“The magic comes to life“
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Starring Mena Massoud, Will Smith, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnussen
Come on. Do you guys really need a synopsis of this plot? It’s Aladdin! Ignoring the fact that it’s one of the classics of the Disney Renaissance (now remade in live action as part of their current binge on their back catalogue) it’s also a staple of British pantomime since about…well…forever. You know the story.
Fine! Young* scamp Aladdin (Massoud) lives the life of a street rat about town, stealing to live, and also to decorate his remarkably well renovated penthouse squat with scenic views (perfect for entertaining runaway princesses). Evil Vizier Jaffar (Kenzari) plots to take over the kingdom. Cloistered princess Jasmine (Scott) in a bit of a change from the original film, dreams about taking over the kingdom too. Jasmine meets Aladdin while sneaking out to wander around the market (in a scene that’s actually kind of jarring now she’s changed from ‘ditzy and sheltered’ to ‘proto feminist icon and aspirational First Female Sultan’. Does she really not get that you need to pay for bread on a market stall? Wasn’t that in one of her books on rulership? She’s really going to struggle with economic policy at this rate). Jasmine and Aladdin fall in love, this brings Aladdin to Jaffar’s attention and he tries to use Aladdin to retrieve a magical lamp from the Cave of Mysteries which only permits entry to ‘the diamond in the rough’.
Aladdin turns out to be that diamond, retrieves said magical lamp, including resident genie (Will Smith) and shenanigans ensue, including, on this occasion, a love story for the Genie with Jasmine’s handmaiden.
There’s also an odd framing device** featuring Will Smith (not blue) and children on a small Arabian junk travelling the world.
*early twenties with a lot of muscle tone and a firm jawline
**for certain values on framing device. More on that later
What’s wrong with it?
I’m just going to leap right in with an issue that I suspect no one else but me cares about, but I cared about a lot. GUY RITCHIE DOES NOT KNOW WHAT A FRAMING DEVICE IS. To my mind, a framing device should, you know, frame the story. Which means ‘starts and ends the story’. Not ‘starts the story, with not-blue Will Smith explaining how he’s going to tell his children of how it’s what is inside that counts, before being entirely forgotten, then randomly thrown in ten minutes before the end to show that the Genie and the handmaid totally got together, and then being ignored again’. I’d also add that this story does not contain any coherent moral message, let alone one about how it’s what’s inside that counts.
Guy Richie clearly wanted to update Jasmine’s character for the 21st century, which I sort of admire, and the makers of Beauty and the Beast did an excellent job with that, turning Belle into a proto scientist and inventor. Here, Jasmine is changed from an ingenue with no real clue about life outside the palace walls, to a frustrated proto-Sultan, who has been studying books and maps for years, ‘training her whole life’ to rule and protect her people, thwarted only by her gender. She even gets a new ballad to sing about how she doesn’t want to be speechless. This isn’t a bad idea, but Ritchie then tries to follow the exact same beats of the original film as well, and it rapidly becomes apparent that this makes no sense, even down to the big show stopper ‘a whole new world’ which is really an anthem to wide eyed wonder that isn’t actually present in the character at any other time.
Mena Massoud can’t actually sing for toffee. This is a bit awkward when Aladdin is quite such a classical musical.
Will Smith does a solid job, but ain’t no Robin Williams. Annoyingly, I actually suspect he’d have done a pretty stellar job if he hadn’t been asked to replicate large quantities of Williams’ ad libbed dialogue throughout the film, as he really starts to shine every time the film veers away from a shot by shot remake of the original animation, only to be dragged back.
Was anyone really crying out for a comedic second string romance to be added to Aladdin? Did anyone really need to see Genie falling in love? Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy their romance, and, frankly, thought it could have been awesome had it been the primary romance of the film, but as it stood, it made the film a bit cluttered and distracted us from the not entirely organic Aladdin/Jasmine canon lovin’.
No one has ever told Guy Ritchie about Checkhov’s gun. I kept waiting for some resolution to the frequently referenced mysterious death of Jasmine’s mother. Maybe tied to Jaffar’s occasionally mentioned street rat past. Nope. Sometimes a mysterious death is just…you know….back story.
Why the hell would you go to all the effort of creating a CGI tiger and have it do nothing? Why did that tiger not eat anyone?
The pacing was a bit off. It somehow managed to feel rushed and overly long at the same time.
What’s right with it?
This is a fairly hard section to write actually, as I’m trying to tease out which bits are fun because they are shot by shot retreads of a much loved Disney classic, and which bits are actually valid additions to the Disney canon.
I think I’ve settled on Will Smith’s Genie, any time he’s allowed to be Will Smith, and not cut-price Robin Williams.
The dance routines were exceptional and I suspect what Mena Massoud was actually hired for.
It was visually spectacular, albeit a bit more Mumbai than Middle Eastern for a lot of the time.
How bad is it really?
It’s not really viscerally bad. It’s actually quite fun. I don’t regret the time spent there. But I’m…well…just not sure there was necessarily a huge need for this. Which I suppose you could say for all the Disney live action remakes, but a little more so in this case.
Maybe I’m being unfair, especially as Guy Ritchie had a much greater challenge than most of the people making live action Disney. The original Aladdin leaned very heavily on the incredible and iconic performance of Robin Williams, who, sadly, is no longer with us, and I think any remake was going to struggle as a result. However, I feel like in this case, Guy Ritchie and cast broke early on. They lacked the confidence to break away from Williams’ shadow, and shape the film to the strengths of the cast they had and as a result let it be a bad karaoke copy of the original.
It’s not bad. It’s just not good.
Best bit (if such there is)?
Aladdin and Princess Jasmine’s big funky dance routine at the party (one of the few scenes added in to this movie) was fabulous.
What’s up with…?
I’m not sure this film has enough of its own identity to contain surprising quirks. Apart from Jaffar’s above mentioned malfunctioning staff.
Production values – the full force of the Disney machine is behind this 2
Dialogue and performances – varied. Not bad, I guess, but a bit flat at best, and never inspired. 10
Plot and execution – actually weirdly garbled. Overly reliant on the fact that everyone knows the plot already and won’t ask too many questions. 12
Randomness – man, I’d have killed for a random cockney gangster. Yes, Guy, you failed me. 0
Waste of potential – I’m going to score this pretty highly, because this is a goddamn classic, and should have been so much more. I just wish Guy Ritchie had had the confidence to make this a bit more like his gloriously unhinged King Arthur, but he just doesn’t believe in himself anymore. 15