- Directed by Guy Ritchie
- Written by Guy Ritchie and John August
- Starring Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and Will Smith
- Classification PG; 128 minutes
Pure nightmare fuel. Those were the only words that I could conjure when I first laid eyes upon Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, a sorta-live-action resurrection of Disney’s 1992 animated blockbuster. My horror was twofold. First, I was thrust into a state of unrelenting despair over the studio’s recent habit of remaking its intellectual property with all the enthusiasm of a lip-smacking gravedigger, sometimes adding nothing new (Beauty and the Beast, The Jungle Book) and often making things significantly worse (Dumbo, Cinderella). Second, Ritchie’s new version of Aladdin’s famed Genie scared the hell out of me.
In his original hand-drawn animated form, the big blue guy was a delightfully manic creation, a whirlwind of energy and enthusiasm that seemed impossible to extinguish, and specifically engineered to enthrall every single demographic. This was mostly because of the fact that Disney’s animators contorted Genie’s onscreen movements and mannerisms to the whiplash-inducing whims of voice performer Robin Williams, himself the closest humanity has ever come to birthing a live-action cartoon. There was much to love about co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker’s 1992 film, but it would be as fondly remembered as The Rescuers Down Under were it not for the indelibly perfect marriage of Disney and Williams, of big-screen form and bigger-than-the-screen persona.
Ritchie’s new Genie is similar in spirit, but ghastly in execution. As played by a top-knotted, goateed and go-go-go Will Smith, the all-powerful creature is still blue, but all wrong – an alarming conflation of the artificial and real, almost like the universe detected a defect in our plane of existence and vomited up this aesthetic aberration as evidence of nature’s capacity for error. There are just some things that should not exist in this world, and Smith’s visage pasted onto a floating, endlessly stretchy blue cloud of CGI muscles and sinew is top of the list. So, yeah: pure nightmare fuel.
Shockingly, the rest of Ritchie’s film is not nearly as hideous. Ever since Disney revealed its intentions for Aladdin 2.0, audiences were primed for complete disaster. There is nothing about the rough-and-tumble Ritchie that whispers “musical,” let alone “children’s musical,” and even further “children’s musical set in the Arab world.” What’s worse is that the British filmmaker has spent the past several years of his career taking any goodwill that he earned for the likes of Snatch out to the proverbial back alley and beating it mercilessly, ain’t it true lads. I would be very curious to know who at Disney saw Ritchie’s King Arthur and decided, “Yes, we’re on the right track.”
Yet, most of this new Aladdin is tolerable, even inching toward borderline entertaining. The musical scenes are decently shot and staged with a light, bouncy energy that almost justifies the film’s bloated run time (128 minutes is a stretch for any kid, let alone an adult stuck in a theatre full of kids, but everyone just might make it out of this one alive). Each frame is drowning in vibrant colours and packed with so many decked-out extras that Aladdin’s environment seems less like a typical CGI-enabled sound stage, and more like a tangible, if bombastically stylish, world of its own.
Ritchie’s casting agents also nailed it with the lead performers, with plucky Canadian Mena Massoud doing his absolute best with the street-rat dialogue Aladdin is gifted, Naomi Scott nicely torquing the Disney princess shtick just a degree or two as Jasmine, and Marwan Kenzari turning Jafar’s villainy into a perplexing but appreciated mix of sympathy, sexiness and disgust. (The Dutch actor spits out every line like he just swallowed a rotten date, and it works divinely.)
But then Smith’s Genie comes along and we’re plunged back into a hellish dreamscape from which there is no return. Fortunately, this quippy wish-master isn’t in the film nearly as much as Williams’s iteration was – it takes a good 45 minutes for the character to make his first appearance – and when he is occupying screen time, a good chunk of it is spent in Smith’s blue-free, human guise. To further lessen the horror, Genie is eventually paired with Jasmine’s own comic-relief sidekick, Dalia, played by the delightful Saturday Night Live veteran Nasim Pedrad, who gives a line-reading of the word “spoons” with such absurd enthusiasm that it makes the whole Ritchie endeavour worthwhile.
Well, almost. There is ultimately nothing here that eclipses the original and plenty that will haunt my dreams forevermore. I suppose that in the current landscape, where the Mouse House’s market dominance is inevitable enough to inspire further Disney vault plundering, this counts as a win. I wish it weren’t so, but then I’d be down to just two wishes. I’ll save all three for something special.
Aladdin opens May 24.
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