A movie that wishes it wielded the Disney magic


Courtesy of Disney

Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin is a confectionery musical that boasts star-making turns for two relative unknowns (Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine) and a knuckle-cracking, return-to-comedic-form moment for Will Smith. From the costumed characters to the eye-popping sets, there’s never been a movie that feels more like walking the streets of a Disney park.

For anyone with a memory of the 1992 original, Aladdin can also feel like a relentless insult to the artistry of 2D animation, paving over the vibrancy and imagination of the 2D feature with imitation and vacant photorealism. The adaptation skimps on the choreography and indulges in the intoxicating effect of the Disney brand as it goes through the motions. Even more so than Genie, the hands of writer-director Guy Ritchie (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) are bound by unseen forces and masters who demand their wishes granted.

The Disney animated classics of the ’90s had marketing plans, merch lines, and Happy Meal tie-ins, but the craft of hand-drawn cartooning ensured that a certain amount of vision made it into every frame. An artist drew Aladdin’s dreamy stares and leaps of faith. An artist calibrated the wind that blew through Jasmine’s hair in moments of carpet-flying exhilaration. An artist kept up with Robin Williams’ zany, constantly morphing persona (lest we forget the William F. Buckley Jr. impression in a movie targeting 10-year-olds). 2019’s Aladdin can’t crack the code on how to reignite that magic, so it settles for recreating the beats. By the end, one feels less entertained than successfully fluffed like a slumped-over couch pillow.

Really, for a remake of an animated musical standing the test of time, it’s all about the songs. This is where Disney makes the boldest choices, and in the end, where Aladdin gets a bit … pitchy.

[Ed. note: The Aladdin soundtrack is out now, but could contain spoilers for those who have not seen the 1992 Aladdin.]

The movie opens with a revised rendition of “Arabian Nights,” performed by Will Smith … who appears on a boat, in human form, with his two kids. Disposing of the more problematic lyrics, Smith’s ballad whisks us back in time to the streets of Agrabah, and sets the tone for everything to come. Every aspect of this new Aladdin feels auto-tuned for mass consumption.

Mena Massoud (Amazon’s Jack Ryan) is our new Aladdin, and he has movie star qualities. His rendition of “One Jump Ahead,” unfortunately, is the worst-case scenario for the live-action remake. Ritchie can’t find a way to glue the chase set-piece aspect of the number to the harmonious sounds of Massoud singing, even when the picture gear-shifts to slow motion to glimpse the star mouthing the words. Carpool Karaoke looks like a more physical act than Aladdin skirting and singing atop the rooftops of Agrabah. The result is a disembodied, discombobulated redo that never effectively introduces our live-action hero.

The reveal of Will Smith’s dad bod Genie stirred up the internet, and he remains the most head-scratching-yet-effective part of the movie. Hope seems to be lost when we first meet Genie in the Cave of Wonders; Ritchie and the Walt Disney Company task Smith with performing many of the same voices and bits as Williams (down to hyperactive wisecracks like “Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty-bitty living space”), minus the elastic freedom of 2D animation. The act is, uh … cue Genie’s Rodney-Dangerfield-clutching-his-tie impression.

Smith finds a groove by turning “Friend Like Me” into a Fresh Prince number. He grabs the mic. He works the audience. The CG animation abandons reason and becomes a Willennium Fantasia. The whole shebang could get cranked up a few hundred decibels, but this is Smith finally popping out of the comfort zone of the lamp.

Like the original movie, Aladdin refuses to elaborate on its Eastern influences. Agrabah is in the “Middle East,” and the dance numbers are vaguely Bollywood. The movie cries out for cultural touchstones, which may have provided a semblance of choreographic philosophy. Trapped on stages, the dancing suffocates under point-and-shoot direction. Turns out, much like Aladdin’s alter ego Prince Ali, no amount of swaying handmaidens, fire breathers, and elephants paraded down a street can fake the mojo required to capture the hearts of onlookers. “Prince Ali” is conjured from the assumptions of what makes musicals work.

Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony as Jasmine and Aladdin had more gusto than what Disney is able to do in its live-action riff on “A Whole New World.” The canned vocals and Skyrim-like landscapes of this new version shatter the link Massoud and Naomi Scott form over the first half of the movie. This is deeply unromantic.

Jasmine is the most successful part of Aladdin, thanks to how Ritchie and screenwriter John August imbue the princess with a quest to become sultan, and the ferocity that Naomi Scott brings to her every move. To embolden her, Disney hired Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Dear Evan Hansen, La La Land, The Greatest Showman) to add a number to Alan Menken’s original slew of songs. Those familiar with the duo’s work see their fingerprints all over “Speechless,” a hammy anthem destined for high school musical recitals. The song’s calculated message of rah-rah self-actualization devolves into what might be described in 2019 as “Instagram fierce,” more like a “Let It Go” meme than “Let It Go” itself. Jasmine’s story, and Scott’s tremendous performance (she’s in the new Charlie’s Angels, so get pumped), deserved better than “Speechless,” even if she sings the hell out of it.

Will Smith made an Aladdin end-credits rap in the style of “Men in Black” and “Wild Wild West”! And it opens with DJ Khaled saying “another one,” as if to pull back the curtain on what Disney just pulled off.

The amazing part is comedian Demi Adejuyigbe nailed Smith’s “Friend Like Me” rap two years ago as a goof.

wow- just saw a preview of Will Smith’s credits music from the new Aladdin!! managed to sneak a video- watch before Disney takes it down!! pic.twitter.com/XOGdSIc8up

— demi adejuyigbe (@electrolemon) July 19, 2017

The original Aladdin rode the wave of a Disney animation renaissance. The new Aladdin arrives at a hyper-saturated moment between a live-action remake of Dumbo and a live-action remake of The Lion King that echoes the company’s post-renaissance, direct-to-DVD scramble. The meta text creeps into the vacuum of sitting down and watching the movie because Aladdin feels like cobbled-together, bubble-wrapped, shipped-off-by-release-date product; while Disney — in movies, in parks, in experience — has always prided itself on immaculate immersion, the seams holding this remake together show. It’s unusual.

Marvel has Kevin Feige. Star Wars has Kathleen Kennedy. Disney’s live-action slate has … Disney executives who remain behind the scenes and do the job. For many, the company’s classic animated films are as precious as those massive franchises. The songs need to skyrocket and the dance moves should sweep us off our feet. In this era of corporate nostalgia, the least a movie like Aladdin could get is a protector. Hell, a friend.