When talking about any film, I always try and discuss its positives and negatives based on its own merits. When that comes to remakes, that means only considering the film which is playing in front of me, and trying to avoid any comparison between the new release and its predecessor.
However, because Disney seems so intent on “reviving” its classic animated features for box office revenue, with so little in the way of divergence from these original films, any attempt to separate the recent trend of live-action remakes from their source is nigh-on impossible.
So it is with Aladdin, the latest in what’s looking like a long, long line of these nostalgia pumps. For those who have managed to avoid Disney’s Aladdin since its release in 1992, what are you even doing? But seriously, the original is a near-perfect – if a little culturally questionable – story of a common street thief from the fictional city state of Agrabah who, after a run of bad fortune finds himself in possession of a magic lamp containing a motor-mouthed, fourth-wall-breaking genie, who uses his unlimited cosmic power to help Aladdin win the heart of Agrabah’s princess, Jasmine, and maybe help the petty thief realise his inner, noble self along the way.
The live-action remake more or less sticks to the story of the original, but with a few embellishments to the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman/Tim Rice songbook thrown in, and a couple of narrative beats being switched around. There’s also the addition of a female character for Jasmine to fail the Bechdel Test with, and for Will Smith to gawp at.
Speaking of, let’s address the blue CGI elephant in the room straight up: Will Smith is actually quite good as The Genie. For a role that was literally written for the late, great Robin Williams, the writers and Smith have done probably the most respectful thing they could for Williams’ memory, and not tried to copy his performance at all. This is Smith calling back to the performances he was putting in at his prime, and the end result is every bit as fun as that sounds. He even does the end credit song like he used to – it’s as though the last 19 years never happened!
The story’s actual leads, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, give great individual performances as Aladdin and Jasmine respectively, although I found their chemistry together somewhat lacking. The real star here though is Scott, whose portrayal of Jasmine absolutely nails the character. While the princess wasn’t particularly badly written in the original, Scott’s turn reinforces Jasmine with her own purpose and a determination to seize her own destiny. Naomi Scott is the beating heart of this film, and Aladdin is worth seeing alone for her – and her newly added song, “Speechless”.
The Menken/Ashman/Rice songs remain fantastic, and although there have been a few amendments by the songwriters The Greatest Showman, Aladdin‘s biggest musical numbers hit just as hard here as they ever have. The “Prince Ali” and “Friend Like Me” sequences are arranged on-screen to match up almost exactly like the original; while it’s a bit frustrating that they couldn’t find anything new to do with the songs, with compositions as infectiously catchy as these, there’s really no need to lay the spectacle on any thicker.
That seems to be the memo which the set and costume designers were given too, and unfortunately for the lavish setting of a royal court, Aladdin looks both very stagey and very cheap. It reminded me of the time before comic book movies went supernova, when people argued that replicating the costumes for superheroes directly from the comics’ pages would never work on screen without major modifications: that they would look too silly, and too much like, well, a costume. Here, that argument has been proven valid; everyone looks like they do in the animated Aladdin, but maybe there could have been just a bit of reinvention to keep things fresh visually.
Which brings me sadly to Jafar. Oh, Jafar. As with the film’s costuming, some things simply won’t translate from animation to live-action, and while Marwan Kenzari’s performance as the sinister vizier is basically fine, he doesn’t even come remotely close to the larger than life villain’s demeanour from the original.
While there’s definitely an interesting angle in making Jafar more of a schemer who dabbles in political subterfuge, the writers’ decision to keep him a full-blown mind controlling, fluorescent snake staff wielding pantomime villain somewhat undermines that angle of political game-playing.
Ultimately, Aladdin falls into the same trap as the other Disney remakes so far (with the exceptions of Maleficent and Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, aka the only good pure remake so far): there’s nothing new to say. From there, the only thing worth saying is why remake this, or any of the classic Disney films at all?
The obvious answer is money, and lots of it. While the original films are still very much available to watch at any time, people are going to continue to flock to these updated versions in droves. Disney has managed to convince people that their greatest wish is to see the same stories told over and over with shinier visuals.
Here’s the thing, however: Disney can fill their remakes with all the cutting-edge CGI and stunning visual effects at its disposal, and people will go and watch it, but in the case of Aladdin, for all of the genie action, there’s no magic to be found.
It gives me no pleasure to say that the Aladdin remake left me cold, and I’m afraid not even the most robust of oil lamps could warm me to this version of the story.