After finding surprising success with live-action adaptations of Cinderella and The Jungle Book, Disney is now running into problems with movies like Beauty and the Beast and now Aladdin. Both films are bona fide classics of Disney’s Animation’s 2nd Golden Age, and turning them into live-action features makes good business sense for Walt Disney Pictures. But these films have to answer the question of why they’re necessary when the animated originals are so good, and the answer seems to be, “Well, they’re not necessarily better, but they have expensive CGI effects, at least one new song, and more exposition that can possibly address qualms people have had on the Internet.” It’s not the best starting point for a movie, and you can see that clearly in Aladdin, a film that’s certainly not a disaster, but also doesn’t make a slam dunk case for its own existence. The songs have new arrangements that aren’t quite as good, it’s 38 minutes longer but little of it is an improvement, and there’s just not the (for lack of a better word) magic that made the original so beloved. It’s just Disney cashing in on its IP and hoping that you’ll buy a ticket to a brand you recognize rather than just staying home and watching the 1992 animated classic.
The major story beats remain the same: Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street thief who runs into Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) while she’s in disguise on the streets of Agrabah. When he tries to woo her, he’s captured by the nefarious vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) and in exchange for freedom and untold riches, Aladdin agrees to get a lamp from the Cave of Wonders for Jafar. When Jafar betrays him, Aladdin manages to get the lamp back where he discovers it holds the Genie (Will Smith), who will grant him three wishes. Aladdin, knowing that Jasmine can only marry a prince, wishes to be a prince, but learns the value of just being himself. The live-action version then tries to expand the story by having characters talk about their motivations like Jasmine wanting to be sultan but she can’t because it’s the law, and Jafar letting us all know he has an inferiority complex.
The first act of Aladdin seriously drags where even a song like “One Jump Ahead” doesn’t really have the punch it needs despite Aladdin parkouring all over Agrabah. It isn’t until Aladdin meets up with the Genie that the movie finds a rhythm, and that rhythm is basically “What if Hitch from the movie Hitch could do magic?” Aladdin is the bumbling guy who’s not confident around the beautiful woman, and it takes his beleaguered, smooth-talking wingman to help him out. This works surprisingly well for what it is and helps give the live-action Aladdin a personality of its own.
What’s most surprising is how well the Genie is handled. Yes, the blue CGI version of the character is an eye-sore. He looks rubbery and uncanny, and ultimately cartoony in a way that’s in no way endearing. And that’s a shame because the actual character of the Genie manages to do what I thought was impossible and give it a life outside Robin Williams’ unforgettable vocal performance. The Genie in the animated movie is Williams, and they’ve managed to harness that manic energy and let it flow through Smith so that he leaves his own stamp on the character.
While Aladdin manages to offer a fresh take on the Genie, the rest of the movie isn’t so lucky. The performances from the rest of the cast are largely fine, but no one really stands out. Sometimes it feels like you’re watching an incredibly expensive Disney Channel movie where no one knows quite how to pitch their performance. Is this a movie for young children, or is it for savvy adults who saw the original Aladdin when they were kids? How hip does it need to be and how safe does everyone need to play it? Despite the energy director Guy Ritchie has brought to his past films, his Aladdin feels stifling and constrained, so that even when you have a big number like “Prince Ali”, which looks big and colorful on an IMAX screen, the framing of it still comes off as small and cheap.
When the movie lurches into its third act, you can really feel how bloated the whole production has become. Jasmine has a good new song, “Speechless”, but it’s awkwardly dropped in at the second act climax as if they had the song but weren’t quite sure where it should be in the movie. And then you have laughably bad moments where characters argue over the loyalties of minor supporting character Hakeem, the Head Guard, which slows the picture to a crawl. For a movie that should be as spritely and whimsical as the Genie, that energy doesn’t really carry over to the rest of the picture, especially when Smith isn’t on screen.
Just as I adore the animated Beauty and the Beast, I also have a lot of love for the animated Aladdin and wanted both live-action adaptations to do justice to their source material. I understand that filmmakers don’t want to make a carbon copy of those animated features with live-action subbed in for animation. But what’s unfortunate with Aladdin is that there are clear moments when they’ve found something new and then the film falls back to Earth under the weight of over-explaining character motivations or trying to throw in additional elements that just don’t work. Aladdin serves its purpose of being an IP that Disney can easily sell but judged on being a worthy adaptation of the animated classic or even a decent family film, there’s no magic here.