene live-action regurgitations of its own animated classics? Probably not, at least until Jon Favreau’s upcoming The Lion King (probably the most anticipated of them all), but Guy Ritchie’s remake of the 1992 animated musical Aladdin has done nothing to increase my enthusiasm for this latest fad. Everything that was true of Bill Condon’s 2017 Beauty and the Beast is equally true here, if not more so, a rote and uninspired retread of a previous movie that can be revisited on DVD any time its fans desire that offers nothing except the “novelty” of seeing it underwhelmingly reenacted in live-action (and losing most of its pizzazz along the way). Unfortunately, nostalgia is a powerful thing, and Disney’s string of cannibalized remakes are almost guaranteed to continue to be a reliably profitable, if terminally lazy, cynical, and creatively bankrupt enterprise. This rehash might boast live action, Will Smith, and expensive sets, costuming, and CGI, but it’s missing the magic.

For those who already know the story from the 1991 original (which was itself a loose adaptation of an Arabian Nights fable), there’s nary a surprise to be found. Street rat and pickpocket Aladdin (Mena Massoud) has a chance encounter with the willful Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) when she goes incognito mingling with the commoners. When he smuggles himself into the palace to steal a second meeting, he is caught by the Sultan’s (Navid Negahban) treacherous, power-hungry vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), but rather than turn him in, Jafar thinks he might have found a thief good enough to enter the Cave of Wonders and fetch him a magical lamp. Aladdin gets his hands on the lamp, but when his monkey sidekick Abu also gets his hands on some forbidden treasure, the cave collapses and Aladdin is left for dead. But he’s actually made a helpful friend: the lamp’s flamboyant Genie (Will Smith), who can grant three wishes. Soon, Aladdin makes a grand return to Agrabah as the fictional “Prince Ali” of the equally fictional kingdom of “Abawbwa”. But while he is welcomed by the Sultan, Jasmine is less impressed, and Jafar is suspicious.

Despite screenwriters Guy Ritchie and John August padding out the original 90 minute runtime by an additional 38 minutes, it’s hard to tell where it all went. Even Beauty and the Beast mixed things up more than this, with an expanded role for The Enchantress and expanded backstories for Belle and The Beast. There’s scarcely anything new here, and what little there is—a superfluous bit part for Billy Magnussen as the fatuous visiting Prince Anders, and a thinly-developed romantic subplot between The Genie and Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad)—adds nothing of any substance to the proceedings. There was some skepticism of whether Guy Ritchie was the best fit as director–after all, Ritchie’s forte is frenetic, offbeat British crime capers, not Disney musicals—and the results have not assuaged doubts about his grasp on the material. The kinetic energy level Ritchie has brought to some of his gangster flicks has been lost in translation, or he’s ventured too far outside his comfort zone. The energy level here is low, even in scenes like the early street chase and big over-the-top musical numbers like “Friend Like Me” or “Prince Ali”. Like Beauty and the Beast’s “Be Our Guest”, the movie overcompensates with a bunch of flashy CGI but can’t make up for a lower energy level. All of the original songs are present and accounted for, and the filmmakers also insert a new original song, “Speechless” (a common tactic in these remakes of musicals to make the “new” movie eligible for awards contention), but it feels awkwardly shoehorned in as a self-conscious shout-out to the #MeToo movement and to give Naomi Scott another opportunity to display her strong singing pipes. Sequences like the Cave of Wonders lack the same “oomph” they had in the original animation. Production design, sets, and costuming are all colorful and pretty to look at, but that’s just hollow surface when what’s underneath is so rote and uninspired.

In contrast to the 1991 cartoon, which took place in Arabia but was voiced entirely by white actors, the filmmakers made a point of filling out the roles with an ethnically appropriate cast, but setting matters of ethnicity aside, the cast is a mixed bag and too often feel like cosplays of their original counterparts. Will Smith, the movie’s real “star”, is entertaining enough doing his usual kind of shtick, but not even he can compete with the late Robin Williams for sheer manic zany energy, nor does he boast Williams’ rapid-fire improv or seemingly limitless array of impersonations. Alas, while he comes off like a lesser substitute for Williams, Smith is one of the two closest thing the movie can boast to “standouts”. The other is Naomi Scott, who virtually alone among the cast can be said to truly hold her own alongside her original counterpart and bring her from animation to live-action faithfully (she also has hands down the strongest singing voice onhand). Alas, two principal roles—Mena Massoud’s Aladdin and Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar—are terminally bland and uncharismatic and devoid of screen presence. Massoud acquits himself well enough physically, both in the opening street chase and a later dance number, but is mediocre to the point of weak as both a singer and actor, and doesn’t convince us of the ostensible connection between he and Scott’s Jasmine. Kenzari’s Jafar is woefully underwhelming and non-threatening, and comes across more whiny than sinister. In fact, Numan Acar as the captain of the guard looks more like Jafar than Jafar. Other characters, like Navid Negahban’s Sultan and Nasim Pedrad’s Dalia, are just “there”. Iago is present, but has been reduced from a character into a standard-issue parrot with a slightly larger-than-average vocabulary (wasting his voice actor Alan Tudyk in the process). Billy Magnussen has a two-scene bit part as a vacuous visiting prince and would-be suitor who fleetingly seems set up as a romantic rival to Aladdin, then disappears, making one wonder what was the point. The only cast member to reprise their role (such as it is) from the original is longtime voice actor Frank Welker, who supplies the (non-speaking) noises of Aladdin’s monkey sidekick Abu.

Aladdin might be moderately entertaining for someone unfamiliar with the original animated classic (if such a person exists), or for those nostalgic enough to find a live-action rehash a worthwhile experience, but if one doesn’t fall into the above two categories, it too often comes across like an expensive cosplay. The familiar characters, songs, and narrative beats are accounted for, but the extra ingredients of spark and magic are absent.

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