Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG, 2 hr. 8 min.
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Director Guy Ritchie’s ALADDIN isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s just working overtime to make it run more efficiently. It’s a polish that, while wholly unnecessary, gives a timeless tale a modern sheen. This live-action remake doesn’t come close to equaling the magic and splendor of the wildly successful 1992 animated classic, but it certainly offers us a fun and entertaining musical spectacular in the process.
The core of Ritchie and co-screenwriter John August’s narrative remains the same as the original’s – only dialed up a bit more. They take their time finding a connecting touchstone to the four lead characters’ quests, which shows them all yearning to break out of society’s ascribed boxes. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) wants to be more than the charming “street rat” stealing for survival. Jasmine (Naomi Scott) longs to lead as a Sultan herself – not being the wife of one as the rules state. Genie (Will Smith) desires freedom after his fidelity to his wish-recipient. And the Sultan’s trusted advisor, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) craves ultimate power – so much so it’s a corruptive influence.
Ritchie’s signature hallmarks – like bare-chested martial arts brawls and ramped up action sequences – are mostly absent from this picture. Whether or not that’s a good thing is in the eye of the beholder. Only Aladdin’s “One Jump Ahead” sequence, featuring him engaging in parkour up Agrabah’s walls and rooftops, reminds us that this is subject matter within the auteur’s wheelhouse, capturing the criminal underground energy of the street market. What works best is when he embraces the vibrant banter between the characters. Aladdin, disguised in his new identity as Prince Ali of Alibabwa, awkwardly fumbles through his introduction to Jasmine by over-discussing jam. Smith and Massoud also have a few heartfelt moments where Ritchie handles the emotional underpinnings of the scenes deftly.
Similar to the 1992 feature, Genie is the big draw. The bar was raised unfairly high by Robin Williams’ astounding and tremendous work, but Smith taps into a different energy and makes the emcee role uniquely his own. Despite the not-so-hot CGI work threating to put his performance in a chokehold whenever he’s blue, Smith embraces a peppy zest we haven’t seen from him in years. Seeing him have fun in turn makes us feel safe enough to let go of our preconceived notions and submit to his charms. At least to a certain degree.
That said, much of the new ingredients don’t work to their full capabilities. There’s a part of the picture that’s like Jafar’s hypnotic snake cane, hypnotizing us into thinking that what we’re watching isn’t also a study in commercialism and corporate excess. The “Prince Ali” number resembles a Disney Parks parade. And when Aladdin and Jasmine take flight on the magic carpet, zooming all over a moonlit cityscape, singing the romantic, Oscar-winning ballad, “A Whole New World,” it’s impossible to forget this tune has been utilized over the past few decades to push fantastical vacation packages at Disney Resorts (which, side note, are legitimately incredible).
Jasmine, who was a fairly feisty feminist in the animated classic, is given a new song – a “Defying Gravity” style solo, called “Speechless,” wherein she sings about not silencing her agency. Though it’s a great idea in theory, in execution it smacks of pandering. Updating the cast to include people of color to tell a story that pulls influence from a specific cultural heritage is also another one of the better elements. However, the noble gesture of fixing the original’s most problematic element (of white actors voicing people of color) also doesn’t feel like the motivation for progressive change was birthed from a genuine place.
A few of the filmmakers’ updates have us – pardon the pun – one jump ahead of them. Aladdin’s request for the Genie to “make me a prince” is now an elongated where the pair argue about semantics and gray areas so that it’ll tie into a third act “gotcha” for another one of the characters. Handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) is a new addition, whose purpose is to be both a best friend for Jasmine and a love interest for Genie. Needless to say that, while Pedrad is great, and rightfully deserved of her own leading lady status in a feature film, her character is a bit of a head-scratcher. The sentiments behind this creative decision provides an odd contrast to Jasmine’s refreshed furtive feminist bent.
While the extra padding threatens to weigh down its buoyancy, the animated source material’s exuberant timelessness is what’s key to its success.
ALADDIN is now playing.