ALADDIN. The 1992 Disney animated classic about a “street rat” who’s a “diamond in the rough” and gets three wishes from a hyperactive genie and uses the opportunity to try to marry the princess he just met. See, they come from opposite worlds, but if you think about it, having to sneak out of your gigantic palace in disguise to go to the market while your dad tries to make you marry a prince you don’t know for political reasons is very much the same experience as being an orphan who knows how to make crushing poverty fun with petty theft and parkour. So I don’t see why there would be any awkwardness there. They’ll do great!
Now we have a live action version, and legitimate reason to be skeptical. I’m very proud of my review of SAVING MR. BANKS from just six years ago, which I turned into sort of a manifesto against kneejerk cynicism toward Disney and happy endings and what not. But these days the corporation probly gets less pushback than it honestly deserves – they buttered us up with Star Wars and Marvel movies and then created a disastrous monopoly by purchasing Fox. There are many small, terrible things I could complain about, but it’s in the big picture that it seems to me they’re really doing the opposite of what their founder was beloved for. It seems less about telling great stories and more about trying to own the most popular “properties.” Not only have they entirely abandoned the classic hand drawn animation that was once their entire business, but they’re recycling their own animated stories in live action and/or realistic computer animation that’s sometimes well done but generally lacks the heart and soul of the drawings Walt helped breathe life into.
That fucking sucks. On the other hand, I can recognize that most of these movies are pretty enjoyable on their own merits. So I try to be fair.
ALADDIN is pretty fun, but it’s closer to the too-slavish BEAUTY AND THE BEAST than the expansive JUNGLE BOOK. It’s very close to the original story and musical numbers, though with some interest in evolving the gender politics a little – Jasmine (Naomi Scott, the Pink Ranger in the POWER RANGERS movie) has a new on-the-nose song by Pasek & Paul (LA LA LAND) about being “silenced,” and at the end she SPOILER THAT I DOUBT YOU CARE ABOUT becomes the sultan instead of just getting a marry-who-you-want pass. (I feel I should point out that in ’92 the emphasis on Jasmine’s struggle to be allowed to make her own decisions was in itself a progression from previous Disney princesses.)
The movie’s biggest success is in the casting of Aladdin and Jasmine. I actually think Mena Massoud (“Al Qaeda No. 2, one episode of Nikita) is more charismatic than the original animated dork, and Scott immediately has the screen presence of an actress we’ll be seeing much more of. They also give Jasmine a good rapport with a new character, her handmaiden Dalia (2009-2014 SNL cast member Nasim Pedrad), who has a subplot about crushing on the genie in his human disguise. And I guess Aladdin’s Dalia is Abu, the animated monkey who looks cool crawling on him and zipping around Agraba with the camera doing impossible moves to follow him. His eyes are kinda creepy, though.
Unfortunately I think the live action Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, BEN-HUR, THE MUMMY) is a dud. Lacking the cartoon’s deep voice and interesting features, he’s just some whiny dick with a big hat and a cool snake staff. I remember rumors Tom Hardy was being considered for the role, causing outrage. I’m sure they would’ve rewritten him as a Caucasian interloper, which doesn’t seem like whitewashing to me since HE’S THE FUCKIN BAD GUY, but I guess it’s for the bests since
- it’s amazing that Disney made a big expensive movie with this many opportunities for actors of color and
- Wikipedia says people were even offended there was a tiny role for white guy Billy Magnussen (“Steve McKee” in BIRTH OF THE DRAGON) as the dipshit prince she’s supposed to marry.
And yet there’s a 100% chance that Hardy, even if he was literally taking a nap during all his scenes, would’ve made them more interesting than this bland nothing of a villain. So I guess they should’ve found the Arab Tom Hardy, or figured out how to make this guy let loose.
Meanwhile, the pet bird Iago (now voiced by Alan Tudyk, I, ROBOT) doesn’t get to provide comic relief, because he doesn’t get to say much beyond normal bird-speak. And since it’s not Gilbert Gottfried you can forget about there being a deleted scene on the Blu-Ray where he tells a long filthy story with the punchline “THE ARISTOCATS!”
Oh, by the way, do you know who plays the genie in this? Obviously the center of the original ALADDIN was Robin Williams. It was built around his comic persona and the then-novel-for-Disney approach of the animators trying to keep up with his rapid fire jokes and wacky voices and shit, making him spin around and transform into all the timeless cultural references such as Arsenio Hall and a French guy with a beret or whatever. If it had been up to me the remake would’ve cast a comic with the opposite energy, someone laid back like Dave Chappelle. They chose Will Smith (WILD WILD WEST), who I always like less when he’s in trying-to-be-funny mode. And of course he spends much of the movie as some kind of weird mocap creation, a realistic Smith head on muscular torso that changes size and shape and does THE MASK style jokes. As much work as obviously goes into that, it’s an awkward substitute for the traditional cartoon animation it’s mimicking.
But he gets some laughs. There are some good jokes. It’s okay. His comedy is more natural than his singing – Grammy award winning rapper doesn’t necessarily translate to performing this type of stage musical songs. But I guess my problem is more with the style of music than his execution of it. And it’s not like the end credits rap song, something he’s more qualified for, is much better.
(That’s not a joke. Look it up.)
Note: There’s a part in one of the songs where he beatboxes for a little bit, and I was really hoping to see a “beatbox by Ready Rock C” credit, but I looked it up and apparently they had a falling out and lawsuit years ago.
The visuals during the songs are strong. There’s some good dancing and really elaborate choreography of many extras, props and FX. It looks like it would’ve been really cool in 3D, lots of layers, steady camera moves, things going toward the camera. Scenes like the “Prince Ali” parade make a decent argument for these remakes, since seeing real people in that kind of spectacle is impressive in a different way than seeing drawings.
A weird thing about this production that I have not mentioned yet: it’s directed by Guy Ritchie (who is credited as co-writer along with John August [TITAN A.E.] – uncredited polish by Vanessa Taylor [THE SHAPE OF WATER a.k.a. I FUCKED A FISH-MAN]). I think Ritchie is in kind of an interesting place now. He did mostly his stylistically influential crime movies until those two SHERLOCK HOLMESes got him into blockbusterland. Then it was the slept on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., possibly his best film in my opinion, and the interestingly weird flop KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, and now this. I rarely felt he was Guy-Ritchie-ing it up here, but he does have fun with a ton of show-offy camera moves. I dug the energetic-but-not-spastic visual style.
I suppose one sort of Ritchie moment is when it reveals a trick Aladdin pulled on the genie by having the film sort of skip and go out of frame and pull back to show Aladdin and the genie in an audience watching the earlier scene to see how it went down. It’s like a meta Looney Tunes joke but also it’s like some of Ritchie’s usual storytelling gimmicks.
I’d like to see alot more of that – one thing I dug in KING ARTHUR was the audacity of putting so much contemporary absurdity and Ritchie-isms into such an old story. But I guess the people who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these things prefer the ones like this (that make a ton of money) to the ones like that (that lose a ton of money). What is their fuckin problem in my opinion. But for what it’s worth it turns out Ritchie is pretty skilled at this type of expensive mainstream entertainment.
Anyway I’m looking forward to the live action AN EXTREMELY GOOFY MOVIE. Maybe Tom Hardy can play the Pauley Shore character.
P.S. Before you ask, no, I haven’t seen the new LION KING yet, but I’m still planning to.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.