Disney is on a roll to remake all of its animated films into live-action features. Those remakes have been pretty faithful. They’re not shot-for-shot remakes, but they do retain a lot that was iconic to the animated films. It’s rare that Disney would give a director a license to take the film into a completely different direction or deviate significantly. It can happen. Such was the case for Maleficent (2014), but for Disney’s most popular musicals, of which Aladdin is one, there isn’t much room for deviation or different directions.
For any one who has seen the 1992 original, this film could work as nostalgia. Hollywood has spent the past few years being nostalgic for the 80’s. Now, it’s perhaps time that people are nostalgic for the 90’s.
What this film provides though is the opportunity to put on the big screen something that is often lacking in mainstream or popular culture. The 1992 version is set in Arabia and its main characters are Arab or Islamic. Of course, there are Arabic or Islamic actors or characters that have been in big-budget films, but typically they’re portrayed as the villains or the side characters that are pushed to the periphery. It’s rare to get a film where the Arab characters are the leads and the heroes. This film provides the opportunity to put Arabs or Muslims as the leads and the heroes.
For some, seeing the faces of actors in person and in the flesh who identify as either Arab or Muslim or both will be enough. For some, seeing splashes of Arabic or Muslim culture as represented through clothing, through set design and through some customs will be enough. However, for me, it’s not enough or it’s arguably less than what the 1992 version had.
The 1992 version had something, which might seem minor, but in a post 9/11 world is actually major. The 1992 version had a character say the word “Allah,” which is how Muslims refer to God. It is a word unique to Muslims and it’s no equivocating about the reference, indicating who or what that character was and what his beliefs were. This film has no such reference. The characters come across as non-religious, which is disingenuous, given the time period in which it’s set. Religion is the basis for many people’s lives in that period and that region.
Yes, it’s all merely an adaptation of a cartoon, but even that cartoon had more of a sense of culture and of setting then this film. Yes, many criticized the cartoon for some insensitive things it did or how it perhaps offended Muslim people, but the corrective shouldn’t be to erase the religious or cultural-specific things entirely. I had more fun with the recent adaptation of Robin Hood (2018) because it did not shy away from Muslim-specific identifications and expressions.
It’s non-surprising though, to say the 1992 cartoon is a whole lot better than this live-action remake. The reason, however, has nothing to do with aesthetics and visuals. Those are lesser here than the original, but that’s not my main beef. The songs and story are the same. There are some tweaks to some of the characters, which either enhance or hinder what the original characters did. The lack of religion or faith is endemic to all of them, but the tweaks are the real issue. While I appreciated how they enhanced characters, those enhancements sometimes failed to go far enough. How they hindered other characters certainly was a problem.
Will Smith (Men in Black and Bad Boys) stars as Genie, a blue-skinned, all-powerful being that is forced to live inside a golden, oil-lamp and grant three wishes to whoever rubs the lamp. Smith is best known as being a rapper. Many rappers have done movies but not too many have done musicals. Queen Latifah is the only other that comes to mind, but she proved herself a very good singer prior to doing a musical. Smith was more a question mark, but he sings rather well.
The 1992 version featured Robin Williams. Williams’ performance in that film is largely a product of Williams’ genius at improvisation, cultural references, wit and speed. Williams was one of the greatest comedians and comedic actors alive. For any one to even attempt to fill his shoes is foolhardy. Smith is a great comedic actor but he can’t even come close to someone like Williams. If one lets go of Williams’ overwhelming shadow, Smith’s performance is charming and quite funny.
The one advantage of having Smith is that he is African-American. Having a black person play the role of the Genie is not new for this film. It’s something that began when the 1992 version was turned into a Broadway musical. Tony Award-winner James Monroe Iglehart was the first to put a black face to the role of Genie, and it makes sense. Intrinsic to the Genie’s story is the idea that he is a prisoner or a slave. Genie has bracelets on his wrists. They bind the Genie to the lamp as if they’re chains. In this film, the idea of a black man in chains would no doubt invoke that of slavery or of being in prison, which in the United States has been akin to slavery, according to Ava DuVernay’s 13th. It’s a missed opportunity here that this film doesn’t lean into that idea of an enslaved black man, which in effect the Genie here is. Yet, a film that’s squeamish about identifying the characters as being Muslim probably would be squeamish about tackling slavery. It would have helped though to negate any criticisms of Smith playing the “magical negro,” a kind of slave trope, which was what he got after The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000).
Mena Massoud (Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan) co-stars as Aladdin, a thief and pickpocket who steals in order to survive. It’s never explained why he can’t get a job like everyone else. There seems to be a caste system that prevents him from moving up from his current station. He says he was orphaned at a young age, which means he probably grew up on the streets and knows no better way. Yet, he does come off as very intelligent, so why he hasn’t devised some kind of plan to get a honest job is odd. It’s also odd that a monkey named Abu is his only friend. Aladdin’s age is undetermined, but he looks in his 20s and whether he’s befriended any other humans is a question.
Naomi Scott (Power Rangers and Terra Nova) also co-stars as Jasmine, a princess who is the daughter of the sultan, a man who is somewhere between a monarch and a mayor. She lives in a palace that is guarded and from which she’s not allowed to leave. However, she does manage to sneak out of the palace in disguise. She pretends to be a servant just so she can roam the city, known as Agrabah. She meets Aladdin when she tries to give bread to two starving children without paying for it. She’s portrayed as a smart, young woman but trying to take food without paying for it comes off as a bit dumb. Otherwise, it just shows how privileged and how much of a bubble she’s in.
Director and co-writer Guy Ritchie goes out of his way otherwise to portray Jasmine as a strong and feminist woman, speaking out against the customs that treat women in that culture as second-class citizens or as property to be married as property is bought and sold. As such, Ritchie gives her a new song for this version. The song is called “Speechless” and it’s about how she is disenfranchised but how she eventually takes a stand to speak her mind. It’s empowering and the final action sequence does provide her with something to do besides just be a damsel-in-distress. That something includes getting her hands on the magic lamp. Unfortunately, besides being a football, Ritchie doesn’t allow her to rub that lamp and use its power, even though she has plenty of time to do so.
It’s really the only action scene in the film and it becomes just a non-engaging chase. The original film had the villain using fantastical magic. This film doesn’t really allow the villain to use his magic in thrilling and terrifying ways. The cartoon did, which is one of the reasons the original was monumentally better. The original did a supremely excellent job of establishing and developing its villain.
Marwan Kenzari (The Mummy and Murder on the Orient Express) plays Jafar, the aforementioned villain. When Kenzari was first announced back in August 2017 as playing this part, many pointed out that he was possibly too young and too sexy to be Jafar who the cartoon depicted as more middle-aged and haggard. Yet, having such an attractive Jafar is an angle that could have been utilized to great affect. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t give Kenzari the space to be charming or sexy. Aside from one moment, when he’s shirtless, Kenzari’s physical appeal is wasted. He’s also for the most part very one-note. He’s basically only a single emotion for the entire film. The cartoon at least allowed Jafar to display various emotions. For example, in the cartoon, Jafar laughed. Jafar got scared. He felt like a fleshed-out human being. He showed a range of emotions. Here, Kenzari shows no range, which makes him not feel like a human being but a caricature.
Lastly, the visual effects are hit or miss. The effects don’t really start until the Genie appears and you either go with seeing Will Smith as a blue torso floating on a puff of smoke or you don’t. The real test for me though is the first chase sequence involving the magic carpet. The 1992 version was a landmark because it was one of the first times that CGI was used in a hand-drawn animated film. The magic carpet sequence in the 1992 version was an incredible mix of CGI and hand-drawn animation. The version here isn’t as so. It’s not just that the CGI is more dreary. It’s also that some of the sequences aren’t imaginative. The musical number “A Whole New World” in the 1992 version was so inventive, layered and funny. That same musical number here is mostly just dreary and not creative at all.
Rated PG for some action/peril.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 8 mins.