How do you solve a problem like Aladdin? Disney’s questionable live-action remake of its acclaimed 1992 animated film, which finally hits theaters May 24, has been dogged by controversy and skepticism since before production even began. Director Guy Ritchie, known for action comedies but not musicals, seemed an unlikely choice to direct the story, especially given the tricky cultural nuances involved. Casting Will Smith as an infrequently blue genie also raised plenty of eyebrows.
But more crucially, the 1992 film Aladdin seemed a completely unsuitable candidate for Disney’s series of live-action remakes. There’s too much about the original film that’s lightning in a bottle, impossible to recreate.
The 1992 film’s 2D animated effects, at the time sophisticated and dazzling, are now largely passé. (2D animation is a dying style, and the computer effects that looked thrillingly state-of-the-art 27 years ago now look sadly dated.) Its reliance on Robin Williams’s genius improvisational skills led to its whip-smart, slightly manic screenplay, which was completely overhauled and frenetically rewritten under tight time constraints, not unlike the notorious crunch times that video game developers often push through today.
Then there’s the collaborative gifts of Disney’s musical auteurs, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman. Ashman originally pitched the film to Disney, but died during its development; Menken contributed the score to the new film but only one new song, with lyrics by songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
2019’s Aladdin tries its best to regenerate that magic, and to its credit, it finds some success. It is frequently quite charming, largely thanks to the efforts of Mena Massoud, who captures Aladdin’s irrepressible charisma every second he’s onscreen. Much of the new story material written for the film works, and it’s enjoyable, if pedestrian, family fare.
But the terrible musical sequences, the lackluster CGI, and the strange creative and emotional restraint that permeates the film frequently flatten Disney’s original Aladdin into a cardboard version of itself.
The result is a film that’s divided into two entirely different entities. One is pretty cute: a pleasantly bland rom-com, with Massoud’s Aladdin and Naomi Scott’s Jasmine as adorable kids in love. The other is a really crappy musical, presided over by a disappointingly hamstrung Will Smith. These two halves never fully cohere.
This Aladdin remake had a lot to overcome, and it at least makes an effort
It’s important to acknowledge going into the Aladdin remake that, for all the 1992 film was a delightful, hilarious animated musical masterpiece, it was also dripping in Orientalism and harmful racist depictions of Arab culture.
In the original Aladdin, Jasmine is a repressed princess whose ultimate aim is to gain enough independence to marry for love rather than political expediency, which made her strikingly evolved for the time but seems hopelessly limiting now. Her father, the sultan, is a babbling, easily directed man-child. The citizens of Agrabah are frequently depicted as barbarous sword-wielders and sexualized belly dancers. The opening song, “Arabian Nights,” originally contained the ridiculously racist line “They cut off your ear if they don’t like your face / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”
So it’s easy to see why Disney executives might feel that Aladdin is worth updating, if only to overwrite many of its problematic elements. But this particular remake fumbled from the start. Advocacy groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations were opposed to the film from its inception. Casting controversy threw further doubt on the whole project, as did a series of lifeless promotional photos and a recently released clip of a strangely sluggish musical performance from the film, featuring new genie Will Smith. None of this boded well for the film.
Still, Ritchie and his fellow screenwriter, frequent Tim Burton collaborator John August, put in a decent effort to gloss over the previous film’s most glaring faults. On paper, Ritchie’s Aladdin offers several modern improvements: The script is especially good to Jasmine, who’s no longer the only woman in the movie and now has long-term political ambitions. The genie, who reads as culturally Arab, has a personal life and dreams of his own beyond escaping the lamp. Aladdin and Jasmine bond over growing up parentless. Hot Jafar (his official name, sorry, I don’t make the rules) doesn’t just want abstract power; he also wants to invade a few neighboring countries, because why not.
These changes are clearly meant to give Aladdin additional depth; in execution, however, many of these details seem like superficial inserts. The sultan’s palace seems to be an amalgam of Muslim and South Asian cultures, probably because Scott is of South Asian descent; her dance sequences are explicitly Bollywood-flavored. This could have been an interesting opportunity for an explicit exploration of the way these two cultures interact, but the film rarely goes deeper than, uh, giving Jasmine a feminist power ballad.
Aladdin’s two halves never quite cohere into a compelling whole
Throughout the first half hour or so of Aladdin, I started to think it might be able to pull out a win. The opening sequence, where we meet Aladdin as an impressively clean thief living on the streets of Agrabah, unfolds at a clip. While it can’t quite shake the vibe of a local community theater troupe hastily assembling on a soundstage, it’s still fun. We’re quickly introduced to the budding romance between Aladdin and a disguised Princess Jasmine, who bond over petty thievery and dead parents while zipping through streets and hopping across buildings as they evade capture by Agrabah street police. It’s the kind of colorful meet-cute that wouldn’t be out of place in a Netflix “summer of love” flick, and it worked for me. In fact, I would probably watch that rom-com multiple times and reblog a few Tumblr GIF sets of their love.
At nearly all other times, however, the film suffers from an inexplicable sluggishness. Ritchie’s recent filmography, dating from 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, has emphasized zany foreground antics cosseted by rich background details and strong pacing. But Aladdin frequently moves slowly, almost as if Ritchie has chosen to take the film on a leisurely stroll in direct contrast to its predecessor’s high speed. This holds true not just for the musical numbers, which all seem to have been slowed down in tempo and energy, but also the big action sequences between Hot Jafar and everyone else.
Watching the film, I frequently wondered, in fact, if Hot Jafar actor Marwan Kenzari were controlling the pace of the scenes through his refusal to turn his character into a campy, over-the-top villain. The original Jafar was the epitome of the noxious trope of the shrieking, fey, vaguely homophobic Disney villain; Kenzari’s Jafar is quiet, straightforward, and almost affectless, except for occasional moments when he lets his thirst for power seep through. This is a satisfying reinterpretation of Jafar, but his emotional restraint seems to be contagious. There are entire scenes, particularly near the end, where characters who should be fighting tooth and nail for what they want instead stand still and calmly reflect on what they each want to do next. It’s largely inexplicable behavior, and speaks to just how overly staid Ritchie’s direction is.
But it’s the musical numbers in particular that seem completely deflated. It’s not just that they’re slow; it’s also that Smith’s voice doesn’t carry them like WIlliams’s did, and his lack of live stage experience really hurts him here — as does the lackluster CGI imagery overall, which makes his “phenomenal cosmic power” seem kinda drab. “Friend Like Me” especially seems uninspired visually and thematically, while “Prince Ali” has already been widely ridiculed on social media for its slow pacing and dearth of jubilance. The other songs also suffer from this weird malaise; “A Whole New World” passed by before I really even noticed it was happening.
Smith, moreover, seems to be blocked creatively in his role as Genie, who comes across as a thin character despite the extra layers of characterization given to him in the new script. To be fair, it’s hard to conceive of anyone who could step into a role this iconic, played so brilliantly by Williams, and not be intimidated out of all self-expression, but Smith also quite understandably seems to present his character as spiritually worn down by his enslavement. Far from being a genie who projects phenomenal cosmic power, Smith’s interpretation is occasionally socially awkward, and human above all else.
And that underscores the remake’s biggest single issue. Turning a blue cartoon into a flesh-and-blood human being imposes a sense of realism that the glib, fantastical storyline of Aladdin was never really meant to reckon with. The original “Aladdin” tale, after all, was most likely translated from a Syrian oral tradition relayed by an 18th-century French writer, who drenched his version in exoticism. The 1992 film, in turn, succeeded on the basis of its sheer disconnect from reality, which kept it fun and magical. The cartoon was divorced from its story’s real-life connections, something the live-action take can’t evade.
It’s possible to imagine a new animated remake of Aladdin that confronts the Disney classic’s fraught past and manages to jettison much of its cultural baggage in a way that feels justified and transformative. Unfortunately, a live-action adaptation was never going to pull that off.
I’m left mourning the infectious, charming, no-baggage, original rom-com Disney could have given us instead.
Aladdin is in theaters on May 24.