Aladdin (2019)

1 out of 5

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Trying to separate Guy Ritchie’s 2019 Aladdin remake from the original – perhaps especially for those of us who grew up with it firmly lodged in our nostalgia bone – is difficult; in part because it looms large, and in part because Ritchie (and/or Disney, and the presumably hundreds of people involved in pitching and shaping this up for the current generation) doesn’t want us to: Aladdin 2019 is chock-full of scenes and dialogue lifted as directly from its animated counterpart as a live-action CGI-fest is capable. That comparison inevitably factors in to my rating, but unfortunately, the movie – as best as I can view it as a standalone affair – is very much a dud, confused in tone and miscast as a result, and bearing too many consistent, immersion-shattering marks of rushed or poorly conceived effects.

The core of the tale is a meet cute of a boy, Aladdin (Mena Massoud), and a girl, Jasmine (Naomi Scott): he’s a beggar from the streets of fictional Agrabah, during a vague time of wazirs and sultans and flying carpets; she’s the princess of Agrabah, disguising herself as a commoner when the two collide and hit it off. Setting aside Aladdin’s computer-animated monkey pal, Abu, the movie plays as cartoonish realism initially, then shifts in to fantasy as Al – realizing he has no chance of reconvening with Jasmine without being royalty himself – takes up an offer from the calculating advisor to the king, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) to retrieve a particular item from a particular cave, which turns out to be a magic lamp with a genie (Will Smith) who grants Aladdin his “make me a prince” wish. Cue Jafar’s evil machinations to get the lamp and take over the world (or Agrabah, at least), and Aladdin having to learn a lesson about being himself during his fumbled attempts at wooing Jasmine as a faux prince.

The film gets off to a rough start with a framing device – Will Smith on a boat, telling this story to some rambunctious kids. It seems an odd tactic, here: while the story is sourced from One Thousand and One Nights, and so it’s sensible to include a nod to storytelling, there’s zero attempt at giving this frame any context for the viewer, or making its characters relevant. So it doesn’t function as an entryway to the story, but rather, an interruption. It’s also curious to double Smith as the storyteller and genie. I guess one could figure this as kids imagining their dad in the tale, but I don’t think there was that level of thought put in to the casting, and though I certainly don’t control how kid imaginations work (…right?), saving their dad’s appearance for the genie reveal seems like they’d have some story knowledge up front, same as how the viewer has already seen Will Smith’s face plastered about as the star of the movie. Again, disruptive.

As we proceed to the streets of Agrabah, there’s a certain musical quality to the set, which syncs with the inclusion of musical numbers. But director Richie has no idea what to do with this style of presentation: the shots lack flavor, and are split between attempts at the director’s dynamism and more formal pans and whatnot. The music, while charming, has no place in the mismash of visuals, and the way things slow to match with song beats is distracting. The uncanny valley approach on Al’s monkey pal – is it a cartoon monkey, a real one? – seals the deal on things looking uncomfortably awry, not to mention wasting Frank Welker’s performance.

Perpetuate these problems as sets grow larger (the “Cave of Wonders” in which the lamp is found; the palace) and more green-screened, and then the character of the genie, mo-capped with distractingly “real” expressions versus his hollow eyes and a constantly shifting body – an important part of the story, he never feels like a real character or presence in the film.

Massoud works as the humble, stumbling Aladdin, but seems lost in larger scale sequences, acting against items / characters that aren’t there. The “let’s please everyone!” softening of the already softball material also removes any culpability on the character’s behalf in how things evolve, which eviscerates much of the morality of the thing. Scott is good but her role is problematic – in trying to update the less gender balanced “marry me off, please!” vibe of the original, the script gives her a bit stronger of a voice, which Scott uses well, but also decides to stick to the original, minimizing her back down to a blushing bride who’s won over pretty quickly. Smith is… simply mismatched. I’ve admittedly never been a fan of Smith’s comedy in films – it always feels forced – but having to find his own, non-Robin Williams stamp on the character is difficult enough, and it comes across as an embarrassing blend of old jokes and dad jokes, none of which land. The comedy, in general, never lands, as much of it is intended to come through physical humor that’s hampered by the poorly handled CGI / human interactions. And yet, this is also true of dramatic beats: lines that are supposed to resonate – such as those which identify Aladdin to Jasmine – simply don’t; they’re as mired by the featureless melange as everything else.

To Richie and co-writer John August’s credit, where they decided to deviate from the original, things mostly work. (Excepting the strange decision to give the genie a human relationship, which is odd in the first place, but then also falls in to the dated trap of pairing off all your main characters, and mostly reads as an excuse for giving Smith more screentime.) It’s during these deviations that Richie’s pacing feels most confident, and that the acting doesn’t feel so wooden; the story so base. But these moments are lost in the shuffle of sticking to the 1992 script, word for word, song for song – a fantastical, funny movie that did not need this pseudo-realistic, unfunny, uninvolving update.