You don’t have to look far on the internet to find somebody with an opinion on Disney, be it the man, or the company. There are already 1001 hot takes on the subject, so I see little point in front-loading my review with another spiel about its overwhelming presence in the entertainment industry. Rather I will simply say that I think at some point the House of Mouse is going to have to learn to take a real risk again, because this new gimmick of remaking old animated classics in live action, was tired before it even began. ALADDIN (1992) is a special film to me. Having watched it constantly as a child, I have nearly every scene burned into my memory. It’s one of the best animated films Disney has ever produced, which is why this remake in particular sticks out to me as a let down. Not that I was on pins and needles with anticipation, mind you, I honestly went in expecting it to be just okay, and that’s what it was. Perhaps that’s why I’m so let down, because I see a potentially terrific film buried underneath this product. I see that spark of creativity trying to catch fire but instead being snuffed out.
Disney knows how to make a spectacle
Okay, lets be clear. I didn’t hate this movie. In fact, I would go so far as to say I enjoyed it. From a filmmaking standpoint, there’s a lot to be dazzled by. The costumes are wonderful, and the sets (which appear practical for the most part) have a great visual flair. More important than the costumes and sets however, are the characters. It’s a pretty solid cast, with the main point of interest being Will Smith’s Genie. Smith does his best to make the character his own, bringing his smooth talking wit and musical showmanship into most of the scenes he’s in. I say “most” because there are a few instances where the film tries to make him a little too much like the animated version. An ill advised move as it only serves to remind us of the massive shoes Smith is having to fill. The romantic leads, Aladdin and Jasmine, are charming and likable enough with decent chemistry. Mena Massoud and Naoimi Scott do a good job of playing off each other, and their singing is pleasant (if perhaps slightly auto tuned). In fact, this film’s version of the songs are genuinely enjoyable, and Will Smith’s rendition of ‘Friend Like Me’ quite honestly had me grinning with delight.
Jafar and away
Unfortunately, there was one weak spot which stuck out to me, and that was Jafar. Look up any list of favorite Disney villains and you’ll likely find Jafar. Like most of the greats, he’s an over the top ham with an evil laugh and a design dripping with sinister flair. Here however he’s much more subdued, which would be fine if not for how close to the mark the rest of the characters are. Sure he dresses the part, all red and black with a cobra staff, but it’s ill fitting against his much softer voice and youthful face. He also comes saddled with a new layer of political motivation in a subplot which leads absolutely nowhere. I like to imagine that given a different script, Marwan Kenzari could’ve really shined in his role, but a different script would’ve meant taking real chances, and that’s not what this film is about.
Really that’s the common ailment linking all these remakes — they all have the potential to be more than just clones of the original. Just like with 2017’s BEAUTY & THE BEAST, the script is chock full of new and potentially brilliant concepts, all of which are brushed aside as fast as they’re introduced so we can get to the next recreation of a classic scene. And even those bits feel stale for the most part because they often seem rushed. More like an obligation rather than an essential element to move the plot forward. It’s these rigid practices of calculated pacing, market tested alterations, and flash over substance which hampers even the movie’s best moments, and shows just how much the studio is banking on nostalgia to carry them though.
A whole new world
In the end, it’s not the things they added which stand out to me, but rather the things they removed completely. When Jafar betrays Aladdin at the Cave of Wonders, he steps on his hand rather than trying to stab it. In the opening where Aladdin is running from the guards, he cuts through a school instead of a brothel. And during the climax, Jafar doesn’t turn into a giant snake for Aladdin to slash with a scimitar, but instead makes his parrot Iago giant to chase Aladdin on the magic carpet, with no swordplay to be had. It’s ironic how this version by virtue of being live action, is meant to be seen as more adult, and yet it’s significantly more child-friendly than the kid cartoon from more than two decades ago.
Now, I’m not naive, I understand that the modern world walks a delicate tightrope when it comes to depictions of Arabic culture, especially in media aimed at families. But I just gotta believe there’s a happy middle ground between cultural stereotyping and complete sanitization of an adventure meant to have a hint of danger. For comparison, imagine if in 101 Dalmatians, the puppies were simply at risk of being sold away, not skinned for a coat. Or if Syndrome from The Incredibles just locked up all the old heroes, instead of killing them. In theory the narratives wouldn’t change too much, but that extra threat, that layer of unease, would be gone. And the emotional weight lifted after the happy ending wouldn’t be as powerful a relief. Such is the case for ALADDIN (2019). It’s had all its edges smoothed down, and is much poorer for it in my opinion. Regardless, I’m sure many people will see these tweaks and omissions as an improvement. More power to them I suppose.
Like most remakes, ALADDIN (2019) can be fun, but forgettable when compared to the original. None of the good new ideas presented are explored enough to really matter, and the old ideas all mostly feel phoned in and rushed. Like the magic lamp, it’s a potential treasure surrounded by shiny distractions and falsehoods, which I fear too many audiences will succumb to and never see the light. It’s not offensively terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but quite frankly, I had wished for more.