When Aladdin (1992) burst into the blissful “A Whole New World”, we took its word for it. Yes, this was prestige ‘90s Disney, a brave example of the strong risks animation houses would take to deliver films skewing toward entertainment first. “A new fantastic point of view,” indeed, the original Aladdin took great care with nurturing its Arabian influences. To this day, it astounds in its gorgeously colored deserts and magic carpet ride sensations, a pure delight, “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling / through an endless diamond sky.” Animation allows such flights of fancy, derived and delivered from the ecstasy of creative imagination. The original was a sharply composed achievement of stellar audio elements – from the elegant and absorbent Middle Eastern soundtrack to Disney’s greatest success with celebrity voice casting, the audio components informed a visual design that was uniquely of its generation to match.
Here we have arrived at Aladdin (2019). Spotty colors and fragments of eccentricity align every frame of Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake. (We call it live action, but much of it is composed on computers because there is too much magic to produce only with human actors.) Many compromises have been made to recast the film into a confused Bollywood production. Confused because Bollywood is of the Indian tradition and Agrabah is broadly Middle Eastern and only vaguely Southeast Asian on the side. The premise is flawed. Both versions ought to look as expensive and exquisite as the majesty of their time-honored story demands. This new version does not – appearing shambled together with cheap costuming, lame CG sets, and a style that does not benefit the director or the story.
The cast buries any hope of non-financial success. The title character is played by the wooden Mena Massoud, who does not do any acting but is expressive in his singing. He does not play the part with any motivation and his line readings are not very good. He benefits from a strong opposite, the alluring Naomi Scott as Jasmine, who gets something more to do and a brand-new signature song. Much of the casting is by look, like Marwan Kenzari, who Twitter will tell you is a hot Jafar, but barely registers as lukewarm in his lack of screen presence. Will Smith, as you will know, is a meme-ready genie, following a recent trend of atrocious character design as an intended marketing element. He does not make any sense and is far better off in the scenes where he does not appear to be a minotaur painted blue.
The only controversy about the original Aladdin surrounds Robin Williams’s contract negotiations. If he would appear in the marketing as the Genie. He was notoriously prickly about not using his image to sell products (while that is all Disney does) and so the counterintuitive thing happened, and the film exploded off his celebrity and ignited a central Disney trend of casting for star power that can sell the movie on the other end. Expert at comedy and impressions, the Robin Williams Genie had shown through with stellar personality. The Genie is Aladdin. The modern genie is bad. What worked for Williams does not work for Smith. If the original felt like an energized comic improvisation of animated frames, the new film feels like a lifeless replication of the material, with no new ad-libbing or eccentricities. Will Smith pulls from his heady days of ‘90s hip-hop occasionally, dropping a haha or woooh wherever he is unsure of his delivery (Wild Wild West (1999) flashbacks abound) and is repulsive and grotesque where Williams was magnetic and informed the entire energy of the thing.
The only discernable reason to make the film comes in its scoring. Disney has retained original composer Alan Menken. The new tunes are not just spiritually accurate to his original material. Many have been tightened with the years in between to consider their new value. The new songs feature better construction and have been rewoven and shaped to fit the movement of their form. It rarely means anything on-screen but taken on its own merit, the award-winning score has been reinforced and stands as a strong undercurrent for the film, perhaps the one shining reason that Aladdin is worth revisiting in 2019, holds just as true in the live action version. Beyond technical structural improvements, Jasmine has been gifted with her own much-deserved theme song. “Speechless” is a chiller of a song, beautifully incorporated, and a sweet saving grace in an opening bereft of any interesting value whatever. With lines like, “I can’t be silenced, you can’t keep me quiet,” it’s evident this empowerment anthem is the right Disney song for the time.
The remake loses any goodwill as it goes. It reaches past the two-hour mark – to this critic feelingly damningly longer than the far too long Avengers: Endgame – and stretching the original story by a good forty minutes. What does it do with the new allotment? Nothing very good. It introduces a backstory to Jafar, which has always been an interesting expansion in those cheaply made Disney sequels. Here it feels like a diversion because it is simply padding. It does not take the same liberties as last month’s Dumbo, which had to double the original’s time. Most sacrilegious of all, the Genie’s been given to his own romantic pairing, as bizarrely staid and badly described as you can imagine. None of this adds – and while Jafar and Aladdin show limited motivation in their acting – the whole experience is a prolonged descent into family-friendly boredom. The first act is hard to get through, cutting up the original’s pacing, and somehow still ending up the longer film. It’s a small blessing when the thing ends.
Watching the new Aladdin, you’re bound to spend a lot of time wondering why. It’s clear why it has been made: the money you paid to enter the theater. But what have you paid the money for? You are not getting whatever the answer to that question is. Disney understands money. At some point, they have made these properties and if they are not used, they have left money on the table. People will go to rewatch the same film from a different perspective. It is too bad not all directors want to create something new with such a great opportunity. Guy Ritchie has really created nothing at all, an awkward pantomime of something we all like. If the old Aladdin boldly presented “A Whole New World”, this revision has created the greatest offense: The Same Old World, without imparting any new value or interest. Your time is better spent watching the old movie, or anything else.