There are a few current cinematic trends more tiresome than Disney’s insistence on reimagining their animated classics in live action. It’s given us the odd gem like Pete’s Dragon, sure, but most of these movies don’t have a David Lowery behind them, resulting in garish, hollow remakes like Alice in Wonderland and Beauty and the Beast. Every sign leading up to Aladdin indicated it would be another of those failures – taking on one of the most beloved of the 90s renaissance films was always going to be an uphill battle, and bizarre choices from the hiring of Guy Ritchie as director to the instantly memed-to-high-heaven Will Smith Genie CGI did little to inspire much confidence.
Against all the odds Aladdin not only works but almost overcomes its reductive remake nature to feel like the type of classic adventure movie that doesn’t get made anymore. Don’t get me wrong; it’s hardly the “new fantastic point of view” that its most iconic song proclaims, and as always with these remakes, the existence of the already fantastic animated original makes the new one somewhat inessential by design. However, it speaks to the dire state of modern blockbuster filmmaking that a funny, visually sumptuous fantasy-adventure musical as unembarrassed and straightforward as this manages to be one of the more refreshing family blockbusters in recent memory.
Ritchie still stands out as an odd choice for the director, but it’s his idiosyncracies that end up making the movie worthwhile. The Disney remakes frequently fall victim to the same muddy studio house-style visuals that choke any distinctness from the film, but Ritchie circumvents this with his typically reliable visual eye, delivering vibrant and coherent action that’s bolstered by some incredible set and costume design.
The CGI is mostly okay as well – the genie looks spotty at moments, but for the most part it works, and Will Smith’s performance makes it easy to look past the small visual inconsistencies. Here he’s more charismatic than he’s been in years, and it’s so refreshing to have a reminder of what made Will Smith such a fantastic movie star after it seemed like he lost that quality long ago. The masterstroke of his performance is in how little he tries to ape the classic Robin Williams portrayal. Williams’ voicework in the original is something of an enigma, so star-driven and referential and manic that it barely works, but supported by the energy and fluidity of the animation it pays off. Smith’s turn is similarly star-driven, but he and Ritchie wisely choose to reign in the craziness because it can’t work as well in live action. The more low-key, naturally charming genie ends up being one of the movie’s highlights thanks to how appropriately considered the translation of animation to live action ends up being, so much so that the third act suffers when Smith is forced to take a back seat.
Not all of Ritchie’s changes in translating Aladdin to live action are as successful though – while the two performers are fun enough together the choice to give the genie a human love interest as played by Nasim Pedrad is more than a little bewildering. Though Alan Menken’s score is fantastic and he smartly chooses to rework the existing songs to better fit the new characters (even if the vocal performances in a few of them falter), the new songs he adds to the mix are relatively awkward and don’t quite justify their inclusion. The movie’s biggest failing is Jafar – the sneering mastermind of the original is played like a petulant teenage boy here, with Marwan Kenzari’s limp performance leaning more towards the incel next door than the evil sorcerer supreme. I understand why they’d make this change to make the villain more marketable, and I can see a version of this character potentially working, but in practice, it’s poorly executed and leaves you yearning for the full-tilt classically evil bad guy a traditional fantasy story like this deserves.
Luckily he’s countered by two very charismatic leads in Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, the latter of whom is particularly radiant and so tenderly reveals Princess Jasmine’s loneliness and frustrations. It’s just a shame that the movie around them isn’t a little more streamlined and focused on being the best simple fantasy story possible, as they could have been anchoring a brilliant example of the type of star-driven throwback family genre movie that I’d like to see more of in Aladdin.
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