I do have pretty clear memories of a a very young NFB, maybe six or seven, singing along to Robin Williams’ “Friend Like Me” in the kitchen, the song booming from a cassette player (for the young, cassette’s were an ancient form of data storage, equivalent to papyrus or the Rosetta Stone). Some may have liked Aladdin and his antics with Abu, some may have fallen in love with Jasmine, some may even have had a soft spot for the deliciously evil Jafar and Gilbert Gottfried’s parrot. But I think just about everyone who found themselves entranced by 1992’s Aladdin had the Genie in mind as to why. Robin Williams’ explosive performance as the wish-granting demi-being was the spine that made Aladdin the masterpiece it was.
This might explain the trepidation many fans had towards the news that the film was getting the live-action treatment, and that Will Smith would be stepping into the main role (which was never Aladdin really). Williams was irreplaceable and, God rest his soul, unavailable. Early trailers carried the air of impending disaster, as Disney’s latest sub-genre threatened to become mere lifeless money-grabbing exercises, having peaked early with Alice In Wonderland and Cinderella, and since stumbled with Beauty And The Beast and Dumbo. I was hesitant about seeing Aladdin, hence the lateness of this review, but gave it a go despite myself. I was thinking of the Genie when I made that decision, knowing that Will Smith’s role is the make or break for Guy Ritchie’s version.
In the city of Agrabah, “street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) steals to survive, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) aspires to the Sultancy, and Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) plots to seize power. The three’s dreams collide when, seeking to find the means of courting Jasmine, Aladdin agrees to seek a magic lamp for Jafar, unaware of the powerful Genie (Will Smith) that resides inside.
Aladdin is a real film of three parts, with each of its act needing to be examined in turn, as every one is that little bit different, with their owns triumphs and flaws. It feels a bit stitched together in that way, like a miniseries masquerading as a movie. It is a film I did not have very high expectations for, and I can say that, at least partly, those expectations were exceeded, but just as much, or more, they were not even met.
It does not start out well. The first act is about as low as Disney’s live-action remakes have gotten, an ill-designed, poorly directed, poorly acted train-wreck, that had me looking at my watch and not being all that annoyed when I had to step out of the theatre for two minutes to answer a work call. Right from the off, when Will Smith’s misplaced and auto-tuned rendition of “Arabian Nights” gives you the auditory version of an uncanny valley feeling, you start to wonder if you’re the one trapped in the lamp.
It continues in a bad direction. Aladdin generally has weaknesses in its cast, that become obvious in that first twenty or so minutes. Massoud in the titular role lacks some of the dynamism of Scott Weinger’s voice-work, or maybe it just doesn’t translate to live-action: when trying to be serious he can’t pull it off, though he’s a bit better when being the straight man in comedy scenes (more on that in a bit). Scott is regrettably flat as Jasmine, and I don’t mean in a singing sense (in that, at least, she’s quite good): they try and spice up her character by including a sub-plot where she vies to be a contender to succeed her father, which is a natural and admirable choice to make, it’s just that Scott doesn’t really engage your interest, and does not play off well with Massoud for the most part.
The first act goes from that unfortunate effort at “Arabian Nights” up to the Cave of Wonders, and in-between we get a lot of really dire attempts to replicate the great stuff from 1992. But not all of that can work in live-action. Case in point is the “One Jump Ahead” sequence. That song is a fast-paced comedic piece that matches well to the cartoon slapstick that accompanies it visually. Key emphasis there on “cartoon”: in live-action the cast can’t do the song justice, limited by the simple laws of physics that prevent the same level of slapstick being employed. Instead you have Aladdin trying to get a song going while engaged in parkour, and that uncanny valley feeling is back in full force.
The love plot is a bit insipid, the bad guy isn’t up to much (more on that in a moment) and the whole affair seems really half-assed. Not even the lava-filled set-piece of the collapsing Cave of Wonders could get my enthusiasm going again. And then Will Smith made his entrance.
The second act of Aladdin is the Genie show, and God damn if he not only rescues this sinking ship, but manages to get it sailing in a straight line again. It’s been a while since I saw an all-out good Will Smith film, and it’s wonderful to be reminded that the man is actually hilarious when given the material to work with. Starting off with a spectacular looking re-do of “Friend Like Me” – much like the “Be Our Guest” sequence of Beauty And The Beast, I suspect the chance to do this was a big motivation for the crew behind Aladdin – Will Smith improves the film markedly.
He and Massoud immediately establish an excellent comedic rapport, one that, dare I say it, might even improve on the Weinger/Williams relationship from 1992. Aladdin becomes the under pressure straight man to the Genie’s comedy masterclass, with the Genie constantly drawing laughs from his demonstration of magic to his pithy comments on Aladdin’s less-than-stellar efforts to woe Jasmine as “Prince Ali” (after one mortifying gaffe where Aladdin focuses a bit too much on the sweet treats he’s brought Jasmine, the Genie’s advice is a deadpan “Move. Away. From the jams”). The two establish both a comedic but emotionally satisfying back-and-forth with the Genie serving as a big brother-type role for the frequently wayward Aladdin. That, and Aladdin’s effort to court the Princess are genuinely hilarious, and culminate in a great recreation of “A Whole New World”, about the only time Massoud and Scott seem to be on the same page.
I didn’t even take much notice of the plot for this middle-section, preferring to enjoy the almost panto-like approach being employed, as Aladdin and Genie one-line their way from scenes to scene. And Smith can still sing: his “Friend Like Me” is a worthy follow-up to Williams’ crooning, and his “Prince Ali” isn’t half-bad either. It’s here that the alterations also shine the most, whether it be the subtle changing of lyrics or delivery (Best example: “Let me take your order, I’ll jot it down” now being done in a Gordon Ramsey accent) or entirely new elements, like Nasim Pedrad’s handmaiden, given an unexpected but rather fun romantic sub-plot with the Genie. Ritchie sticks to the 1992 outline broadly speaking, but shows that he can change things up when the need is required.
If Aladdin was more like that middle-stint in it’s entirety the film would probably be quite good, but the wheels come of the bus again in the last half hour or so. It’s here that Kenzari as Jafar should really rise to the occasion, but he is regrettably hobbled by a character who has been written to downplay every notable aspect from 1992. Gone is the deliciously evil English accent, the goatee, the Gilbert Gottfried sidekick (Iago now voiced by a disappointing Alan Tudyk), the cackling mania. Even his look is diminished. Here instead is a more quiet intensity, and a Game Of Thrones-inspired palace intrigue feel. We can, of course, do without the English accent, but I miss the villain who came out with lines like “How many times do I have to kill you, boy?!”and the duplicitous parrot with the human voice. Such is the dullness of Kenzari’s Jafar that he doesn’t even get to do the villainous reprise of “Prince Ali”. It’s a story about a magical Genie, a flying carpet and black magic: we couldn’t have had one instance of maniacal laughter?
The weakness of Jafar is the key point of the generally weak third act. It was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, other than to say that from the moment Jafar gets his hands on the lamp, scene follows scene in a strange fashion, with editing and pacing that is just off-kilter. Perhaps it is because a key part of the finale, wherein Jafar takes control of Agrabah, gets interrupted so Scott can give a second rendition of Aladdin’s unique song, “Speechless” before it continues on. There are odd choices aplenty, that all combine to create a very underwhelming and strange feeling conclusion: Agrabah’s chief guard sides with Jafar, then sides against him on account of being reminded that he is not a nice person; Iago being turned into a giant parrot; Jafar not being actively involved in the dramatic finale; a very quick wrap-up once the villain is defeated; and a credit sequence rap song.
It’s also 50:50 on the visual side of things, and in another weird way. The setting has always been a bit confused, part Muslim, part Chinese, and now Ritchie injects a healthy dose of Bollywood, and it doesn’t quite fit. It’s the live action sets and props that have a distinctly cheap look, where colour has substituted for detail, especially in the streets of Agrabah for “One Jump Ahead” and “Prince Ali”. Guy Ritchie has never really directed a production like this, with his back catologue mostly of the near-monochrome variety, all grit and concrete, mostly set in London. He’s just not the guy to direct a Disney fantasy setting. The cinematography is limited enough, with Ritchie favouring somewhat unnatural gliding shots, and only springs to life when the genuinely good CGI gets involved. Fears that the Genie would be a Dr Manhattan-like monstrosity are laid to bed quickly, especially since the imminently wise decision to have Will Smith be Will Smith for most of the film is taken.
Aladdin is a weird one because I look back on it with the full opinion that the majority of the film is really not that good at all. The first and last half-hour’s are train-wrecks of production and narrative. Most of the cast is not that good. Guy Ritchie proves himself beneath the task set for him. More than half of the soundtrack is done poorly.
And yet. Will Smith emerges triumphantly as not only the best part of this production, but the element that actually makes Aladdin somewhat worth seeing. Even with all of the other problems, I came out of the screening relatively satisfied, because that middle section was just so entertaining. It was the closest that 2019’s Aladdin came to the entertainment of 1992. For that, I find myself happy to say you might want to check Aladdin out, with a massive asterisk attached. It’s not a good movie, but it has one great part, and just about manages to banish the memory of its awful roll-out. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).