Past the Popcorn provides South King Media with exclusive reviews of Theatrical and Home Video entertainment. We aim to dig just a little deeper than the surface of what we watch.
Disney continues the raid on its own library with a live-action remake of the 1992 animated classic Aladdin, the second of three live-action remakes Disney is pushing into theaters over a four month span in 2019. This one may be their most difficult sell to date; not because people won’t be interested in seeing the story on the big screen again, but because the original featured a for-the-ages performance by Robin Williams that could never be duplicated in ten thousand years. Will Smith has the unenviable task of taking on the role of the Genie and he manages to do about as good a job as you could imagine anyone doing to make the role his own—but the staleness of the unoriginal remake may leave audiences with a crick in the neck.
The plot does not stray much from the 1992 animated version. This version opens at sea with a sailor telling his children the story of the genie of the lamp. The action then shifts to the city of Agrabah, where we meet the thief of the title. One day, while working the streets with his monkey pal Abu, Aladdin meets a young woman unaware that her giving two starving children loaves of bread without being able to pay for them might result in physical harm to her person. Aladdin helps her escape and she reveals herself to be the princess’s handmaiden. There is an immediate attraction between them, but what the audience knows, even if Aladdin doesn’t, is that this woman actually is Princess Jasmine, and the law of the land says that she must marry a prince.
Meanwhile, the power-hungry Royal Vizier Jafar is in search of the famed magic lamp and believes that Aladdin may just be the “diamond in the rough” able to free it from its imprisonment in the magical Cave of Wonders. Aladdin finds the lamp for Jafar, but ends up getting stuck inside the cave with lamp still in hand, thanks to the quick paws of Abu. After rubbing the lamp, he finds that it is home to an all-powerful genie who can grant him three wishes. It doesn’t take long for Aladdin to come up with his first wish: he wishes to become a prince, so that he may court the princess.
In addition to the change of the prologue, the movie adds one dance number (two, if you count the closing credits), a magic carpet action scene, and a relevant-for-2019 new song for Jasmine. All of these scenes are fine, but they don’t really add anything necessary to the story. Even Jasmine’s “Speechless” number in which she claims that she will no longer be silent—an important and relevant message in 2019—only proves to be a fantasy and her fate ultimately still comes down to the quick wits of Aladdin and the magic of the Genie.
The movie also leaves out Jafar turning into a giant snake, which is probably for the best, as it is difficult to imagine that working well with the film’s underwhelming visual style. The visuals in Aladdin are adequate, at best. Whereas the 1992 film featured state-of-the-art animation (the cav-escape sequence was considered one of the most breathtaking animated sequences ever made at the time), the live-action look of the remake can only be described as bland. There is nothing at all interesting in the look of the film and scenes generally either look like they were filmed on a sitcom set or in front of a green screen. For the latter, the biggest offense comes from the “A Whole New World” centerpiece. The obvious green-screen work combined with the fact that they don’t really appear to go anywhere in this version—no Egyptian pyramids, no Great Wall of China—stagnates what should be the movie’s most magical scenes. That said, it was a good choice to have that scene end with them taking in their own people, showing great joy for life despite their humble circumstances.
The movie’s special effects are mostly effective, if not indiscernible. Computer-generated characters such as Abu, Iago, and Carpet, all feel like they are alive within this world, but between the obvious green screen work in many scenes and a few moments with the Genie where the seams are showing, there is enough obviousness in the effects that you never forget that you are watching computer animation and not actual live action.
For Will Smith’s part, the actor does a pretty good job of making the iconic genie character his own. The script does keep many of the lines that Robin Williams most likely made up on the fly at some point, but they are mixed in with new dialogue and Smith is able to adjust the lines to his own style of speaking and performance. His songs are hit and miss. “Friend Like Me” doesn’t work very well—this is the part of the movie that is most hampered by the shift from animation to live-action—but the “Prince Ali” number works quite well.
As far as the rest of the cast, Naomi Scott is terrific as Jasmine, but Mena Massoud and Marwan Kenzari as Aladdin and Jafar, respectively, always feel like they are just playing dress up and reciting their favorite parts from the animated movie, rather than becoming the characters themselves. And Kenzari’s Jafar never comes across as scary, which undercuts the stakes of the film.
Disney’s animated classics are movies that most of us have grown up watching and in many cases, probably have memorized. That makes analyzing the live-action remakes tricky, because it is impossible not to draw immediate comparisons between the original and the remake. This always leads to me wanting to uncover a justification for the remake’s existence. How did it improve upon the original? Unfortunately, other than its more ethnically appropriate casting, there is not much I can say about the Aladdin remake that wasn’t already done better in the animated version. For Disney, though, the movie’s virtually guaranteed box-office success will surely be all the justification it needs.
Aladdin opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the AMC Kent Station 14, the Century Federal Way, and Regal’s Stadium Landing 14 in Renton.