If you’ve seen the original 1992 Aladdin, which is probably most of the people who are reading this, then you know that this new remake has some big shoes to fill. Most likely, we all have the same exact reason why— the late Robin Williams simply makes Aladdin what it is. I rewatched the original just the other day, and I was only mildly enjoying it until Genie lit up the screen with his big, blue energetic personality, taking in the ‘Friend Like Me’ number in all its technicolor glory, I fully remembered why the 2D-animated film was so cherished. Though, even in its original form, there’s a lot that is problematic with Disney’s take on Aladdin, from the ethnic hodgepodge of cultural tourism to the pop culture references that keep it from transcending the early 90s release date. But, one special quality that made the film stand out from a well-established canon of fairytales, was Williams as Genie, and his raw sincerity.
And how could this remake ever recapture that spirit? Well, it simply doesn’t. I don’t think anyone truly expected it would. We know the story of Aladdin, the titular underdog street rat with a heart of gold, who learns the importance of staying true to oneself as he wishes on a magic lamp for a more extravagant life with Princess Jasmine. I’ll save the spiel. Although, I wish Walt Disney Studios would also give us the same amount of faith in our intelligence. Instead, we’re presented with a passionless retelling of the original Aladdin, the same, general, basic plot beats with only minor alterations (hold on, Genie fucks?!) that don’t seem to add anything besides runtime. Director Guy Ritchie does make sense for a more action/adventure based Disney story, but his directorial influence is only hinted at in small sequences of spectacle. So, we’re left with a question often raised whenever a new one of these remakes release, but seriously, what’s the point?
I’d hate to dwell on comparisons between the original animation versus what is trying to be achieved with the live action’s aesthetics, but I can’t help but feel, perhaps even more than previous entries such as Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Cinderella (2014), that what is lost in translation hurts the storytelling of Aladdin the hardest. Gone are the ‘poof’ and ‘pizazz’ of Genie’s fluid dances that often literalize the zany song lyrics and dialogue, here is some hastily envisioned VFX work imposed with Will Smith’s blue face on it instead. We just saw Detective Pikachu a few weeks ago, and it seamlessly blended these genuine performances between actors and CG pocket monsters, so what’s the excuse here? It’s a burden that this movie has to carry, that what was expressed in simple, minimalistic 2D frames of animation contain boundless amounts of more personality than whatever these realistic fairy tale reimaginings are hoping to achieve. That’s surely been a general truth in this new wave of modern Disney identity crisis, but it strikes especially hard with this story so specifically reliant around our audience-to-screen relationship with an alleged ‘charismatic’ genie.
And the performances, unfortunately, aren’t helping to lift any dead weight. Our Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and Jasmine (Naomi Scott) look their parts and are decent enough at bouncing off one another, but lack any real depth or charm when left to carry a scene on their own. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) is severely miscast as Jafar, being much younger and significantly less flamboyant, and a lot more boring than his cartoon counterpart. I originally assumed it was an intentional choice on Ritchie’s part, but very little was done to justify or play with the divergent casting choice. So, I can only assume it was to have women and gays tweet about how hot this new Jafar is (simply casting an attractive man as Jafar is not enough! You have to let him flaunt and earn the thirst, dammit!) Finally, we have to address our blue Will Smith Genie, who admittedly did a better job than I was ever expecting, but was still unable to emit a single ray of what this movie wants to be living up to.
I wanted to express the sincerity Robin Williams brought to original Aladdin in the opening of this review because I felt, no matter how much this remake stumbles in adapting its fairytale story, it could succeed with just a little bit of that same heart. But nothing in 2019’s Aladdin feels genuine to me. There are many unenthusiastically shot and edited, weirdly static dance numbers, and overproduced takes on our classic soundtrack. There’s a very on-the-nose feminist power ballad for Jasmine that she gets to belt just moments before being captured by Jafar again, an attempt for the modern self-aware Disney corporation to tell us, “Hiya there, we’re woke now!” There’s a D.J. Khaled track over the credits where Will Smith raps, seemingly trying all he can to make us remember why we used to think he was cool, the mileage may vary. This is a feeling I’ve been experiencing with Disney’s latest output for a while now. And, here I still wait, for something sincere again.