I am a very, very, very big Disney fan. And the films I hold most dear came out during my most formative years (the end of high school; the start of college) between 1989 and 1994: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. I consider these movies sacred, and it’s hard for me to describe how depressed I was to learn that not one, not two, not three, but ALL FOUR of them would be remade in “live-action” form.
But I’m still a sucker for their stories and soundtracks, so of course when the time came to see the new Beauty and the Beast in 2017 with Emma Watson as Belle, I went into it feeling cautiously hopeful … and came out of it feeling relieved that it was decent — even though I remained convinced a remake wasn’t necessary.
I’m sorry to say that I don’t feel as positive about the new Aladdin. And the main reason is a surprising one: Will Smith as the Genie. In addition to being a big Disney fan, I’m also a fairly huge Will Smith fan — I even saw him in concert back in the day as The Fresh Prince before he became an A-list Hollywood star. But I think the fact that he’s now an A-list Hollywood star is precisely the problem. I couldn’t forget that he was Will Smith, and I definitely couldn’t deal with how director/co-writer Guy Ritchie chose to beef him up and do something really weird to his eyes and teeth on top of making him blue for the majority of the two-hour running time. It was unnerving and completely took me out of the film.
Yet that’s not even the worst part. The worst part was that I actually started crying a little bit during the Genie’s first number, “Friend Like Me,” which is the introduction to his character after Aladdin first rubs the magic lamp he finds in the Cave of Wonders. This is supposed to be a rousing and amazing song! But all I could think about was how perfect Robin Williams had been as the Genie in the 1992 animated version, and how tragic it is that he’s no longer with us. An in-person-yet-still-partially-CGI’d Smith wasn’t able to hold a candle to William’s voice performance. And, I mean, it’s not like Smith is a low-energy guy. But when he was the blue version of the Genie, I just couldn’t handle it. The frenzied CGI spectacle around him during “Friend Like Me” only served to make it seem like both he and Ritchie were trying way too hard to live up to the high standard Williams set.
But what about Aladdin himself? Thankfully, Mena Massoud was great as the title character. I thought he even sounded like his animated counterpart (Scott Weinger), especially when he sang. And I guess I’ve just assumed everyone knows this story, but I’ll back up here to say that Aladdin is about a poor young man who lives on the streets of Agrabah and stays alive by stealing food and being quick-witted. One day, he helps a woman (Naomi Scott) escape the city guards. This woman claims to be Princess Jasmine’s handmaid, but the truth is that it’s actually the princess, who snuck out of the confines of the palace and away from her well-meaning but overbearing father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban).
When Aladdin learns Jasmine’s true identity, he weasels his way into the palace to see her again, only to get caught by the Sultan’s evil advisor, Jafar (Marwen Kenzari). Jafar believes Aladdin is one of the only people who could make it out of the Cave of Wonders alive with the magic lamp — which Jafar wants for himself — but when things go sideways in the cave, Aladdin ends up with the lamp … and that’s how he meets the Genie.
Aladdin’s opening number, “One Jump Ahead,” where we watch as he dips and flips his way through Agrabah with law enforcement in hot pursuit, was great fun and made me hopeful for the rest of the film. Ritchie — known best for gritty, hyperkinetic crime comedies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch —is honestly the last director I would’ve expected to helm a Disney movie. He does best with the bigger action sequences like the opening number — scenes that involve a lot of different background characters and many moving parts. Along those lines, I dug “Prince Ali”—a circus-spectacle of a song that introduces the Sultan and Jasmine to Aladdin’s new royal identity, courtesy of the Genie. It works because: 1) Will Smith just looks like Will Smith (and not Blue Mr. Clean) during it, 2) the song holds up, even though Smith’s voice sounded strangely high and weak, 3) there’s so much to look at and see, with hundreds of characters and Agrabah citizens involved, yet 4) none of it looked CGI’d (even though I know some of it was).
Scott as Jasmine fell a little flat for me, but I appreciated Ritchie and his co-writer John August’s attempts to modernize the plot. The only completely new song in the film is Jasmine’s “Speechless,” and it was awkwardly phrased and not catchy or memorable, which is a bummer.
I left the film wondering if people who hadn’t seen the original version would like this remake more than I did, because clearly all I was doing was lamenting how inferior it was on every single front the entire time I watched it. But I will say that in addition to the two musical sequences I mentioned above, there was a stunning dance number I enjoyed, the Magic Carpet stole every scene he (it?) was in, Jasmine’s handmaid Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) was a positive and clever addition … and hey, I still got to sing along to “A Whole New World.”
Here’s hoping director Jon Favreau can change my attitude about these remakes with The Lion King on July 19. (I’ll admit his live-action The Jungle Book was better than the new Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast, but it, too, still couldn’t compare to the original.)