5 out of 10
Mena Massoud as Aladdin
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Loud, garish and extremely well-intentioned, Aladdin is a shining example of the limits of Disney’s attempts to render its greatest animated classics into live action. Light when it should be heavy, super light when it should be just a normal amount, Guy Ritchie’s take on the 27-year old Robin Williams’ classic is never able to break away from its sets or costume design to assume a life of its own, coming off more as a filmed musical extravaganza more than a film. Large and over the top in the way a big picture musical should be, Aladdin ironically feels trapped by its trappings, decreasing its scope even as it extends its reach. The result is more akin to one of Disney’s made-for-TV adventures than the big screen marvel it seems to be aiming for. If nothing else it should finally give lie to the idea that all these re-imaginings needs is to take their old scripts and give them to live actors.
And, except for a few excursions here and there, Aladdin is very faithful to the original, using not just all of the original songs but a lot of the original dialogue and line readings. Aladdin (Massoud) is still a self-described street rat, a penniless orphan living on the streets of Agrabah, stealing to keep body and soul together but just as likely to give his ill-gotten gains away to one of his fellow unfortunates. A chance meeting with a disguised princess Jasmine (Scott) brings him to the scheming vizier, Jafar (Kenzari), and sets him on the path to claim the most valuable object in the world … a simple brass lamp. With the aid of the all-powerful genie (Smith) living within, Aladdin is able to woo Jasmine on her level as the over-the-top Prince Ali. As he gets closer and closer to what he wants, though, he begins to lose more and more of himself until soon the entire kingdom is in danger.
There are definitely some pluses to the adaptation. With a longer running time, a medium which allows easier on the spot iteration and a couple of decades of to reassess how the characters and plot were originally handled, Ritchie and his crew have managed to bring some new spins to the material. Major characters outside of Aladdin are broadened and deepened, given life beyond merely supporting Aladdin’s journey. Jasmine’s chafing against her many suitors becomes more than just wanting to be able to pick the man she marries and makes sultan, she’s ready to rule the kingdom herself and doesn’t need anyone to do it for her. Sentiments echoed by Jafar (Kenzari) who expands from being a typical maniacal villain to a former street rat himself, a dark reflection of Aladdin and what he could become if he lets a lust for power consume him.
All of which is much more interesting (in conception if not in execution) than Aladdin himself or much of his movie. Massoud plays every scene with a smirking grin no matter how dark or dangerous, reducing any empathy for him or what he’s going through because everything seems to be no big deal. It’s an emotive pitfall matched by many of Massoud’s line readings which only seem to come to life in song. Everyone he shares the screen with, from Kenzari to Scott, are just more interesting and commanding than he is, and none more so than Smith who consumes all attention when he arrives, whether he’s bright blue or not. Smith does his best to make his genie his creation — and gets the benefit of some more time and depth of his own, including his own potential romantic interest — and not just imitating Williams’ version and he succeeds more often than not. But so much of his dialogue and sequences are direct lifts from the first film (more so than any other part of Aladdin) that it’s hard for him to avoid, particularly during the musical numbers.
In fact, if there is a single point which highlights the failures of the new Aladdin it is the musical numbers. As songs they’re still excellent and the cast performs them well (which unfortunately outs Smith as the weakest singer in the group as he’s given the two biggest showstoppers) and even the newer numbers by returning composer Alan Menken sit well within the corpus. But once staged they feel lifeless and badly used. As with much of what’s wrong with Aladdin, most issues seem to come back to director Guy Ritchie’s door. While he maneuvers everything professionally there seems to be no connection to the material itself, every sequence is perfunctory. It’s clear Ritchie knows what he’s doing but it’s less clear that he cares if any beats land for this giant, corporate endeavor. Sequences happen and then they stop and that’s the best that can be said of them. At worst their badly paced or even so counter intuitive they ruin other, better elements around them. Jasmine’s new solo number about refusing to be silenced comes so deep into the third act it is off-putting rather than celebratory, breaking up the flow of the climax when it would have been better placed early on as Jasmine explains her own conflicts to us.
These sort of strange decisions fill Aladdin, constantly reducing its reach and undercutting its better moments. There are a lot of good intentions visible here, from increasing characterization and spreading out story beats beyond Aladdin himself to bigger action beats and deeper personal messages. But none of gels together into a finished whole. Aladdin is an unfortunately slapdash film, one which seems put together more out of a business commitment to do so than any sort of artistic passion.