After the early footage and Will Smith’s big blue smurfy Genie was dragged on social media, not to mention director Guy Ritchie’s recent efforts, “disaster” wasn’t far from a lot of people’s minds.
Well, it’s not. It’s not great either, but it’s far from an entirely cringe-worthy catastrophe.
Disney’s classic 1992 movie is beloved by audiences, especially people now in their 30s who grew up with the video playing on repeat, even if its depiction of Arabic characters, besides Aladdin and Jasmine, have been slammed as problematic.
But there’s no denying the appeal of its rollicking adventure, memorable soundtrack and Robin Williams’ magnificent voice performance.
A live-action remake was always going to be risky. Aladdin makes several missteps, including its over-the-top use of CGI that manages to take you out of every scene. Letting Ritchie indulge in a couple of his signature ultra slow-mo action takes, which have no place in this Disney movie, is another.
Smith’s Genie caused the most consternation in the lead-up to release, and some of those fears were not unfounded. In blue genie form, the character feels out of step and jarring and never manages to overcome the fact this iconic animated character just doesn’t translate to live action well.
It’s an oddly calibrated performance — sometimes broad and sometimes grounded but always 15 per cent more than it should be, which is as much Ritchie’s direction as it is Smith’s choices.
Smith tries but his physical energy doesn’t always match the scene. The man is 50 years old and can’t move at the same manic level as, oh, say, a cartoon.
But there are moments when the Genie is in disguise as a man, which is Smith in an elaborate costume, and his physical presence in the scenes makes all the difference.
When Genie, in Will Smith form, is talking about his greatest wish being freedom, it’s a significant and loaded moment, recalling all the history of African-American slavery in its subtext, which is then weirdly deflated by a script change that sees the word “master” (which is used elsewhere in the film and in the 1992 version of this scene) replaced by “owner of the lamp”.
The word change bumps and undercuts some of the emotionality of that moment — seems like a missed opportunity.
Co-screenwriters Ritchie and John August have kept the story largely the same.
Petty thief and parkour expert Aladdin (Mena Massoud), strong-willed Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) and the Genie must overcome tradition and the (not quite) malevolent (enough) adviser Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) to secure their future together and the future of fictional Middle Eastern kingdom, Agrabah.
There’s a magic flying carpet, a nimble and cheeky monkey and Iago (Alan Tudyk), a nosy macaw who, unlike Gilbert Godfried’s version, doesn’t speak in full sentences.
Massoud and Scott are both charismatic and winsome. While it takes Massoud some time to settle into the role, he can flash those pearly whites just as well as his animated counterpart.
The lovers have believable chemistry, they’re both very vocally strong, and Scott gets to sing the new song written by Alan Menken, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul for this version. Speechless is a real belter aimed at a modern audience, specifically at young girls.
Will purists like the rendition of A Whole New World? Probably, but it flies past very fast.
What the filmmakers have changed is the addition of new characters, including Nasim Pedrad as Dalia, Jasmine’s handmaid, and the comedic actor provides most of the laughs.
The palace guards, whose 1992 characterisations were criticised for being barbaric, have a face and a name in head guard Hakim (Numan Acar). And the Sultan (Navid Negahban) has been changed from a bumbling and hapless ruler to one who is noble albeit toothless.
There’s a question of whether Billy Magnussen’s Prince Anders, a foolish white prince from a Scandi kingdom, was minimised after the movie came under fire for unnecessarily creating a caucasian character.
Magnussen is barely in the film, taking up maybe four minutes of screen time, but still receives a relatively prominent credit for what amounts to a comical cameo.
Everything about Aladdin is big, and yet feels small at the same time. Its lavish production design and costuming is every colour under the rainbow but also has the effect of looking more like a stage production than an epic movie.
You’re never not aware that what you’re seeing is a movie set.
Disney and the filmmakers had a difficult balance of trying to be culturally specific and yet also pan-Arabic or subcontinent at the same time. Which means now we get a flashy dance number but not the line “Praise Allah”, which the Sultan uttered in the original — and Aladdin, Jasmine and the Genie still have American accents.
The result feels clunky, a movie where all the pieces don’t come together quite well enough despite good intentions.
But at least it’s not the calamity many feared.
Aladdin is in cinemas from today
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