The Disney recycling machine takes aim at moviegoers’ wallets again with this live-action remake (with massive doses of CGI, of course) of its 1992 animated smash, one of the best-loved pictures from the studio’s second golden age. The original “Aladdin” has already spawned non-theatrical sequels, video games, a TV series and a Broadway musical, along with tons of merchandise, so one would have to be foolhardy to predict that this latest iteration will be the last. One can safely assume, however, that it will be another box office bonanza. Whether it deserves to be is a wholly different question: though it hews reasonably closely to the plot of the 1992 film (unlike its immediate predecessor “Dumbo,” which changed the narrative substantially), this oversized remake manages to jettison much of the original’s charm and cleverness.
As usual with these retreads, the movie is sumptuously made. Gemma Jackson’s production design is elaborate, Michael Wilkinson’s costumes aim to be dazzling (too much so in both cases, it can be argued—the visuals could be described as garish), and Alan Stewart’s widescreen cinematography is glossy, even if the big dance numbers come off as frantic and oddly clumsy—a trait accentuated by the choppy editing of them by James Herbert.
But perhaps the blame for the ineptitude of those sequences should be chalked up to Jamal Sims’s athletic but clunky choreography and the basically unsympathetic direction of Guy Ritchie. He was a peculiar choice for a film like this in any event—a specialist in hard-boiled action—and though his heart might have been in the right place, he seems to have applied more attention to the chases and special effects than to the musical numbers; or at least they come off better.
He doesn’t prove much more adept in dealing with the more intimate moments, the humor in which he italicizes with such a heavy hand that the attractive performers are misused. Mena Massoud, for instance, is a thoroughly likable chap, but is encouraged to play Aladdin so broadly that he’s more cartoonish than the animated Aladdin was, and while as Princess Jasmine Naomi Scott is resplendent in her outfits—and is given a strong-woman feminist attitude, as well as a new song, “Speechless,” that is straight out of the “Frozen” playbook (and is staged weirdly, with other characters disappearing into dust around her)—she’s curiously bland.
One can’t be even that sanguine about Marwan Kenzari as the villainous Jafar. Simply put, he comes across as a couple of sizes too small for the part, a squeaking rodent rather than a commanding figure of evil.
On the other hand, one could never accuse Will Smith of being too small as the Genie. The effects army has made him into a towering, muscular blue figure—except, of course, in the rare instances in which he appears in human size (for which he’s paired with a new character as his romantic interest—Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia, played by Nasim Pedrad in full sitcom style). He doesn’t try for the hyperkinetic, improvisational vocals that Robin Williams brought to the part in 1992 (a good idea), instead providing a hip-hoppy version of his younger self. The result isn’t as much fun as Williams’ turn was, but it’s probably the best one could have hoped for in what was really an impossible task.
Smith’s Genie is certainly the biggest effect in “Aladdin,” but there are plenty of others. The magic carpet is one of the more successful of them, and Aladdin’s monkey partner and helpmate Abu is another, though one tires of the endless reaction shots of the latter, which become as much of a crutch as dog cutaways are in so many family movies. Otherwise the effects are decent but hardly exceptional, with many of the chase sequences, particularly toward the close, rather messy and cluttered.
“Aladdin” has, of course, been shorn of what now is seen as culturally insensitivity in this reworking. The cast is suitably multiethnic, and the dialogue and lyrics have been reworked to excise problematical elements (the opening “Arabian Nights” number, for instance, replaces “barbaric” with “chaotic” in describing the locale). It has also been given a framing device in which Smith, as the owner of a fishing boat, is portrayed as telling the story of Aladdin to his two darling children—one of the better additions in a film that’s longer than its model by nearly forty minutes.
In this case, though, bigger is certainly not better. When in future home viewers reach for a disc of “Aladdin” on the shelf, you can be pretty sure it will be the 1992 version, not this lumbering would-be replacement.