Trailers for the latest in Disney's line of big budget remakes of their classic animated films haven't made Guy Ritchie's take on "Aladdin" (out May 24) look so hot. Can Will Smith and company pull it off, or will audiences leave feeling blue? Here's what the reviews have to say:
Some Small Changes Aside, It's Still The Story You Know
There is once again a Middle Eastern kingdom named Agrabah, a friendly homeless thief (Mena Massoud) who's the one person to descend into a mysterious cave to retrieve a lamp with a wish-granting Genie (Will Smith) inside, and a fair princess (Naomi Scott) to fall in love with. And there's once again a nefarious figure named Jafar (Marwen Kenzari) who wants power, and the lamp, for himself.
This time, the story of Aladdin feels less random as it's told from Smith's Genie instead of a street peddler like in the animated movie. A simple backstory is also given to Jafar's villain to make him more than just a Disney villain.
There's An Effort To Squeeze Some More Depth Into Both Jasmine And Genie
There are at least two potentially good and somewhat original takes struggling get out of this remake and assert themselves. One is the story of how the genie bonds with Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and tries to secure his own freedom without breaking any genie/master rules. The other is about the princess, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who's not merely a spirited feminist who enjoys disguising herself as a peasant and hanging with the commoners, but seems ready to agitate for representative democracy if nudged in the right direction. Neither of these is permitted to seize the spotlight for very long, though.
Ritchie and co-screenwriter John August have added a fair bit of modernization to Jasmine's character, imagining her as a leader-in-the-making who is eager to rule her country, despite a father (Navid Negahban) who doesn't see the need to change tradition and his own wily righthand man, the suitably nefarious and compelling Jafar, who doesn't want any competition.
Aladdin And Jasmine Are Well-Cast In Well-Trod Roles…
On the positive side, Aladdin is a weird masterclass in casting. The Disney team have gone to great lengths to discover two leads (Mena Massoud as Aladdin, Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine) who are physically identical to their hand-animated counterparts. Massoud has the same lantern jaw, bouncing fringe and diminutive frame as cartoon Aladdin, while Scott looks like she could've been the design model for the original Jasmine. Beyond the uncanny resemblance, they both deliver spirited theatrical-style performances, the former in particular bringing with him a nice line in breakdancing, toothy grins and, of course, parkour.
Scott has the necessary gravitas to play Jasmine, and her chemistry with Massoud is natural and romantic. It's the script that fails her.
… Thankfully, Will Smith Does Set Apart His Genie A Bit
The only participant really trying to energize the project is Smith, who—poor man—has to spend much of his screen time transformed into a rubbery CGI monstrosity who's impossible to take seriously.
His Genie is less cartoonishly manic than Williams'; more human, you could say. But he's still the life of the party: part-Queer Eye makeover guru, part-Siri in human form, part-romcom best buddy – with perhaps a touch of Hitch, the professional matchmaker Smith played in 2005.
The film actually serves to remind us that Smith is an extremely gifted comedic performer and a lengthy period in the career wilderness may have been the result of him opting for parts in dramatically skewed bilge such as Collateral Beauty. Even with heavy CG assistance, his snappy timing and booming delivery are what make his Genie 2.0 successful, even if he is very much standing on the shoulders of giants.
Marwan Kenzari Doesn't Get To Sing Or Be All That Sinister As Jafar
Jafar never once sings in the remake, and that's a huge letdown. Disney clearly put so much time into finding the perfect Aladdin and Jasmine that it feels like they just played it safe with Jafar. He's not creepy or sinister and doesn't seem all that conniving. He's just a man who complains and is upset that he's always second best to the Sultan. The design of Aladdin's monkey Abu is scarier than any bone in Jafar's body.
Understandably, this version of Jafar is less a Middle Eastern caricature; in his place, though, is a stiff and unfortunately lifeless baddie. Even the new version of Iago, voiced by Alan Tudyk, is constantly just…a parrot. Where Gilbert Gottfried was given freer reign to be naturally funny, Tudyk is hemmed in by the script and the photorealistic effects that never fail to remind us that this Iago is a parrot, not a bulbous-eyed chatterbox.
The Song Routines, New And Old, Aren't All That Strong
Smith's singing voice isn't really up to snuff (he essentially talks his way through a lot of the verses, Rex Harrison–style). Massoud is a tremendous dancer and a fun physical presence, but he sounds auto-tuned anytime he breaks into song; the more capable Scott is burdened by her new musical numbers, which break up the action horribly.
The new Aladdin—which features the animated version's half-dozen musical numbers, often with truncated or poorly reworded lyrics, and adds in a misbegotten new song—feels hamstrung by the music. Simply put, Smith isn't much of a singer, a fact that becomes obvious the moment he starts belting out "Arabian Nights" over the opening credits. (The end credits, on the other hand, get a vintage, movie-summarizing Will Smith rap.)
"Speechless," a song about the silencing of women by the patriarchy, written by two men, "La La Land" and "Dear Evan Hansen" composers Pasek & Paul—feels wedged into the movie like a doorstop. (The motivation for the song, though, is much more organic, and might've felt sincere and powerful rather than opportunistic had the movie built to it, or better yet, centered the story on her.)
It's Hard To See Ritchie's Hand In The Direction At All
Ritchie's "Aladdin" looks so familiar that, if anything, it's hard to imagine why Ritchie wanted to make it. Disney seems to have smoothed out all the wrinkles in the director's familiar, if sometimes oppressive style.
The onetime purveyor of fizzy, dizzyingly over-plotted Brit-crime flicks like Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch has never made a movie this anonymous; it lacks the screen chemistry of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., or even the wackadoodle touches of his subsequent franchise non-starter King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword.
The hiring of Ritchie, who has directed British gangster thrillers such as Snatch and old-timey epics such as Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, suggested at least the potential for a more bare-knuckle take on Aladdin's streetwise scoundrel hero. But Ritchie doesn't have much more to offer than some occasional slow-motion shots.
For A Live Action Film, The Reliance On CGI Makes For An Awfully Artificial Agrabah
The filmmaking is disappointingly pedestrian: some long tracking shots stitched together with CGI, some "dangerous" chase scenes augmented by CGI, some musical numbers with ostriches and elephants and monkeys and camels, etc, all CGI, and Smith's genie whooshing around the frame, his broad and CGI-augmented torso and shoulders swiveling and bobbing and weaving while trailing a curiously cheap-looking trail of sparkles.
As a viewer, it's not so much a case of gingerly peering around each new narrative corner, but spying the plot points on the horizon and watching and waiting as they lumber towards the frame. In fact, if you imagined what a CG-animated version of Aladdin looked, felt like and sounded like, odds on you'll be absolutely right. For better and for worse, Guy Ritchie has made the film that is already in your head, offering you a chance to place your imagination on ice.
If They'd Made This A Movie About Jasmine Instead Of A Straightforward Remake, It Could've Worked
A genuinely bold notion of progress might have put the magic lamp in Jasmine's hands for at least a spell. But instead it falls again to Jafar, moderately reconceived as an ambitious former "street rat" himself who wants to transform Agrabah into a conquering empire.
Even [Jasmine's] big new musical number — a power ballad in the vein of "Let It Go," called "Speechless" — gets only a single verse before the movie quickly speeds away, back to other plot points. And when she does finally get to belt out that epic song about why she refuses to be ignored — it's in a fantasy sequence. Nobody else hears it.
The whole production seems to take place in a forgotten alcove of Disney's Adventureland, a highly sanitized faux-urban sprawl where the destitute look fancier than anybody reading this review right now. It's a nice place to visit, Agrabah. If you lived here, you'd be bored now.