OnScreen Review: "Aladdin"

  • Ken Jones, Chief Film Critic

Disney’s animation renaissance that started with The Little Mermaid hit at just the right time in my home as a kid. My sister ate up The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King watching so much that, by sheer proxy, I could quote the majority of those movies for a long time. Simply put, they are ingrained in the minds of many a child and adult who grew up with them. Now, like practically every other animated classic in the Disney catalog, they are getting the live-action treatment.

Initially, I was interested in the Disney live-action remakes. In my opinion, Cinderella and The Jungle Book are arguably better than the originals; even Maleficent is coming at a classic tale from a different perspective. However, Beauty and the Beast gave me pause, and now, with Aladdin, I may have cause for concern.

Aladdin was always going to be a tough hill to climb, if for no other reason than the specter of Robin Williams (R.I.P.) hanging over it all. Williams was an outsized personality as an actor, and his vocal performance as Genie was one of his most memorable roles and is indelibly linked to him. Will Smith has been cast in the role in this adaptation. Many of the concerns people had about him and the Genie in general from the trailers were overblown and misplaced. Will Smith is certainly not the revelation in a previously iconic role that, say, Heath Ledger was to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, but he’s also not the Jared Leto either. It’s an impossible task to attempt to match the manic energy of someone like Robin Williams, and Smith smartly doesn’t try to do that. It’s still an energetic performance, but with a markedly different kind of energy and one that is more distinctly Will Smith. I enjoyed the weird attraction between Smith’s Genie and Nasim Pedrad’s handmaid to the Princess, Dalla.

The film has taken deliberate efforts to cast actors that are more accurate to the Middle Eastern origins of the story than Prince of Persia or Exodus: Gods and Kings or Gods of Egypt. Mena Massoud plays Aladdin and Naomi Scott plays Princess Jasmine. Both Massoud and Scott have the singing chops for the film, which is obviously important in reprising these beloved songs as well as a few new ones (which brought nothing to the table for me), and their acting is fine. I think Scott has more of a screen presence. Her role is clearly expanded because the Princess Jasmine role in the original animated movie is too much of a damsel in distress to fly with audiences in 2019. Some of that beefing up works. One scene where she essentially imagines the patriarchy around her literally disappearing, is incredibly on the nose.

Sadly, the biggest disappointment in this film is the villain, Jafar, portrayed by Marwan Kenzari. Jafar was menacing and moustache-twirling in the animated film, but Kenzari’s Grand Vizier is a underwhelming and a significant letdown. There is little or no bite to the character and he is seriously lacking in charisma. It’s a massive disappointment and unbalances the film as he is just not a suitable counterpoint to Aladdin’s diamond in the rough. It’s a situation that screams miscasting, if for no other reason that someone with the title of “Grand Vizier” should be a bit older than their early 30s; it seems like a position you have to really rise up through the ranks to achieve, but apparently this Jafar took the fast track.

Director Guy Ritchie is also an odd choice for this material. Ritchie has a distinct style, made famous by Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. He achieved mainstream success with the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movies. More recently, though, his movies have begun to have the distinct air of diminishing returns, having tried his hand at fantasy with King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and now Aladdin. During the “One Jump Ahead” number in the film as Aladdin is evading guards, the action weirdly slows down and speeds up. It’s not in a Michael Bay slo-mo kind of way; it’s like the action jumps from being .85x speed to suddenly 1.15X speed and then back to normal, almost as if they had to sync up what happens on screen to the lyrics of the song in post-production. It’s jarring. At other points, the choreography also looks sped up; either that, or fairly obvious CGI. At times, some of the musical dance numbers appear to be attempting something like a Bollywood number only if the person had never actually seen a Bollywood number. At the end of the day, this movie just feels outside of Ritchie’s wheelhouse and I’m not sure what the artistic appeal was that drew him to this project.

Aladdin is not a whole new world. It’s also not an outright disaster, which is damning with faint praise. It brings very little of anything new to the table. There were some elements that make me laugh and chuckle to myself and that were enjoyable, but there were just as many elements that fell flat and didn’t work. Will Smith’s Genie is entertaining enough, but Jafar is a complete zero. Aladdin and Jasmine can sing, but the choreography leaves a lot to be desired. Outside of being a perfunctory cash grab because Disney has to re-imagine all of the animated classics, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin doesn’t do enough to justify it own existence. It’s stuffed with spectacle, but nearly everything is better in the 1992 version of this story.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5