REVIEW – ‘Aladdin’ is entirely enjoyable but rather pointless

Standing as the first Disney remake to be met with genuine alarm and sardonic online scorn, Aladdin arrives with a hefty point to prove. With many questioning the need for its very existence, this live-action re-imagining has caused all sorts of panicked anxiety amongst Disney purists. Put the pitchforks and torches down. Guy Ritchie’s visual spectacle is far from the unmitigated train wreck many have predicted. Well, for the most part.

While this updated version of one of Disney’s most cherished animated works is entirely enjoyable (albeit rather pointless) and sweepingly fun, thanks to lavish visuals and a captivating romance, it’s bogged down by some heavy problems that create a mixed end result, namely an excessive use of CGI effects, a new Genie who will cause all sorts of division with audiences, and a villain that lands with a disappointing thud.

Our tale begins with a quick zoom through the crowded streets of Agrabah’s marketplace and up into the dazzling Sultan’s palace before settling in on an eerie desert scene. It’s here we find Jafar (a miscast Marwan Kenzari), Grand Vizier of Agrabah and chief advisor to the Sultan (Navid Negahban), persuading a lowly street beggar to enter the Cave of Wonders, in his quest to locate the fabled magic lamp hidden within. But only the worthy “diamond in the rough” will be granted safe passage inside the cave, and this latest offering ain’t it, leading to the poor sod being swallowed whole beneath the sands. This is a kid’s movie, right?

Back at the marketplace, we meet lovable orphan “street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a quick-of-hand thief who exchanges stolen jewellery for bags of dates to feed himself and his monkey pal Abu. But this wily burglar has a heart of gold and would rather go hungry and give his bounty to two young homeless children instead. After sneaking out of the palace walls for the first time in years, headstrong and determined Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) makes her way through the marketplace, posing as a palace handmaiden to avoid attention.

After a run-in with a local merchant, Aladdin swoops in, rescues the princess, parkours his way out of trouble, and, during an afternoon of conversation, the pair fall in love. After sneaking into the palace to reunite with his beloved and catching the eye of Jafar’s trusty parrot sidekick Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk), Aladdin is captured by the Grand Vizier, who thinks he may have finally found his diamond in the rough. Jafar, a former street thief himself, reveals Jasmine’s true royal identity and convinces Aladdin he needs riches to truly be worthy of her heart.

As such, Aladdin agrees to enter the Cave of Wonders, under the proviso Jafar will reward him greatly. With strict instructions not to touch any of the cave’s dazzling jewels and to return to Jafar with the golden oil lamp, Aladdin cautiously sets about his quest. But jewel-hungry Abu can’t help but attempt to steal a giant ruby, causing the cave to self-destruct, leaving Aladdin trapped with the lamp. A quick rub of the shiny artifact reveals its true nature; an all-powerful Genie (Will Smith) who will grant his new master three wishes. And, just like that, Aladdin becomes Prince Ali, and it’s back to Agrabah to win the Princess’ heart.

If you’re thinking this plot summary sounds note-for-note with the original animated film, you’re not wrong. And, for many, that will be entirely fine. As with practically every Disney live-action remake (as disappointing as it was, at least Dumbo attempted something different), the narrative has been rather lazily rehashed for this mega-budget re-imagining. Naturally, a few changes and additions have been sprinkled throughout, notably Jasmine no longer believing the boy she meets in the marketplace has died, making her failure to instantly recognise Prince Ali far more unbelievable. But, this is a fairy tale, after all, so suspension of disbelief is required.

The inclusion of a new character in royal handmaiden Dalia (a scene-stealing Nasim Pedrad) provides Jasmine with someone else to talk to besides her pet tiger Rajah, which is decidedly refreshing and far more authentic. Pedrad is typically wondrous and genuinely amusing in the role, even if her other narrative purpose (which will remain unspoiled) is woefully silly. We’re also provided with a goofy potential suitor in Prince Anders (a deliciously camp Billy Magnussen), a European monarch who’s played as a recurring gag to pitch-perfect effect. Although his appearance is so brief, you’ll wish he sticks around longer.

But this remake’s greatest difference and most obvious success is its wonderfully diverse cast. It’s always been an embarrassing point of contention the original animated film featured an entirely white cast of voiceover actors to play a variety of Middle Eastern roles. There’s no whitewashing here, giving this version a far more authentic aesthetic. Our two leads are of Egyptian and Indian descent. Our villain is of Tunisian heritage. And the film’s biggest star is an African American. If we’re entering a new age of representation in cinema, Aladdin may be Disney’s crowning glory, even if Agrabah is still a stereotypical, clichéd version of the Middle East more akin to something from one of their theme parks.

Filling Robin Williams’ mighty shoes was always going to be a tough challenge and full credit must be given to Smith for stepping into a role few would dare touch. Genie is one of Disney’s most beloved characters, thanks to Williams masterful voiceover performance that still stands as the gold standard of animation. Smith puts his own unique spin on the character, injecting plenty of Fresh Prince of Bel Air flair and camp, flamboyant qualities that you’ll either absolutely adore or utterly despise. This film critic is erring somewhere in the middle.

Smith throws everything he’s got at this role, even noting at one point, “I’m too much.” Yes, he is too much. And maybe that’s the point. He’s every bit as outlandish and bold as he needs to be, providing the occasional moment of brilliant levity and humour. But his performance lacks the heart and warmth Williams was able to bring with just his voice. Smith never quite captures the essence of what made Genie such a lovable character. Nor is there a shred of the beautiful friendship with Aladdin that was the cornerstone of the original. And the less said about his unsettling blue CGI appearance the better. When he occasionally transforms into full human form, it’s far more palatable.

Both relative unknowns, Massoud and Scott take on the challenge of playing out one of cinema’s greatest love stories with terrific commitment. As our endearing and roguish street rat, Massoud is endlessly charming, with his huge smile and boyish good looks. It’s a shame the poor thing can’t sing to save his life, which ponders the question of how he ended up in a big-screen musical in the first place. What he lacks in vocal ability, he makes up for in boundless charisma and terrific chemistry with Scott, crafting a romance that’s typically Disney magic.

Scott all but steals this film entirely with a captivating performance full of fiery independence and verve, delivering Jasmine as far more of an inspiring feminist role model than before. Rejecting tradition and wanting to rule Agrabah as its first female Sultan, there’s a modernisation to Jasmine that may sound eye-rollingly garish but works well in the context of the narrative. She’s even given a brand-new song, “Speechless” (written by Oscar, Tony, and Grammy Award winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, no less), to stake her claim as more than just an obedient princess. Scott’s vocals are phenomenal and the song is a shoo-in for an Oscar nom next year, but it doesn’t cohesively fit with the original songs. You know it’s a new song, and that’s part of the problem.

As for the rest of the musical numbers, they’re strangely one of the film’s biggest flaws, often feeling like constant interruptions to the flow of the film than organic inclusions. It’s often an unsettling moment to see a character randomly break into song, particularly for those not entirely fond of movie musicals. But the best musicals avoid this pitfall by allowing the songs to stream naturally from the narrative. Aladdin falls down a hole every time the music strikes up. Somehow, these numbers all worked perfectly effectively in animation, but they never feel anything but out of place in this live-action setting, particularly “Friend Like Me,” which is an eye-popping explosion of hundreds of CGI effects that will make your head spin.

But perhaps the fatal flaw of Aladdin is its lack of a great villain. In the original, Jafar was one of Disney’s most menacing and terrifying creations. In this version, he’s terribly flat and disastrously dull. There’s an admirable attempt to flesh his character out, with more focus given to his true motivation for power over Agrabah. But Kenzari’s one-note performance simply doesn’t fit the character well, leaving us with a villain who is neither unsettling or interesting. Even worse is the decision to rob Iago of the wise-cracking wit and human speech ability that made his character such a delight. Instead, he’s merely a parrot who occasionally talks like a parrot. Why even bother giving this role to someone as vocally gifted as Tudyk?

Director Guy Ritchie has never been a “less is more” filmmaker and he throws open the lid of the CGI treasure chest to exhausting effect. Aladdin is so overloaded with special effects sequences, you’ll pray for a moment of quiet solitude from the visual calamity in practically every scene. His dizzying camerawork is rather nauseating, as is his frustrating penchant for bizarre slow-motion moments that often completely ruin the visual aesthetic and serve absolutely no purpose. But every moment is uplifted by Alan Menken‘s gorgeous score, which takes his original work to new heights with a fuller, richer sound that’s a genuine delight for the ears.

When all is said and done, this updated version of Aladdin is a whole lot of everything and very little of anything. It doesn’t seek to reinvent the wheel of its predecessor, choosing instead to play it safe by sticking closely to what’s come before. For fans of nostalgia cinema, that will sit perfectly fine. It is indeed a whole new world, but whether it’s a new world we really needed is tough to conclusively answer, especially when there was nothing wrong with the old world.

Distributor: Disney
Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen
Director: Guy Ritchie
Producers: Dan Lin, Jonathan Eirich
Screenplay: John August, Guy Ritchie
Cinematography: Alan Stewart
Music: Alan Menken
Production Design: Gemma Jackson
Editor: James Herbert
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Date: 23rd May 2019 (Australia)

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