IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 128 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the desert kingdom of Agrabah, young street rat Aladdin rescues and befriends a woman whom he thinks is the handmaiden to Princess Jasmine, not knowing it’s actually Jasmine herself. Meanwhile, Jafar, the Royal Vizier, seeks a magic lamp hidden within the Cave of Wonders to become Sultan. Only one person is worthy to enter: “the diamond in the rough”, whom Jafar identifies as Aladdin. Jafar informs him that he’d met Jasmine, and tells Aladdin that he can make him rich enough to impress her if he retrieves the lamp. The cave collapses when Aladdin’s pet monkey Abu grabs a ruby, leaving the two trapped. Then Aladdin rubs the lamp and meets the Genie who lives inside it….
So here we have the second of this year’s three Disney remakes, and with more to follow, it really is a depressing state of affairs for anyone who values the art of animation. It’s as if the company doesn’t consider the cartoons to be proper films any more, yet ironically these new efforts are drowned in so much CGI that they often look just as artificial. I reckon Walt himself would absolutely detest what his company’s doing. But, as with my review of Dumbo, I’m going to try to restrain my whinging and concentrate on the film at hand. Dumbo was really quite an odd effort, but not odd in a good way, the uncomfortable marriage between Tim Burton and a family animal flick resulting in a unsatisfying, though not exactly terrible, concoction that didn’t seem to really know what it wanted to be. Aladdin is a different matter though. At least Dumbo did actively try to differentiate itself from its 1944 predecessor, but Aladdin is basically just another cover version, much like The Jungle Book and especially Beauty And The Beast. The same plot, the same songs, blah blah blah – it’s little more than an exercise in nostalgia, with the minimum of effort made to put in some new stuff aside from a few predictable alterations for modern PC tastes [god forbid we offend anyone in this snowflake world] and one godawful extra song. Yes, 40 minutes have been added, but they don’t contain anything of substance. There’s the odd extra story beat, but they add nothing, and the whole thing is rather bland, devoid of a real sense of magic and wonder as it laboriously goes through the tale that you loved in 1992 [albeit one that was unofficially ripped off from The Thief Of Bagdad, just as The Lion King was at least partly ripped off from – okay, I won’t go there] and cocks up most of the glorious songs along the way.
And yet, this Aladdin didn’t leave me with the utter feeling of despair that Beauty And The Beast, which botched nearly everything, did. And I’ll say one thing right now – I don’t entirely agree with the criticism, in fact the downright hatred from some, for Will Smith’s Genie. Okay, he does seem rather freaky looking in appearance at first, the digital enhancements made to his body being decidedly ugly, but I soon got used to this. And Smith does a pretty decent job at molding the character to suit his own screen personality, delivering his humorous lines especially well, even if he doesn’t always seem to get his sight lines right. Of course he lacks the talent for improvisation that Robin Williams brought to the part, and Williams was so utterly brilliant that it’s hard not to keep thinking of him when Smith is on screen. And I will say that, while he’s known for being a rapper, he’s not a very good singer at all – though then again neither is Mena Massoud as Aladdin. Once again we have a modern musical where quality singing doesn’t seem at all obligatory, much like quality choreography, though what do you expect with Guy Ritchie, who’s turning into a very poor filmmaker indeed, the great days of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch being long gone?
The Genie now gets a pointless opening scene where he’s on a boat with his wife and kids and he now does the singing of Arabian Nights, which has here been gutted of anything that might upset anyone – in fact it’s quite pathetic the way this film is so cowardly – there’s not a single mention of or even an oblique reference to Islam. Surely this in itself is not a good thing and in its own way a bit offensive? We’re no longer in Bagdad but the ficticious city of Agrabah, as fake-looking and texture-lacking as any of George Lucas’s sterile CG scapes. Aladdin meets Jasmine and the two take part in a reasonably decent parkour-tinged chase where Ritchie thankfully restrains – a bit – his usual idiotic liking for ‘shakycam’ and rapid fire edits so you can’t see what the hell’s going on. A surprising amount of time is given to the very gradual relationship between Aladdin and Jasmine, something that would be very pleasing in this cynical age where genuine romance is in short supply in the movies if Massoud and Naomi Scott had even an ounce of chemistry together. But they have nothing, even if Scott gives probably the best performance in the film. Of course this time around we can no longer have a princess who’s main goal is to find a husband, even if it’s probably realistic for the time and place, and didn’t diminish Jasmine’s intelligence and independent spirit in 1992. No, this one actually wants to be Sultan. Ever heard of any female Sultans? I thought not. I know that this is only a kind of fairy tale – but come on!
Aladdin soon meets the Genie in the Cave of Wonders who grants him three wishes. Aladdin tricks the Genie into freeing them from the cave without using a wish and then uses his first wish to become a prince to impress Jasmine, and promises to use his third wish to free the Genie from servitude. Back in Agrabah, Aladdin, as “Prince Ali of Ababwa”, arrives in a large spectacle, but Jasmine is unimpressed, and the villainous Jaffar puts a further spanner in the works. Aladdin gets a fun bit where he dances – with a little help from the Genie who has his own object of desire – inspired maybe by Bollywood which is really riffed on in the film’s final scene – but oh lord the Whole New World sequence is awful, gloomy and dark, and with distractingly obvious green screen that shows how much better traditional animation can do such a scene. All the beauty, the wonder of the original scene is lost. After this things just plod to the nondescript climax which decides not to give us some things from the original that may have been genuinely exciting, such as Jaffar turning into that giant snake. And as for Jaffar himself, he’s rather dull, Marwan Kenzari not even seeming to try in the part, though surely they could have chosen somebody with a more menacing voice. The character is given a bit of backstory here, something that producer Jonathan Eirich felt would make the audience “understand why he’s so bad”. Why the hell do we need to understand his villainy? Isn’t he being really bad enough? His macaw companion Iago is given little personality this time around, though Abu, Aladdin’s capuchin monkey pet, fares a bit better, with CGI that’s fine until you get close-ups of his face.
What’s been done to the music isn’t good. The songs are much more pop/urban with additional percussion and more “produced” sounding than the original’s more typical orchestral musical theater arrangements. I’m guessing this is largely down to the influence of Pasek & Paul who wrote additional lyrics and were responsible for the crud in The Greatest Showman, though this would still be okay if the songs had some energy. However, they’re mostly sluggish and fall very flat, while some of the harmonies have been changed too so they’re blander, simpler. Prince Ali is further hampered by lackadaisical,, lumpen staging [would it not have killed Ritchie, who’s clearly out of his depth with this kind of thing, to hire a decent choreography?], and there’s one truly terrible bit in this number where Smith is singing behind [not in front of] a handful of out-of-focus harmonising women. One lyruc change in One Jump Ahead has connotations that I’m not sure the writers didn’t intend. And as for Speechless the new song – it’s incredibly disappointing for Alan Menken, and doesn’t jive with the rest of the film’s music at all. It’s clearly been shoehorned in for an Oscar nomination,. a sub-par go-girl ballad, and an embarrassment next to the glorious 1992 songs by Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice – which is a damn shame because Scott belts it out with great passion. As for the instrumental score, there’s more regionally appropriate sounding percussion and melodic lines, but the intricate action of the original animated feature has been largely replaced with considerably more modern action scoring, you know, the bland, extremely basic stuff you get from the likes of Hans Zimmer and his clones. Like Patrick Doyle and others, it’s very sad how Menken has had to dumb down his style in order to suit the whims of musically uneducated producers.
Taken on its own, this Aladdin really isn’t too bad. It’s thoroughly pedestrian, never becoming truly inspired, but I can’t imagine that anyone would actively hate it. I wanted to, but I was entertained in parts, while I think that it’s revealed a true star in Scott, who we’ll next see in the Charlie’s Angels reboot. She just about makes this lazy, half-assed retread worth going to see. But, as they’ve done before, Disney really don’t seem to have tried very hard here. They’re banking on people flocking to see it anyway because it’s a well known property, and sadly they seem to be right. Sad times indeed. And meanwhile the animated films which Uncle Walt wanted re-released every now and again in cinemas so successive generations of kids could enjoy them, are getting more and more left behind.