In this week’s example of No New Ideas Exist, Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin is set to hit theaters, the latest in the magic mouse’s recent string of tricks, in which sacred cows are transformed into resurgent cash cows. One could (feebly) argue that these modern reboots update familiar classics for a new generation, but my kids already love the standard Disney animated classics, and besides, what good is updating a familiar classic if the update is demonstrably inferior?
Clearly, the pinnacle of this corporate strategy is still forthcoming: the souped-up CG rendering of The Lion King that will be released later this summer. But I would argue that Aladdin Redux is a much more daunting (read: foolhardy) endeavor. Side-stepping the obvious “what’s the point?” discussion, the logistics of the effort are suspect. For all of the “live-action” references, this new Lion King will, in effect, replace hand-drawn animation with CG animation, while integrating natural locations. Aladdin, however, must integrate actual human performers while also reproducing colors and environments and magical effects that only existed in the animated context for a very good reason that this film frequently illuminates: this type of magic realism can’t be replicated in a live-action format.
Guy Ritchie is the director who (I guess) volunteered to bridge the gap from animated magic to live-action spectacle, and to that end alone, I suppose he has succeeded – this film is as incessantly visually overbearing as any you’ll come across this summer…or this year. But as a cohesive piece of artistry, Aladdin…well, isn’t one. Granted, Ritchie has a history of hyper-stylization, but it’s generally in service to cockney British thugs shooting at one another. Here the filmmaker is tasked with translating the boundless possibilities of animation within the inherent limitations of live-action filmmaking, itself a steep enough challenge without also adding the layer of choreographed musical numbers that Disney’s Aladdin obviously demands. What results is a constant barrage of bright colors and hazy effects, edited incomprehensibly and conveyed at film speeds that vary from super-slow-motion to comic hyper speed for no apparent reason, oftentimes in the middle of music sequences in which the lyrics are sung at normal speed and therefore incongruous with the accompanying visuals.
All of the above will make you think this version of Aladdin is vaguely as disastrous as its initial teaser trailer – and strictly on the basis of its cinematic conversion, it often is. What pulls it back from the rails are the sequences where it mercifully restrains the visual bombast and focuses on character, personality, and humor. Anchoring those sequences is Will Smith, taking over the Genie role made iconic by Robin Williams, and it’s an unexpected breath of fresh air to see Smith back in broad, funny, larger-than-life mode. There are certain inherent trappings that occasionally inhibit the performance – scenes where the actor was clearly prodded to mimic Williams’ rhythms rather than flowing with his own, and we can all bemoan the now-infamous blue CG (which the film, thankfully, finds a way to avoid from time to time) – but it’s been literally years since Smith allowed himself to fully indulge his broader comic impulses, and that allowance benefits this movie.
Mena Massoud plays Aladdin, and he’s affable and effective in a role that is oddly thankless, considering he’s the lead. Quite frankly, Aladdin seems uninterested in Aladdin. The filmmaking is so consumed by the visual boondoggle that the title character is sometimes left flailing – often literally, when he’s awkwardly staged in the bigger musical set pieces – and the screenplay, by Ritchie and John August, is more intrigued by the broader characters that pop off the page. Massoud is at his best when he’s able to play off of those more pronounced characters, most often Smith’s Genie, as well as Jasmine, played by Naomi Scott in a performance that fully personifies the term “star-making.” She’s so good in every way – such a big voice, such an engaging presence – that I’m surprised she’s only breaking out just now. Jasmine is the one character the screenwriters seem intent upon expanding beyond the earlier film, fully actualizing her feminist verve and even bestowing her a new original song, “Speechless,” written by perennial Oscar nominees Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Not sure whether the song materialized when the filmmakers realized what a big talent they just cast, or if casting went after a talent big enough to handle the song, but either way, it’s the film’s one perfect fusion.
It’s no surprise that the sequence in which Scott belts out that new song is shot with more confidence and panache than the entirety of the film – it’s the only sequence that frees itself from the template of the original. Based on that, the most damning element of this new Aladdin is the requirement to impersonate the earlier Aladdin. Maybe it’s not impossible for Ritchie to mount a live-action version of the Aladdin story as much as it’s impossible for him to mount a live-action simulation of the 1992 animated Aladdin. But this wasn’t the first cherished Disney classic to get reformatted as a company ATM machine, and it won’t be the last. This is the world we live in now, a whole new world of bottom lines to pursue.