Aladdin, Starring Will Smith, Rolls Off Disney's Live-Action-Remake Assembly Line
Walt Disney Pictures' 1992 animated feature Aladdin is the latest to get the live-action-remake treatment, and the result is only marginally less dispiriting than the recent Beauty and the Beast remake. That earlier film was a triumph of capitalism: a slavish yet lifeless redo of one of the glories of Disney's 1990s animated renaissance created with the purpose of making money. When it comes to remaking Aladdin, though, it's a given that some actual rethinking of the source material would have to take place, not just because of our current moment's focus on matters of cultural representation, but also because it'd be a fool's errand for anyone to try to match Robin Williams's still-enthralling vocal performance as the Genie, which is so indelibly his. Will Smith, the new Genie in director Guy Ritchie's remake, aims to put his own stamp on the character, but as with many things that are new in this film, his efforts aren't nearly enough to prevent us from wishing we were watching the original instead
Screenwriters Ritchie and John August haven't changed much of the plot. Based on the famous Arabian folktale from the One Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street urchin in Agrabah who falls in love with Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the daughter of a sultan (Navid Negahban). Aladdin crosses paths with the sultan's scheming vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who uses Aladdin to secure a lamp hidden in the Cave of Wonders that will unleash a genie capable of making his dreams of upward royal mobility come true. Instead, through a series of life-imperiling circumstances, Aladdin ends up with the lamp and then unleashes the genie, whom he uses to try to capture Jasmine's heart by pretending to be Prince Ali of Ababwa. But though he wins over an initially reluctant Jasmine with his disguise, things get more complicated once Jafar catches on to Aladdin's ruse.
Though this new Aladdin features many small changes and additions from the animated original — tweaked plot points here, some up-to-date jokes there — the most significant involves empowering Jasmine even more than before. Here, she isn't just interested in being able to choose her own suitor, but she also wants to become the first female sultan of Agrabah — a prospect that confounds her father, still stuck in old patriarchal ways of thinking. This new take on Jasmine is the main justification for the one noteworthy new song in the film: the anthem "Speechless," featuring lyrics by Dear Evan Hansen's Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that traffic in inspirational clichés with none of the wit of the Howard Ashman and Tim Rice lyrics heard elsewhere in the film (the music for the new number, as with the rest of the songs, is by Alan Menken).
Not that the rest of the film is on any firmer ground when it sticks to the template laid out by its animated predecessor. Massoud and Scott, though perfectly adequate, lack personality as both actors and singers (though Massoud does strike a few comic sparks opposite Smith in their scenes together). Kenzari plays Jafar as a brat burning with an overblown sense of entitlement; it's a striking polar-opposite approach to Jonathan Freeman's vocal performance in the animated version, but Freeman's basso profundo menace is missed. As for Smith, he, as usual, is never less than ingratiating; but whereas Robin Williams was able to convey childlike glee and world-weary disappointment amid the surface hyperactivity, Smith's performance by comparison feels one-note, his likability smoothing everything out into blandness.
"Bland" also describes Guy Ritchie's direction, from the dreary colors of Alan Stewart's cinematography; to James Herbert's editing, which makes a hash out of Jamal Sims's ebullient choreography in the dance sequences new to this version. But everything that's wrong with this new Aladdin can be seen in Ritchie's approach to reimagining "A Whole New World." What was a glorious high-flying spectacle in the animated original, brimming with romanticism and bursting with possibility, has now been coarsened into little more than a theme-park ride. That's only fitting, though, for what turns out to be mostly just another product in the Disney live-action-remake assembly line.