Whether you like it or not, the box office will be playing host to Disney as they re-merchandise their back catalog into live-action movies until further notice. While the process began with earlier works produced a generation ago, now that the Mouse has decided to furiously tap into 90s nostalgia (the 30-year nostalgia cycle is relentless), this year we’re getting Aladdin and The Lion King repackaged and sold to us once again.
Putting snark aside for a moment, I don’t consider any piece of media so precious and holy that they should be preserved in amber. Remakes are as old as Hollywood itself, and if someone brings a new perspective or vision to a media property, I don’t think “How dare you” is a healthy reaction. In fact, that’s the way we continue our tradition of passing on cherished stories, by reinventing and invigorating them to the current expectations of audiences.
But I won’t be using that measured tone to describe 2019’s Aladdin. Oh no. Aladdin is ill-conceived from top to bottom and watching it is probably the most unhappy I’ve been at a movie theater in some time. I just want you to know when I say these things, I say them out of deep disappointment with the lack of ambition and not some misplaced defense of my childhood. Instead of trying to present us with something transformative and new, Aladdin reheats the old once again, but now burdened by such damning mistakes that I’m honestly shocked this isn’t going straight to Disney+ in shame.
Let’s stop for a moment and address what everybody already knows — Will Smith isn’t Robin Williams, and the Genie looks goofy in the trailers. Again, to me, this isn’t untouchable ground. But when you’re creating a new version of an animated film that built its entire value proposition around the larger-than-life comedy of an iconic performer, you’d better have a strategy to build the film as tightly around the comedy and charisma of Will Smith as the original did around Williams.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, Guy Richie did not do this. Whether he naively thought sticking Smith into Williams’ place like a replacement cog would work out fine, or whether a more ambitious vision for Aladdin was browbeaten into mediocrity by studio executives who didn’t understand what they were doing, we’re stuck watching Will Smith labor in vain to fill enormous shoes when he could have served the film and the memory of Robin Williams better by doing his own thing. As he says himself in the film, “In 10,000 years, I’ve never been this embarrassed.”
But the Genie isn’t the worst thing about Aladdin by far. A CGI Will Smith might serve as the proverbial dead canary, but a dead canary can’t tell you just how many flavors of poison are down in the mine.
The critical flaw in Aladdin is the pacing and staging of scenes. To again invoke a comparison to the original, Robin Williams described the animated Aladdin as “A Warner Brothers cartoon in Disney drag.” That is to say, the film was a rapid-fire barrage of pop culture humor, quick pacing, and squash-and-stretch magic invoking the works of legendary animators like Chuck Jones and Tex Avery.
All of that is gone in the live-action version. Genie moves slower, undoubtedly since the uncanny valley of Will Smith’s face on the digital body would look even more grotesque if it did even half of what the 2D Genie pulled off with style. There are three styles of staging in Aladdin: sterile coverage you’d expect from a cast recording of a stage musical, long elaborate tracking shots that would make even Tim Burton blush, and 360 flyarounds of characters experiencing what passes for emotional beats by this film’s standards.
One of the most frustrating things about the film is also one of the more welcome changes — the kingdom of Agrabah has been relocated slightly. While the original codes the kingdom as more Arabic, the film makes Agrabah a fantasy version of western India. Still lots of desert, but now there’s an ocean, and strong implications that Agrabah is a port city where several cultures converge and mix into something new. Honestly, a very smooth way to turn the biggest criticism of the original into something of a positive. But where it becomes frustrating is it’s very clear Bollywood movies were referenced in the conceptual process, but none of the notes made it to the director of photography or the choreographer.
Indulge me for a moment. Here’s the opening credits to Singham, a Bollywood movie I love very much.
Amazing, right? That’s a somewhat serious movie about exposing police corruption, by the way.
Now here is a segment of the live-action Aladdin’s rendition of Prince Ali.
How does an action movie about dirty cops have better dance choreography and cinematography than a $100 million dollar Disney movie? Because Bollywood was good enough to go on the film’s Pinterest board, it was good enough to provide inspiration for Jasmine’s new ‘Let It Go’ style empowerment song, but not good enough for DoP Alan Stewart to draw cues from. He’s been Richie’s cinematographic partner for both his career highs (Sherlock Holmes) and lows (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), and here he settles for that same boring flying camera that’s used in every fantasy movie these days. You know, the one that swoops around and seems to be far more impressed with all the CGI locales than it is with the characters within it.
I haven’t spent much time on describing the plot of Aladdin since you saw it already in 1992. The only difference is now they try and make Jafar less mustache-twirlingly evil and more into a mirror foil of Aladdin’s lying and ambition. All it really serves to do is run another element of the original through the blandness shredder. Also, he doesn’t turn into a snake anymore at the end, he turns Iago into a giant murder eagle and that’s the action set piece at the end. Seriously.
There’s more we could go into, but it’s all sort of like pointing out the broken windows when your house has burnt down. Abu isn’t as cute when he’s a creepy real looking monkey. Making Jasmine a stronger character with more agency while simultaneously making Al’s Prince Ali disguise more nakedly chauvinistic for “comedy” creates a weird plot dynamic that wasn’t thought about for more than five seconds. Making Jafar a stand-in for egotistical, vapid, and bloodthirsty real-world political figures doesn’t just conflict with the attempt to make him less cartoonishly evil, it comes across as lazy.
All in all, this movie is truly a disaster, but I think the biggest crime of all is the whole thing is going to be laid at the feet of Will Smith. Yes, he’s not singing as well as Robin Williams, but nobody is going to be spending time comparing Mena Massoud to Scott Weinger, despite that being a much larger drop in quality from the original. Yes, Will Smith isn’t as funny as the Genie, but nobody is funny in this movie. And yes, the design of the Genie looks weird, but it’s not as big of a visual mess as filming a lively musical like The Crimes of Grindelwald. But the biggest problems with Aladdin are the ones at the core of the film, not the man whose face will become synonymous with its failure.
Side note, before the movie started I made the same joke I’ve made about every Will Smith movie this side of Men In Black 2: “This better end with a 90s-style Will Smith rap song where he recounts the plot of the movie.”
Be careful what you wish for.