Review - Aladdin (2019)
Spoilers for Aladdin
Disney’s live action revival has certainly been an interesting ride, especially lately with Dumbo, Aladdin, and The Lion King all hitting screens within a couple months of each other. Back when the live action version of Aladdin was announced in particular, I was both excited and anxious. I’d like to think of myself as fairly well versed on the story of Disney’s Aladdin. As someone of Middle Eastern descent, I was naturally inclined to relate to this story adapted from A Thousand and One Nights more than any other Disney animated feature of my childhood. The puffy-plastic encased tapes of the main title and both direct-to-video sequels - The Return of Jafar, and Aladdin and the King of Thieves - were easily the most well worn of my VHS collection. Several full completions of the titular video game versions on both my SNES and Sega Genesis, and religious viewing of the Saturday-morning cartoon series fleshing out the world of Agrabah and beyond, further cemented the legend of Aladdin and company in my heart.
All this is to say Guy Ritchie had an enormous challenge ahead of him to do justice to the second highest-grossing non-CG animated film of all time (only beat by its successor, The Lion King which is now in theaters facing its own test of time) in my eyes. While most may have been looking past Aladdin in anticipation of the resurrection of Disney’s crown jewel of the 90s, the only lion I cared about seeing on screen was the mythic maw of the Cave of Wonders.
Anticipating heavy disappointment due to impossible-to-live-up-to personal expectations, I immediately took the pragmatic approach and sharply pulled in the reins on my emotional involvement with the production and tempered my hopes for the final cut. So when the inevitable drama came around about casting choices I sincerely tried my best to put my bias for the original in the back seat.
It may be worth mentioning that immediately after seeing the film in theaters I went home and watched the original animated version after giving the newcomer a fair processing. I feel it is totally fair game to judge these live-action remakes against their namesakes, but of course I don’t expect a complete carbon copy with live actors in place of cartoons.
Let me just put this out there at the start: Robin Williams is irreplaceable. In order to enjoy this movie you must really come to terms with his absence. Naturally, with my love of Aladdin in general, Williams’s Genie is my favorite role of the late star. The character of Genie also was probably the epitome of his voice-acting talent, with all of his skill and heart magically distilled in the show-stealing lovable blue spirit. As such, expecting anyone to be able to truly fill those curly-tipped slippers is an exercise in futility. Will Smith may not have been who immediately sprang to mind for such a casting decision, but quite honestly no one did other than possibly James Monroe Iglehart, who won the Tony for the same role on Broadway.
Within this context, I will gladly say Smith’s Genie is a passable success overall. He feels a little less refined despite his valiant effort in emulation of Williams’s bombasticness, revealing the edge of his range and expressive comfort zone. Despite his vocal artist experience, some of his musical numbers show a bit too much of the crutch of Disney magic (AKA audio processing). Genie here picked up a more humanizing - literally- character arc, which pulled him in a more relatable position to the viewer arguably at the cost of his aspect as a magnificent being with “phenomenal cosmic power.” In fact, this apparent shrinking of scale from the original animated version runs as the common motif for the main criticisms I have for the remake, but more on that later.
On the positive side, Smith’s Genie still is quite fun and exciting, and serves as a good anchor for the film by tying all the character relationships together, and fittingly reprises his role as narrator to bookend the exposition. He keeps the film moving and centered with great on-screen chemistry with his master, Aladdin, and the supporting cast. Even the new addition of a side-story love interest with a new character, while cheesy at times and a bit cliché Disney, did not feel totally out of place in my opinion. Of course, Smith’s name no doubt gave clout to the production with an otherwise less seasoned cast. He is, as said, no Williams but still gives the movie its glam. I was also glad to say that seeing his finalized appearance on the silver screen left less of a “Will Smith joined the Blue Man group” vibe than earlier pre-release media left us with, but it still could have been better.
Aladdin (Mena Massoud) fit the bill fairly well, if not with somewhat of an awkward charm. Massoud couldn’t sell that sly street-rat smile nearly as smoothly as his animated counterpart, but he’s likeable enough. His performance is nothing to write home about, and yet nothing stands out as particularly problematic. The only thing I might think of is his inability to sustain long notes when singing the iconic A Whole New World, and again the singing quality is good… with the same asterisk of noticeable autotune as is in Smith’s margin notes. This Aladdin is still suave enough to buy his chemistry with Princess Jasmine and camaraderie with Genie, so it works in the end. He’s compelling enough for us to follow him across the rooftops in his pace-pushing, parkour-esque acrobatics. When he asks his key “Do you trust me?” prompts, I had no problem saying “Yes” and jumping on Magic Carpet ready to go. Good enough, right?
Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is probably the most expanded character in this iteration, and for once change isn’t bad. Scott, the subject of “controversy” during casting about “whitewashing” in Hollywood (despite her Indian heritage on her mother’s side) easily proved her worthiness in this role. Moreover, her bringing an empowered and self-assured female to the forefront, and bringing Agrabah closer to the modern era, worked handily to fully expand this sub-theme that was ever-so-subtly played with in some of the original animated Jasmine’s story arc. What is so surprisingly refreshing about this is how organically they develop this as an aspect of her character and not shoehorned in, while more and more modern blockbusters and productions choose the ham-fisted approach of hitting you over the head with their “wokeness” (*cough* End Game *cough*). In all fairness, there was one instance that felt somewhat out of place; the new track “Speechless” seemed to be somewhat of a non-sequitur in the flow of the story and kind of felt included only for the sake of having a new Disney anthem associated with the IP. Nevertheless, it ended up being a pretty powerful moment in the plot when it was all said and done, especially considering the target audience’s age group. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Scott’s acting and vocals are also some of the best performances of this cast.
Which brings us to the dark points of the cast, both thematically speaking and performance-wise. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) is unquestionably the weakest link of the character performances and the biggest miss from the mark that is the original. When describing the live-action Jafar a few words come to mind: flat, undynamic, WEAK! C’mon guys, Jafar is consistently ranked within the top 3 most powerful villains within the meta discussions of the Disney universe fanbase! You would not have known it with this version alone, not by a long shot. Kenzari’s display emotion is just toothless and unimpressive. He has one “scream” of rage that is more pathetic than a three-year-old dropping their ice cream cone. Jafar, even in mortal form, should be beguiling, cunning, sly yet lethal, and the very definition of menacing. What they showed us was some guy with a chip on his shoulder who is mildly ambitious. The cobra staff he wields to hypnotize the Sultan in the movie is more menacing than he is. It leaves you wondering how this sleazebag got to the position he’s in, even with his powers of hypnosis. There are no bouts of uncontrollable madness-induced cackling here. No sense of anxiety as if a weaving cobra is stalking you, about to strike at every turn. It’s very fitting that the most notable thing missing from the remake was Jafar’s physical transformation into a giant ultra-lethal cobra the size of the Basilisk in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Instead we got a giant molting roided-up parrot, symbolically representing the poor hacked up mimic that just nominally recalls or parrots the authentic version.
This becomes most evident in the final act, as things culminate to the confrontation. We get a good glimmer of what might have been, but it’s brief. Seriously, the final showdown was a let down. It gave us a taste of what could have been but for whatever reason was intentionally held back in scale. In the original everything is larger than life. Jafar-controlled Genie literally hulks over the entire palace, casting the kingdom in darkness as he rips it from the earth and sets it on a mountain. Supreme sorcerer Jafar literally launches the largest turret of the palace across the globe with a golf-club like swing of his staff. Jasmine gets entombed in a giant hourglass of doom. There’s no massive king cobra constricting the very life out of our hero, on the verge of popping him like a zit. Where was it all? There were a couple times where it seemed like the crescendo was starting, but that was it. His ultimate show of power in his transformation into the evil genie again teased us. What I wanted to see was on the level of Surtur from Thor: Ragnarok on the verge of wrecking Asgard-grabah, but we just got a bigger than average red guy with a six pack and an impressive yet ephemeral ball of energy.
My biggest problem with the final act is this: Jafar was already disappointing on his own. But this kind of cheapening of the villain has a bigger casualty - the hero. An average protagonist defeating a strong antagonist actually elevates the good guy into something more; it allows him to transcend into a hero. Conversely, if an average guy just beats a meh baddie, it’s no big deal. Aladdin, and Jasmine as well, are robbed of their greatness by the weakness of Jafar. It’s like jumping over Bowser’s head as Mario to grab an axe only to find Toad there: “You’re princess is in another castle.” It’s anticlimactic! What I want is Kratos struggling against all of the might of Olympus to eventually prevail and come out as the new God of War. The end of the film leads me up like I was gathering a giant breath before diving off the olympic diving board into the pool 10 meters below, but only ended up tiptoeing into the shallows.
Now, so far I’ve alluded to a vague impression of restricted scale, and I’ll try to clarify that. There’s lots of vibrant color and pomp, but it feels superficial and needed to be pushed to a bigger magnitude. A great example of this is the jubilant entrance of “Prince Ali” into Agrabah. The singing and dancing and colors and rhythm are all great on the big screen, but it still fell short of being completely immersive. Genie sings about hordes of men and troves of treasure, and in the animated version we seemingly see it with endless lines of paraders. In the live-action we see a few rows - just enough to give the impression of masses, but as soon as we see the end of each type of servant or dancer we feel cheated. There were bright fireworks, but instead of grandiose mortars we got fountains and black cats and smoke bombs with a couple splashes. We had something so close to an out of the park home run, but the ball fell short of the wall and the runner only got to third base. It’s still good, but frustrating that we were so close to being something great. All the stars were lined up but when things should’ve been turned to 11 to really hit the jackpot, it was played safe and dialed back for some reason. A lot of it is intangible, but it’s a feeling that was pervasive of my experience of the movie as a whole. At first I thought maybe part of that feeling is seeing the new film as an adult less susceptible to being awed; but even as I rewatched the original I knew it wasn’t the case.
What Ritchie’s version did well in homage to the first was set recreation. Scene pieces like rock formations in the Cave of Wonders leading to the lamp and Aladdin’s “home” may as well have been copied and pasted from 1992. The score is pretty on point, thanks in part to the return of Alan Menken who headed the composition of the original animated film’s score - and many of Disney’s features, old and remake alike. Things are tweaked of course to fit better with the new cast, such as Smith’s numbers getting some hip hop reminiscent flair. It works well overall, but as I mentioned some of it feels overly processed. Listening to both old and new soundtracks on Spotify yields a clear preference for the old as it feels more authentic and polished still.
As much as I have so far criticized the live action version, I had fun and unabashedly will claim it to be a good movie for having fun. If we’re assuming Disney was focused exclusively on pleasing a young audience and a generation who is seeing Aladdin for the first time on the big screen, well then I may go so far as to call it a success. I went in half fearing the worst in a petty cash-in or obligatory production to retain IP rights, and I surprisingly came out smiling from more than mere nostalgia. Yet as much as it does right and seems pointed in the right direction, there still is something missing. For older fans, it’s a far cry from really filling the shoes of its precursor, and Disney couldn’t whip up enough magic from their lamp to blow us away. So much about it feels like we are shown great potential, but robbed of its fulfillment in that last little bit that would break the threshold into fantastical greatness. Ritchie was on the right track and should’ve gone full throttle but for whatever reason he balked.