Coming hot on the heels of Disney live action reboots of classics like “Cinderella,” “Beauty and The Beast” and “The Jungle Book” comes “Aladdin,” Guy Ritchie’s reimagining of the all singing, all dancing, all powerful Genie made famous by the late, great Robin Williams.
The story begins when “street rat” and thief Aladdin (Mena Massoud) helps a beautiful woman (Naomi Scott) he believes is a handmaiden to the daughter of the Sultan of Agrabah (Navid Negahban), escape from the police after a misunderstanding in the market. After a wild chase—part musical theatre, part parkour—they spark, bonding over the vagaries of their own circumstances. She’s trapped by palace life, he by a life of poverty. “It’s kind of sad having a monkey as the only parental authority in my life,” he says of Abu, his kleptomaniac pet monkey and constant companion.
She is, of course not the handmaiden, but the Princess Jasmine, a woman who longs to take over for her father but is stymied in her ambition by tradition. The law says she cannot take the throne and must marry a prince. When one royal suitor compliments her on her beauty she says, “We have the same titles but are never described the same way,” before dismissing him.
Meanwhile back at the palace, the Sultan’s power-hungry advisor Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) also has his eye on the throne. Using hypnotism he controls the ruler, but wants more. More, in the form of a magic lamp hidden deep in the Cave of Wonders. “Once that lamp sits in my hand I will sit on the throne,” he cackles. Trouble is, everyone who ventures into the cave dies. Jafar needs someone with serious skills to get in, grab the lamp and get out. When he meets Aladdin, he uses his access to the princess to strike a deal. “Retrieve the lamp from the cave and I will make you rich enough to impress a princess.”
The perilous journey to the lamp reveals the star of the show, a magical blue Genie with the power to grant three wishes to the keeper of the lamp. There are some catches though; he can’t make anyone fall in love with him or raise the dead. He also cautions against wishing for wealth and power the very two things Jafar and Aladdin covet.
Despite all its pomp and circumstance the live action remake of the beloved animated “Aladdin” does not exactly transport us to a whole new world. Ritchie fills the screen with colour and pageantry, staging large scale Bollywood-style dance numbers and, in the case of the Genie’s signature tune “Friend Like Me,” a maximalist CGI orgy that gives Flo Ziegfeld a run for his money. Even when he is more restrained, he isn’t that restrained. The rendering of Princess Jasmine’s big solo “Speechless,” one of the new songs by the “Dear Evan Hansen” composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, plays like a Bonnie Tyler power pop video from the 1980s.
Style has never been Ritchie’s problem. His camera is always in motion, caressing the screen with acrobatic shots and tricky editing. His movies make your eyeballs dance but often at the expense of the characters who get lost in the theatricality of the presentation.
He’s in fine form in “Aladdin” although overcooked CGI overwhelms the finale in a rush of animated imagery. The characters work hard to sparkle but get lost amid the ruckus and with them gores much of the film’s heart. The ending is loud and large but fails to make an emotional impression. Sometimes less is more.
As Princess Jasmine, Scott has more to do than in the original and does so in much more modest clothing. No animated bellybuttons here. Massoud gives the social climbing Aladdin a certain impish charm in an energetic performance. More baffling is Kenzari as the monotone villain Jafar. All scowls and surly attitude, he’s the least interesting villain on Ritchie’s resume.
The screen is filled with people but, let’s face it, the character everyone is most interested in is the big blue Genie. He’s the star of the show but in many ways it’s the film’s most thankless role. Robin Williams made the Genie his own in a performance that still sparkles with life more than twenty-five years later. Smith battles against some unfortunate CGI and the memory of Williams to make the character his own. He’s part match-maker, part magic-maker and part mirth-maker. Fortunately for Ritchie Smith’s charisma elevates the performance from merely mimicking his predecessor.
“Aladdin” is not so much a remake but an up-dating for a new generation. Some of the revisions are welcome. Jasmine is a now fully rounded character and some unfortunate lyrics, like “It’s barbaric but hey, it’s home,” have been removed. Other changes don’t work as well. Can someone explain why Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a comedic highlight from the 1992 film, has been reduced to a few squawks and repeated phrases?
Despite the updates and the pomp “Aladdin” feels underwhelming by the time the end credits roll. The songs frequently interrupt the flow of the story, creating a stop-and-go feel that sucks some of the film’s momentum away.