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Review: Aladdin

May 24, 2019

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Disney’s new live action take on their 1992 animated classic Aladdin opens with Will Smith as a mariner out in the middle of the sea. His two kids ask him to tell them a story, and Smith starts flatly singing an updated version of “Arabian Nights,” recounting the tale of a street urchin, Aladdin (Mena Massoud), who ends up capturing the heart of a princess, Jasmine (Naomi Scott).

It’s a curious starting point for this remake, and it provides a mostly needless new framing device for this updated retelling of the old story. It’s just one of the choices made by the filmmakers behind this live action reimagining that serves little purpose. What we are left with is a film that proves bigger and longer isn’t always better, and sometimes animation is a stronger medium to tell certain stories.

No, Aladdin is not the total dumpster fire that some fans were expecting it to be. It’s not unwatchable. In fact, this brightly coloured, seemingly Bollywood-inspired musical is at times even mildly enjoyable in its own over the top sort of way, with director Guy Ritchie bringing just enough of his usual kinetic energy to the screen. But it also feels overlong – Will Smith doesn’t appear in blue makeup as the Genie until forty minutes into the film’s over two hour running time – and dare I say needless, especially when the animated one still holds up so well.

The story remains basically the same. Aladdin is a “street rat” who steals what he needs to survive with his monkey Abu, and meets Jasmine when she sneaks out of her castle to explore the village. He ends up acquiring a magic lamp that unleashes an all-powerful Genie, who grants him three wishes, one of which he uses to become a prince so that he can be with Jasmine, who is only allowed to marry royalty. But Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), a close advisor to Jasmine’s royal father the Sultan (Navid Negahban), wants the lamp for himself so that he can gain ultimate power and take over the kingdom of Agrabah.

This film does deviate from the original in a few ways, starting with the fact that this version is two hours and eight minutes long, where as the original was an hour and a half. There are some new things added, including a character named Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), who is a chambermaid and friend to Jasmine. While she is mostly used for comic relief, she also gives Jasmine someone to interact with, which helps flesh out her character. But for the most part, Aladdin tries to copy the original beat for beat, including live action recreations of the animated film’s most famous moments, with varying degrees of success.

The musical numbers, which remain one of the most well known and beloved parts of the original, have been translated into live action in ways that range from decent to somewhat lacklustre. The film kicks into high gear early on with “One Jump,” which Ritchie brings to the screen with his usual hyperactive camerawork. The filmmakers throw everything at the screen for Smith’s hip hop-flavoured rendition of “Friend Like Me” with mildly successful results, but it’s simply impossible to match the sheer manic energy of the animated version. The same goes for “Prince Ali,” which is actually a bit underwhelming here, with Smith drawing out the song in a way that doesn’t quite work.

Then we have “A Whole New World,” which finally arrives well after this film’s halfway point. It’s arguably the most famous song from the original, and Ritchie and company have done a decent job of copying the classic sequence and bringing it to screen with real live actors, but it’s hard to match the wonder and enchantment that this magic carpet ride had in its animated form. The film also includes a new song, a girl power pop anthem called “Speechless,” which was penned by original songwriter Alan Menken along with La La Land lyricists Benji Pasek and Justin Paul. It’s performed in the film by Naomi Scott, and is positioned as her big showstopper moment, but it honestly feels out of place and doesn’t really fit with the rest of the soundtrack.

The Genie’s growing and shrinking CGI body, which felt fluid and natural in the 2D film, falls into the uncanny valley and feels a bit odd in a live action world. The special effects in general are somewhat cheesy and dated looking, and the sets and costumes have a bit of a Broadway feel to them. This might have been a stylistic choice, but it makes the film look somewhat fake and stagey. I will admit that the CGI Abu is pretty adorable though, and the film’s human performances do liven it up somewhat. Mena Massoud has a likeable and charming enough screen presence to make him work in the leading role, even if he is a bit stiff at times, and Naomi Scott makes for an appealing princess.

Then there’s Will Smith as the Genie, a performance that many have already judged quite harshly based on the trailers alone, and it was obviously a daunting task for the actor to take on this role considering how beloved Robin Williams was in the original. When Smith puts his own spin on the character, his portrayal sort of works and he brings his own brand of charisma to the role, but it also feels like he hues a little too closely to Williams.

It feels strange to hear some of the original film’s iconic lines, many of which were probably ad-libs to begin with, being repeated by anyone other than Williams, and I kept wishing that Smith wasn’t trying to copy the late actor. I don’t think Smith is bad as the Genie, but his role also takes some getting used to, and I was constantly reminded of the fact that Robin Williams is simply irreplaceable. The heart of the film remains Genie’s wish to go free, but it doesn’t have quite the same poignancy here as it did in the original.

If Disney had decided to go in an entirely different direction with this remake, rather than just trying to copy the animated version, then I think it might have worked better. Much of this remake is fine, and it’s bright and colourful enough to keep us watching, but it also left me asking why at certain points. It’s often still mildly entertaining, despite its shortcomings, but a superior version of this story already exists, and that’s the 1992 animated film.

Aladdin is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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