The era in which animated films like Aladdin were released has been retroactively named the “Disney Renaissance”, owing to a resurgence of groundbreaking animation combined with memorable music. The remakes of these renaissance films owes more to an exacerbation of greed than anything else. To the studio’s credit, their last two releases, Aladdin and Dumbo, have justifications for them other than capitalistic opportunism. A classic like Beauty and the Beast, whose storybook, fairy tale qualities work better in the animated form (Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version and others like it excluded), fall flat when transposed so literally onto the screen. The upcoming Lion King remake has the same problem. What exactly is live action about that, anyway? More like a photorealistic animated remake. Will Bambi be next?
No, Aladdin has a real-life location generously populated by actual people and brimming with textures and tactile wonders—the vibrant and multilayered costumes, weathered bazaars, and intricate embellishments on every architectural surface. To hell with intentions, a revamp of Aladdin could be an absolute sensation! And if you were on the set, it probably was. Stifled by Guy Ritchie’s unimaginative direction, the production design that gives the movie its strongest case for existence often lacks the breadth it truly deserves. Don’t get me wrong, no amount of robotic camerawork can diminish the majesty of such an awe-inspiring world, and the visuals are still worth seeing. However, the lack of care taken in photographing them makes one feel shortchanged. Since there’s not much else to support the film other than a few select performances, it sinks into mediocrity with a few impressive peaks.
There’s a tendency to shoot every single inch of the set that creates some awfully frenetic editing. Instead of judiciously picking select images to establish spaces, a volley of coverage flies across the screen, disorienting the viewer and often times clipping the performances or even dialogue of the actors. Ritchie (likely pressured by the studio) is in such a rush to get to the musical numbers and overstretched climactic scenes that you barely get a chance to learn character motivations, and overall, the film suffers from a short attention span. That said, those musical numbers are excellent. And unlike Beauty and the Beast, everybody can sing. The “Never Had a Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” sequences stand out the most, where the visual effects, choreography, and in an exception to the rule, cinematography, bring dazzlement that rivals the greatest of Bollywood.
In the case of those sequences, the common denominator is Will Smith. The internet had its doubts, but Smith absolutely nails the Genie role without trying to copy the great performance by Robin Williams. With his singing, dancing, and wacky, wisecracking, hyperactive Fresh Prince comic persona, Will Smith honors the legacy of the role, even if the CGI does look a little weird sometimes. Mena Massoud, likewise, does a mostly perfect Aladdin, although his performance sometimes struggles to find a midpoint between the original cartoony tone and an overly-realistic one. Naomi Scott is a serviceable Jasmine, and has the singing chops to carry the songs, but makes the mistake of confusing the character’s defiance with cynicism, and so plays the part a bit too complacent. Other supporting actors are out of place, unsure of what accent to even use. Nasim Pedrad as Jasmine’s handmaiden, Dalia, seems particularly lost.
Ultimately, the individual flaws of the movie don’t go so far as to be irritating and don’t bring the film down into the negative as a whole, although the new song for Jasmine, “Speechless”, is a horridly trite excuse for a female empowerment ballad, as well intentioned as it may be. The lyrics sound as if they came from inspirational facebook memes and the melody sounds like an amalgam of pop melodies produced by an algorithm sampling Adele, Lady Gaga, and Katie Perry.
Aladdin is just about what you expect. So if you think you’ll like it, you probably will, and if you think you won’t, you’re probably right about that too. I thought it would be okay. Make of that what you will. | Nic Champion