Whilst it’s evident that we’re not all on-board the live-action remake train that Disney seem so intent on scheduling in regular intervals as of late, it’s a trend that we’ll just have to get used to. The box office numbers for recent do-overs such as Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book speak for themselves – hell, Alice In Wonderland cracked a billion(!) worldwide – and this process will be much easier to comprehend if we just accept the inevitable.
The latest cab-off-the-rank, Aladdin, is arguably one of the House of Mouse’s most beloved titles with a plot-line and soundtrack that is generally well-remembered, so audiences going into this offering are likely to be familiar with the story beats on hand, and to the credit of screenwriters John August (Charlie’s Angels, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and Guy Ritchie (Snatch, Sherlock Holmes), the latter also serving as director, they don’t pretend otherwise.
However, there’s an artificiality to the proceedings here that both strips Ritchie’s directorial presence of any identity and hinders the film in a manner of aesthetic naturality, with this particular take going for a jukebox-sing-off-meets-Bollywood mentality that plays into the over-the-top temperament it appears to settle for; say what you will about the obvious set design but at least what translates on screen is never boring.
For the hoards of us that have seen the 1992 animated original, the story here is basically the same. The titular “street rat” thief (Mena Massoud) is called upon by the evil wizard-of-sorts Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) to delve deep into the caves of the desert to retrieve a mystical lamp. Said lamp will bring Jafar more power than he could imagine in his bid to rule over the city of Agrabah, but Aladdin ends up with the flashy ornament, which just so happens to home an all-mighty, wise-cracking Genie (Will Smith). Throw in a princess (Naomi Scott’s Jasmine) who can only marry a worthy suitor, an initial wish for the poor Aladdin to disguise himself as royalty, and a mushy duet upon a flying carpet, and you have yourself a suitable adventure of sorts that never threatens to derail from expectation.
Ironically though, it’s when the film opts to deviate from its source material that it feels at its most alive. The 2019 incarnation of Jafar appears to have genuine motivation behind his villainous ways – he’s a former thief himself who longs to be Sultan so he can transform the peaceful Agrabah into a more controlled, militant land – and Jasmine’s anger at being married off is less to do with the fact that it sounds unappealing and more that she desires to be Sultan herself, but can’t due to her nation’s sexist traditions. This, in turn, means the sequences set behind the palace walls are where Ritchie’s film flirts with a personality, ultimately earning place as some of the more stand-out moments Aladdin has to offer.
Of course, no matter how Ritchie and co. choose to change-up Aladdin‘s ingredients, or how they stage the familiar, it’s Smith’s performance as the Genie that will ultimately act as the film’s most intriguing component. Early footage of the actor fused with a CGI-enhanced body, cased head-to-toe in signature blue, had the internet crying afoul – and for right reason – but I can assure the masses that how it appears on screen here is far less terrifying; the effects aren’t flawlessly rendered though, but it sits well within the outlandish persona of the character. And when Smith is allowed to stray from the rapid-fire wit that was so memorably created by Robin Williams in the original, his particular version of the character thrives, and that’s basically because Smith is playing the over-enthused hype-man we all think of him to be.
Beyond Smith, and an incredibly charming four-way romantic comedy sub-arc between Aladdin, Jasmine, Genie, and Jasmine’s handmaiden (the splendid Nasim Pedrad), the film’s greatest asset is that of Scott as Jasmine. The very definition of a “breakout” role, her ravishing beauty and acceptable pipes manage to not overshadow her presence as an actor, and it’s within the choice to rework her character’s motivation that the film finds its most impact; however, Jasmine’s own “Let It Go” solo number moment loses the impact it strides for given the song choice feels alarmingly modern among the more theatrical, well-known cuts like “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” (both Smith-driven set-pieces here that rank as two of the film’s most colourful and catchy sessions).
As for Aladdin himself, he’s a fine specimen to view but Massoud fails to inject any real personality into the character, and for all of the improvements tailored to Jafar, Kenzari’s younger appearance and lack of menace lead to a creation more interesting on paper than in actuality, resulting in a film that is surprisingly void of both an antagonist and protagonist we feel any sense of connection to.
Whilst the 2019 Aladdin will unavoidably be compared (and, most likely, unfavourably) to its original animated counterpart, on its own merits it’s a relatively average, though still harmlessly fun piece of fluff that’s perhaps best summed up by the Genie’s own description of Aladdin’s attempt to court Jasmine: “Clumsy, but charming”.
A thrilling and vibrant live-action adaptation of Disney’s animated classic, “Aladdin” is the exciting tale of the charming street rat Aladdin, the courageous and self-determined Princess Jasmine and the Genie who may be the key to their future. Directed by Guy Ritchie, who brings his singular flair for fast-paced, visceral action to the fictitious port city of Agrabah, “Aladdin” is written by John August and Ritchie based on Disney’s “Aladdin.”
Aladdin (PG) is screening in Australian theatres from May 23rd 2019.