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Action/Adventure Comedy Movies Reviews

Review: Aladdin (2019)

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Director: Guy Ritchie

Writers: John August, Guy Ritchie

Composer: Alan Menken

Starring: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott

Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Family

When Aladdin was first released back in 1992 (Yes, nearly THIRTY years ago… You’re allowed to feel old now.), it was met with wide success and critical acclaim. A milestone in animation and another box office achievement in what would later be known as Disney’s Renaissance era, Aladdin became the highest grossing film of the year, partly in thanks to its Broadway formula. The songs were Oscar winners and Robin Williams’ improvisational jokes made the film iconic.

Suffice to say, back in the day, this film was HUGE!

Now they’re doing a remake…

Why? That is the first question (and we’re hoping the answer is more meaningful than simply earning money and reclaiming the rights). Secondly, is it even possible to improve upon a film that’s so entwined with most fans’ childhood memories?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: There are many perilous moments: falls from heights, dodging crumbling caves, climbing ice crevices. Children may find some mythical creatures and elements scary (giant talking caves, powers of a sorcerer). No gore or dead bodies, but we witness a cave collapse on a man, a character pushed to his death, and another tied to a chair and kicked into the ocean. A character almost drowns. Several characters are forced to do things against their will, one of which is tortured by an unseen force, but writhes in pain. A giant bird chases people. A tiger mauls someone off screen (though it is played for comedic value). A woman is forced to marry a man in order to save the life of another. Characters are chased by men wielding scimitars.

Language/Crude Humor: One character is continually denigrated by their class, called insults such as “street rat”, “scoundrel”, etc. Some characters hold a misogynistic world view, believing that women should be seen and not heard.

Drug/Alcohol References: Genie has a martini.

Sexual Content: The entire film is about a man pursuing a woman. He flirts, dances, and kisses her. Some characters are described as “hot,” “tasty,” and a double meaning is given to the phrase “feeling a little thirsty.” A woman is forced into marrying another.

Spiritual Content: This movie is set in a world where genies and sorcery exist. Genies are said to be the source of all power. At one stage a character wishes to be the most “powerful being in the universe” to which the movie suggests that it is a genie.

Other Negative Content: The main character is a thief; sometimes his behavior is chastised, but most of the time the movie is apologetic towards his circumstances. The film presents a romanticized view of poverty, and not once does it question as to why the main character is unable to work. The movie never fully explores or grasps the setting’s culture, instead, it’s awash with Orientalism.

Positive Content: This movie promotes honesty and being authentic within relationships. That it is impossible to be someone that you’re not, as the real you will eventually shine through.

Review

Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin has a few issues it needs to overcome to ensure its success. Firstly, and most obviously, it needs to be entertaining. Secondly, it needs to justify its own existence, something that a large majority of films take for granted. Sadly, it doesn’t wholeheartedly achieve either objective.

Make no mistake – a lot of effort and work has gone into this production. The sets are lavish, the costumes are beautifully detailed, and every actor is trying their best to pull off the roles there were given. It’s important to stress that if someone wasn’t aware of the 1992 animated version, then this film could be an entertaining romp; serviceable, and possibly even loveable.

Except the 1992 animated classic does exist.

Having grown up alongside the original film, it’s impossible to not compare the two productions. If this recent remake achieved anything, then it demonstrated just how awesome the source material really is. The animated film is simply better in every category.

One of animation’s greatest strengths is with its command of timing. The characters aren’t bound by the laws of physics, while the acting can be drawn and redrawn till it reaches perfection. Aladdin can freely scale up sandstone houses, belting out a tune about his life of poverty, all while the wind whips through his hair and the look of adventure is captured through his expression.

In the live-action remake, the audience is slammed back into reality as this all takes effort. The backflips have weight to them. Dancers need time to hit their next pose. The music needs to stop to fit in a stunt, as it puts strain on the actor. The animated version just pops, whereas live action will never be as carefree.

This is part of the reason why the songs simply don’t have the same amount of pizazz as the original. Disney’s version of Aladdin undeniably has many great musical numbers, yet while the cartoon is only limited by the animator’s imagination, in the remake the visuals never seem to live up to the upbeat awesomeness of the toe-tapping tunes.

It doesn’t help that Guy Ritchie seems uninspired when it comes to filming the musical interludes. A lot of the choreography is framed in an awkward midshot, while the camera doesn’t nearly whip around fast enough to encapsulate the electricity of the music’s beat. It feels sluggish. The musical genre is renown for its creative use of choreography, both on stage and behind the camera. Yet Aladdin features no out of the box thinking that would benefit the action seen on screen, or any daring one-take panning wonders like what was observed in La La Land.

It’s clear that the director’s strength does not lie with musicals. But what about Guy Ritchie’s signature speed ramps and snappy dialogue? Switches between slow and fast motion naturally work well in the action sequences. However the technique doesn’t translate well during songs. Frequently the actors’ movements will be sped up, though it merely looks like a failed attempt at a Benny Hill running gag. It’s an off-putting editing choice that gives the impression that it’s trying to manufacture more energy out of a lacklustre performance.

As for the dialogue, once again it’s not as funny as the original film due to animation having more freedom in regards to comedic timing. Yet when Will Smith’s Genie is given a chance, he shines. It’s now amusing to recall everyone’s worry over the Genie’s presentation and recasting. He brightens up and kicks off the second act just when the first developed a limp, and from then on he is sorely missed whenever he isn’t on screen. No, Will Smith doesn’t offer as much energy as Robin Williams’ iconic performance, but he does develop a genuine friendship with Aladdin that resonates more than what is seen in the animated classic.

As for the rest of the cast, they are well suited to their roles. Mena Massoud is a fine actor, though Naomi Scott’s portrayal of Jasmine does steal the show whenever the two are together. With a fantastic voice giving life to every song she sings, she nails the role. However there is some criticism over the casting of Marwan Kenzari as Jafar; an older actor may have been a better choice, as at times he lectures Aladdin as though he were a peer as opposed to a superior.

Yet it’s Abu and Iago who are the most disappointing. Puppetry mixed with CGI, it’s as though Disney couldn’t decide whether to keep their appearance realistic or to anthropomorphize its animal stars.

Another advantage animation has over live action is that the violence contained within the story is more forgivable. Jafar is a violent villain, and there are numerous times throughout the story where he straight up tries to murder people. The scene where he tortures the Sultan to manipulate Jasmine into marrying him is particularly distressing when seen in the flesh.

It’s sad to report that this Disney film isn’t as family friendly as it could be. Then again, with a runtime of 128 minutes (38 more than the original), younger children are going to struggle with the movie’s length alone, never mind the darker content.

While the slower pace allows for a few plot holes from the original to be addressed, for the most part the additional material is superfluous. Most notably, Jasmine’s motives have been tweaked and the story now has a few political elements. There are some new songs, with Speechless trending the most, sung faultlessly by Naomi Scott. Yet as powerful as the vocals are, the tune is unmemorable and out of place compared to the rest of the film’s score.

Like with all of the extra material, it tries to add thematic weight, though the original film is a painful reminder that none of it is necessary. This live-action remake attempts to diversify the story’s themes, introducing modern concepts of class privilege and feminism with the same level of subtly as a collapsing giant cave system. Yet no matter how woke the characters are, it’s hilariously ironic that the other big talking point of today’s era–cultural appropriation–is grotesquely overlooked.

An entire essay could be written about the original’s racist lines and exotic Orientalism, which in turn puts the remake in a quandary since it needs to adopt and adapt its legacy. Essentially while both films attempt to portray an Arabian setting, stylistically Agrabah is an amalgamation of Indian, Middle Eastern and West, and Southeast Asian influences; parts of world which contain vastly different cultures that should never be confused with each other.

While the animated classic can pass off such concerns, excusing itself with artistic license or style, the live-action remake simply lacks the specificity to claim it is paying homage to one particular culture. Ultimately it’s an odd result–an uncanny valley response is created, where the setting looks vaguely familiar but too unreal to be truly believed. The sets are too inauthentic while the costumes don’t feel “lived in,” projecting a theme park “musical theatre” vibe.

It’s as though Disney is playing Dress-ups, yet instead of picking doctors and police officers to roleplay, they’re dressing up as the Middle East and poverty. It’s very much a “Disney-fied” view of the world, and not in a positive way. An entire essay could be written about this story’s tendency towards Orientalism, along with the pitfalls of modern day casting practices and expectations. In the end, this movie feels like it’s the West’s view of Arabian culture (and poverty for that matter), lacking any sense of authenticity no matter how hard it tries, achieving the same level of disconnect that the Sound of Music had with the Austrians. It’s a fascinating case as to whether art is imitating society’s views or the other way around.

Yet for those who don’t care about the surrounding social-political issues and are just looking for a light-hearted musical, then Aladdin does offer a fun time. Comparison is the thief of joy, and fans will find themselves either loving the new take or wondering what this version really has to offer over a cartoon that is better at telling the story in a shorter space of time.