Disney as a company has never been shy about recycling old ideas. Plenty of easy jokes have been made about how they are remaking pretty much their entire renaissance era in live action. The truth is that they have pretty much started on taking older stories and then putting a fresh spin on it, starting with Snow White. Everything from Disneyland to their “Disney Vault” has been a strategy to make their movies feel special and stoke nostalgia. Hell, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King were already remade as Broadway shows years before their recent remakes. So while we can all have our fun at laughing at the mouse running out of ideas, it still hasn’t stopped them from making gobs of cash.
What really matters is whether they do enough to make their remakes feel special and different. To their credit, they have have tried to pick filmmakers that can add their spin to the material and make something different. Which they then squander by producing movies that are either completely unmemorable (Cinderella) or make changes that end up tarnishing the original legacy (Beauty in the Beast).
Aladdin is firmly in the middle of this divide, where it makes some interesting choices but ultimately plays it far too safe. Much of the disappointment comes from the choice of director. Guy Ritchie has long been respected for his kinetic editing and style. But he has been suffering from diminishing returns for a long time, as it became clear that his style is really all he has. He insists on shooting his large scale dance and parade scenes as through they are a shootout, with tons of quick cuts and coverage. This absolutely does not work to convey the scope of several of the music numbers, most notable in the Prince Ali song number. Tons of dancers and the eyecatching production design are drowned out by the fact that you can never just stop and take a look at them. Even worse is an added dance number between Aladdin and Jasmine choreographed by Jamal Sims, but you would never know it from how the camera never stops moving. This movie would work so much better with someone who isn’t afraid to just let the dancers and actors work. It just makes the film feel like it is struggling to hide its budget by never giving a sense of space for the streets of Agrabah or in the palace.
The best sequences are the ones that feel like Ritchie had less control over, such as the CG heavy “Friend Like Me” number. Those are still cut up like crazy but at least it has flair and some sense of comic timing. Your enjoyment of the film will strongly depend on how much you can put up with very cartoonish effects, including the work for Abu and Iago. They exist in a weird space where they try to move realistically but still feel rubbery and not quite there. The effects for Genie are just as all over the place, but they work much better because he is supposed to feel weightless. In the end, it mostly works to remind me of how much I love the original movie, which it should not be doing.
The script by John August and Guy Ritchie tries to expand on the story and the results are uneven I did enjoy some of the elements added, mostly by building upon Jafar’s backstory. They hint at Jafar’s origin as being similar to Aladdin’s, where he used to be a street rat but his ambitions to escape twisted him into something darker. However, in order for that element to work, they need Aladdin to be much more awkward and innocent. Mena Massoud tries really hard to thread the needle between a streetwise rogue and awkward dork but he never quite hits it. The script does him no favors but he just doesn’t make for a compelling hero. He vacillates between charming and frustratingly shy so often that I never could quite root for him. They also make him astonishingly dumb in crucial moments, including a new to this version screw up in the third act that almost kills the whole movie. It is a glaring error to make your title character someone who is kinda hard to root for.
Will Smith is surprisingly strong as the Genie through the sheer power of his charisma. Smith wisely does not try to match the energy of William and instead play him much cooler while still being able to sell a one-liner or offhand comment. I am sure many of the jokes would not work if he was not able to simply be charming even when covered in blue CG. He also sells the hell out of the more emotional moments, such as his longing to be free of the lamp. I am not a big fan of making Genie a beat boxer but he is still a highly entertaining presence and got some genuine laughs while on screen.
The real winner of the movie is Naomi Scott who nails the role as Princess Jasmine. Unsurprisingly, this version of the movie makes Jasmine much more of an active character. She visits the marketplace in disguise not just out of boredom but as a way to know the people she will one day rule. Her desire for independence is not just for herself, but because she cares for her country and wants to make sure she understands the weight of rule. Scott nails the strength of the character and she is easily the strongest singer in the cast. I don’t love all of the changes to her character, such as making her think that Prince Ali is the real person and Aladdin is the facade. But Scott comes off as a star and that she is going to move on to much bigger things.
The rest of the cast are just there and are not extremely memorable. Nasim Pedrad gets a couple jokes in as Jasmine’s handmaiden, Dalia, but she feels like a plot device more than a character. The movie ends up playing exactly how it should but with just as many confounding changes as good ones. Nothing truly cripples the movie but there is nothing here that truly justifies the fact that this remake exists. That is not to say that it is not enjoyable, I actually was entertained while the film was playing thanks to Smith and Scott. However I imagine that younger children will get bored by the added dialogue scenes that make this version more than a half hour longer than the animated film. I find myself unsure who this movie is actually for besides people, like myself, who love Disney and just want to revisit their memories. However, based on how well these movies do for the studio, that market is clearly enough.