There are at least three moments in the new version of Disney’s Aladdin that will charm you so much you’ll start to think you are watching a good film. Unfortunately all those instances are taken directly from the original 1992 animated film, a more endearing and better stylised piece of work than the carbon copy that director Guy Ritchie has tried to concoct.
The differences aren’t there on purpose, though. In fact the goal was, like the 2017 version of Beauty & The Beast, to use the animated film as a storyboard for the new iteration, bar a couple of changes to maybe recognise a more modern sensibility. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is still a well-meaning street thief in the city of Agrabah who makes the mistake of falling for the intrepid, and obviously unattainable, princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Luckily he finds himself in the presence of a Genie (Will Smith) that grants him three wishes where the first is to make Aladdin a powerful prince so he can ask the Sultan (Navid Negahban) for his daughter hand in marriage, while foiling the plan of the Gran Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) to take over the throne. It’s exactly, beat by beat, to an almost offensive degree, like the animated film. The original songs, written by Tim Rice and Alan Menken, are still the same, or at least adapted to a new layer of instrumentals that don’t really change any of its potential. There is a new song just in time to give the film a chance at the “Best Original Song” at the Oscars, but it stands out like a blue Fresh Prince and sounds like a rejected B-side from The Greatest Showman.
If we measure all the elements, and consider the point of criticism to only look at the artistic merits, then I find myself at odds with the why of the 2019 Aladdin. It’s not really a remake for it doesn’t recreate a story to a different point of view or context. It’s not a re-imagining as much as it uses the original’s…well…imagination. It doesn’t have the colourful playfulness of the old version, but then how could it? Stylised animation lets the filmmaker control the film beyond our dull reality, and to bring it back to the material world is, from the start, a downgrade. But to make it without a single shred of new originality sets itself to uselessness. Yes, there are moments that will draw a gentle smile from an audience, but that reaction is tenfold in the original.
The actors do their bidding, especially Massoud, Scott and Kenzari. But it’s noteworthy to take a look at Smith for he has the ungrateful task of filling up the shoes left vacant by the inimitable Robin Williams. The weakest link is definitely Guy Ritchie, a director that seemed to only have on shtick that ran its course 15 years ago. Here he adds barely anything to visual panache, except making sure the shots are in tune with the 1992 film, and even then he misses the beat several times, turning some of the sequences devoid of the magic and pacing. Even as a writer, with his partner John August, Ritchie seems to completely miss the opportunity that was granted to him and, in the process, falls on his biggest sin.
Guy Ritchie choice as a writer and director is interesting, especially for the start of the film before the romantic splodge kicks in. His visual are often than not kinetic and, even at his worst, he does have a little whiff of that rough tough-as-nails humour from British cockneys. But here’s the thing, Guy Ritchie is not a cockney, he’s a posh boy from Hatfield – a quaint British village that is more Midsomer Murders than This Is England. And while it shouldn’t be a reason to dismiss his capacity of pulling it off, in this case well… it does. Ritchie looks at Aladdin, a story based off the most culturally relevant Muslim-Arabic collection of folk tales, with only fetishistic eyes. The original film wasn’t without its faults (hello “Where they cut off your ear/ If they don’t like your face/ It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home”) but it seemed at least grounded in the time and place where it came from, even if it was a fantasy, it was one that started and ended within its cultural boundaries.
Ritchie’s Agrabah is a hodgepodge of influences from Istanbul, to Teheran, Morocco and Tunisia. The cast is mix of Persian, Egyptian, Tunisian, even Indian. And while our main protagonists and villains speak with good old recognisable accents, the poor folks of Agrabah are somewhere around “generic Arabic accent”. Ritchie idealises this world the same way that white colonisers – in an homogenic way. And to drive the point across, the new intro, as written by Ritchie, starts with two African children gawking at the majesty of an European galleon – for absolutely no reason, and offering the weakest segue for Will Smith to kick in the first song.
Since I saw the film my opinion has changed. I left the cinema unimpressed but still under its effective spell. Even seeing Will Smith rapping in the end credits brought back good memories. But as the sand settles and there’s little to justify it, I wonder if those moments are enough. And of course they aren’t.
A good cast a good film makes not.
Culturally confusing, eventually ugly, the only moments that it adds to an almost perfect story are a horrible song and tone-deaf intro. I doubt this one’s for the kids. Children are still watching the original that will forever look more modern and up to date than this version. This one is only for nostalgia-seekers and, for those, I recommend staying home and putting the old version twice. Maybe watch and episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in between if you really need that edge.