Review: Aladdin

Review: Aladdin

by Alan Grant
article from Thursday 13, June, 2019

I DON’T NECESSARILY bemoan the prevalence of remakes. In my view, as long as what we end up with either uses the original as a jumping-off point for a reimagined version of the story or gives it a useful facelift to update it for modern times, there’s something useful in them. Essentially, if we can put our nostalgia to the side, there’s something to be gained from at least giving the current deluge of remakes a fair hearing.

For what it’s worth, I think of remakes as being on a spectrum of value. At one end, there are those remake movies that add something new, often a fresh perspective or a much-needed moral or ethical facelift to a beloved classic, like the 2004 remake of Dawn of The Dead or 2005’s The Producers. Meanwhile, wallowing at the other end are the tired, boring, useless tripe like the awful 2010 version of A Nightmare on Elm Street or the dental surgery without aesthetic experience that was the 2004 version of The Stepford Wives

So, the question before us today is – where does Disney’s 2019 version of Aladdin sit on this spectrum?

Well, fans of binary will be disappointed because it’s not quite at one end or the other. That’s right folks, it’s one of those ‘middle ground’ movies with some successes and some flaws. 

Of course, it doesn’t really matter to Disney what kind of remake they’ve made. The House of Mouse would be fine with whatever end of the spectrum Aladdin ended up on provided that it sold well enough and got audiences primed for when The Lion King arrives in cinemas in July. They have a business interest to maintain and that’s fine – but is also pretty useless when it comes to evaluating these movies.

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time or column inches outlining the plot of Aladdin 2019 because you’ve almost definitely seen the 1992 version and the plot is, some small points aside, more or less identical. Suffice it to say the whole street urchin, princess, lamp, deception, moral disaster, moral choice beats are repeated in the order they appear in the animated classic. This is very much a capital-r ‘Remake’ – albeit a live action version.

What additional plot points or story aspects there are that do deviate from the 1992 version are there to provide additional background detail to the characters – the Genie, Jasmine, and Jafar in particular – and, more or less, work. Just don’t go in expecting a revolutionary take on the classic tale because this ain’t it, chief.

In fact, it’s in the casting and characterisation that most of the mixed bag of quality can be found. Sadly, Mena Massoud just doesn’t feel like he’s getting to have as much fun as he wants in the title role. His performance is a bit flat and lifeless at times and he often feels like a cypher rather than a fully formed protagonist in his own right. He does a decent job of portraying the arrogance and deceit that forms part of Aladdin’s character arc but really struggles to reach the levels of sympathy and likability in the role that are required.

Also, there’s a lack of menace and threat that can be traced back to a lacklustre and unimpressive villain. Marwan Kenzari tries hard but just doesn’t get the screen time, artistic support, or dialogue to be a legitimately intimidating bad guy. Plus, the near-constant theme of him always being second best to someone makes him feel small and insignificant rather than acting as a spur to his scheming. I enjoyed the additional background we get on him but was disappointed by the lack of weight he gets that results in an insufficient payoff.

However, it’s not all bad on the casting side of things. There’s a lot of fun to be had too.

Naomi Scott absolutely shines in the role of the conflicted Princess Jasmine. Scott has a so far under-exposed talent for conveying emotional range and complexity that really comes across, especially during the scenes in which she has to consider the balance between what she feels she ought to do, her attraction towards the hunky bad boy, and her own well-realised sense of ambition and freedom. She’s also a perfect choice, from her grasp of mannerism to her overall look, to get the point over that this Princess intends to lead and not just reign over her subjects. She’s exactly the kind of modern update that the Princess archetype needs. Her name should be in your notebook under ‘actors to keep a very close eye on’. 

Secondly, there’s Will Smith’s Genie. This role had the biggest shadow hanging over it, played as it was in the 1992 version by the late great Robin Williams. It would have been easy for Smith, or any other actor, to simply attempt a tribute to Williams’ manic and zany version of the character and leave it at that but Smith’s Genie is more of a wisecracking, know-it-all, super-cool, sensei-come-personal motivational speaker than he is all-powerful blue id in a bottle and is all the better for it. In fact, the only time in which Smith’s performance doesn’t quite work is when he’s forced to imitate the zany madcap antics of Williams’ version and the poor imitation comes off as exactly that. However, the fact that Will Smith possesses a disproportionate amount of all the charisma in the world combined with the really sweet and satisfying conclusion to his character arc – one of the welcome changes from the original – overcomes this flaw and keeps his performance as one of the film’s highlights. 

Most of the other aspects of the film work. The music, particularly Jasmine’s song, is excellent and the reimagined versions of the classic songs go mercifully unbutchered but have enough of a modern sheen on them to not stand out as blatant pandering. Guy Ritchie may be an odd choice to sit in the director’s chair for this one but, while it’s some of his most tame work to date, he gets it mostly right and the other technical aspects are mostly competent. 

Overall, Aladdin 2019 isn’t an essential movie by any stretch of the imagination. There are some cool highlights that get near the positive end of the remake spectrum but a few key flaws stop it from quite getting there. It’s satisfying at the time but ultimately forgettable movie that is worth the price of admission but not an awful lot more – and if you go see it use a discount code, if you have one. This is not to say it’s bad but it is average. However, if you find yourself, as I did, stuck near your local cinema in the rain on a wet Wednesday afternoon then you could use your time in a much less enjoyable way than to take a trip to reimagined Agrabah – but I wouldn’t leave your home in the rain specifically for it.

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