Directed by Guy Ritchie
Written by John August and Guy Ritchie
Starring: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwin Kenzari, Navid Negahban, and Nasim Pedrad, with the voices of Alan Tudyk and Frank Welker
Who, precisely, are these Disney live-action remakes of their animated classics for? Kids who love the animated films and will want to go see anything that bares a resemblance? Yes. Parents who grew up on the animated classics and need something to take their kids to? Yes, kind of. The truth is, it’s not clear who these are meant for, and that is terribly evident. There are some high points, most notably The Jungle Book and to a much lesser extent Malificent, but then there is also the boring Cinderella and the misguided Beauty and the Beast. Aladdin falls into the misguided category. Too much of the film is an exact replica of the animated film, like Beauty and the Beast, with not enough changes or reinterpretations to make it unique. Will Smith is great as the Genie, Mena Massoud is a very good Aladdin and Naomi Scott is wonderful as Jasmine. The addition of Nasim Pedrad (from SNL) as Jasmine’s handmaiden is fun, but the performances are where the praise really ends.
The story, of course, is based upon Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, one of the ancient Arabian Tales that has been told often in many different forms and iterations. Aladdin, a poor homeless young man, becomes unwittingly involved in a plot by Jafar (Marwin Kenzari), the royal Vizier, to overthrow the Sultan (Navid Negahban) by obtaining a magic lamp and getting three wishes from the Genie (Will Smith). Aladdin meets Princess Jasmine by chance in the market while she is posing as a commoner and falls in love with her. When the acquisition of the lamp goes south, Aladdin winds up with it and wishes to be a prince, so he can marry Jasmine. From here, if you’ve seen the animated version, you know everything that happens next, with the exception of one new song and of course Dalia, Pedrad’s handmaiden character.
That is the primary problem with Aladdin: it is wholly unoriginal and utterly useless as a film. That may seem harsh, but when a remake is essentially a shot-by-shot remake of a much better film, that’s what it is, like Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. There is very little here to distinguish it from the animated original which makes one wonder why they don’t just re-release the animated films instead of making these at great expense? Of course, the answer is that they make money and lots of it.
It’s nice that Disney is getting good filmmakers to make these live-action adaptations, like John Favreau for The Jungle Book and The Lion King, but the choice of Guy Ritchie for Aladdin remains an odd one. Ritchie is best known for Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, both fun, and extremely violent films, as well as being the former Mr. Madonna. Ritchie has also done two wrong-headed attempts at Sherlock Holmes, so the fact that he didn’t get this one right isn’t that surprising. What was surprising is how muted his style was here. Ritchie is an incredibly visual filmmaker who relies on lots of tricks and moves, flashy camera stunts and atypical editing. For Aladdin, he seems to have adopted a very, as my friend, podcast co-host and fellow critic Jerry Dean Roberts says, “feet up” style of directing. His visuals are subdued, as if he didn’t want to make any kind of impression at all. Some directors, like Favreau, don’t really have a specific style to their filmmaking and can adapt to all kinds of material. Ritchie is almost exclusively identified by his frenetic style and to not see it here negates his presence. Disney could have saved some money and hired a stock director and likely would have gotten the same result.
As much as the visuals and direction fail to excite, it’s the script that dogs this picture. Ritchie co-wrote the screenplay with frequent Tim Burton collaborator John August. August may not be the greatest screenwriter in the business, but he’s better than this. So much of the story and even dialogue are lifted from the animated screenplay penned by directors Ron Clements & John Musker and screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (and story by credits that go on forever) that it’s a travesty that those four aren’t credited with any part of the screenplay. It’s almost plagiarism.
It would be easy to blame the shortcomings of the film on the absence of Robin Williams, because he was the heart and soul of the animated version, but honestly as much as he’s missed here, Will Smith’s Genie is well played. Smith gets the nuances of the character and really makes it his own. Except during the songs, which still echo Williams. Smith does what he can with them and “Friend Like Me” is handled well, as are the other musical sequences, they’re just uninvolving.
The whole movie is uninvolving, really. There seems to be a barrier between watching it and enjoying it. Aladdin is just kind of there, you see it, you hear it, you acknowledge it’s going on, and bits and pieces stand out to a small degree, but it’s little more than background. It plays like morning talk shows or the office radio, just there for noise and occasionally something interesting happens.
Aladdin is a passive movie experience that just happens and then goes away and doesn’t leave much of an impression at all. The fact that something can cost $183 million and still barely be remembered after should say something about ultra-big budget films like this. Maybe, just maybe, Disney should make films from new ideas instead of recycling their past glory in new forms (this statement excludes Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios and Pixar…and Fox Studios, but that’s still an unknown entity as of this writing). Do yourself a favor and take out your copy of the animated Aladdin and watch that. It’s easier, less expensive and far more enjoyable.