Aladdin (2019)Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/25/19 15:52:01
A remake of "Aladdin"? Sure, why not. It's been a generation, and even if the point of these movies is for Disney to continue to exploit their catalog in an era where re-releases and home video don't bring in close to what they used to, sometimes it becomes interesting. It's not so much the case here; like most of these live-action cover versions, I'll probably never watch this again while the original is also on my shelf, but it's not exactly a waste of time even if it's not the only family-friendly option at the local theater.As expected, it tracks the original movie fairly closely - Agrabah's Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) has opted to get a glimpse of life outside the castle, but is only rescued from disaster by the timely intervention of "street rat" Aladdin (Mena Massoud). Smitten, he sneaks into the castle to see her, but is captured by vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who needs a "diamond in the rough" to retrieve a magic lamp from a Cave of Wonders. The lamp contains a genie (Will Smith) who offers three wishes, the first of which has him returning to the castle as "Prince Ali" - nothing less has a future with a princess, after all - but Jafar's ambition on the one side and Jasmine's high standards on the other may make it hard for Aladdin to make good his promise to free the genie from servitude with his third wish.
It's all very familiar (the makers of the 1992 film lifted a fair amount from 1940's The Thief of Bagdad at that), but there are bits of this version we shouldn't dismiss. Naomi Scott, for instance, is a fine Jasmine, and by giving her a couple new songs and tweaking her characterization a little the film had allowed her to be more ambitious and consequential. She's got a great sidekick in Nasim Pedrad's Dalia - Pedard makes lines and scenes that could seem stilted enjoyably eccentric (few others come off so well). It's also pretty far from nothing that this is a big mainstream family adventure movie that has a cast of primarily middle-eastern descent. The original version wasn't - it stumbled in enough places that Disney would edit it after release and pay closer attention to such things in future animated pictures - and that deserves to be noted.
But, otherwise, there's very little here that compares to the original. The filmmakers copy the designs and basic shape of the story but get bogged down in detail; for the excessive detailing on every prop to the need to half-explain the limits to a genie's magic that bogs things down. And even without comparing this to the fluidity of the animated film, the movie is choppy, with action that is full of cuts and missing moments, while some of the more iconic images - Jafar's hypnotic staff, the animated cave - are played so straight that it's easy to dismiss them. In some cases, it's not just the comparison to the animated film, but comparison to other elaborate event films make this look a bit thin, or how Ritchie doesn't have anything close to the sort of grasp on how to do a song and dance number as the Indian filmmakers who have clearly inspired a few scenes.
It's not all disappointing - the script by John August and director Guy Ritchie makes Agrabah part of a larger world and gives Jasmine and her late mother a more clearly defined place in it, for instance. There's some ambition here, and its take on power is well-considered, from how it handles the idea of power corrupting to how, whether genie or princess, some will often appear powerful but only have as much as others will allow them. Ritchie's direction is energetic without being chaotic, and while the new songs are not as good as the rest, the film doesn't flag for having a half-hour added to it.
Nobody can be as expressive as the cartoon characters they're trying to bring to life, and in some cases, it hurts more than others: Will Smith and Alan Tudyk can't bring what Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried did to their characters - both Genie and Jafar's parrot Iago are great examples of animated characters perfectly adapted to their voice actors, and while Iago has had its prominence reduced (as have many of the animal sidekicks and the like), Smith isn't bad. It turns out he raps better than he sings, but he's got a couple moments when he can rise above the script. Mena Massoud grows on the audience - he's not especially helped by by being thrown into a song that doesn't quite land soon after he's introduced, but he's appealing and plays well off Smith and Naomi Scott, who seems to find her footing much more quickly and nails how Jasmine is smart, ambitious, and empathetic despite being sheltered throughout.All in all, this new "Aladdin" is fine. There's stuff to recommend. Maybe kids who are, like, four and see this first will love it unreservedly, and to their credit the filmmakers don't sell them out by doing a lot of winking at the adults in the audience. The main issue is that for what it loses in pure visual and comic splendor in the translation, it only gains a fraction of enough to compensate in interesting new details and better representation. That's a better after-the-fact justification for this remake than most have, but I doubt that it will be enough for me to watch it over the animated film when the urge to revisit the story strikes.
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