For the past few years, Disney has been remaking many of their classic animated films into live-action, CGI-infused extravaganzas. 1992’s Aladdin, which retold the tale of a kind-hearted poor boy who contested with a wicked wizard to save a kingdom and win the heart of a princess from The Book Of One Thousand And One Nights, is the latest to undergo this treatment. It is also, for a variety of reasons, the most controversial of these remakes yet.
The original Aladdin prompted controversy due to complaints of Arabic stereotyping. The art design depicted all the characters as sinister, hooked-nosed men, scantily clad dancing girls or hawk-faced harridans. The only exceptions to this were the leads, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, who were depicted with softer, more Anglicized features and voiced by white actors. Throw in the controversies over the music (the original version of “Arabian Nights” contained a reference to cutting off ears) and actor Robin Williams’ battles with Disney over the use of his voice and likeness in the advertising and it’s a wonder that Disney’s original Aladdin was as popular as it was.
The new Aladdin has prompted similar complaints regarding the casting of its leads. Aladdin is played by Egyptian actor Mena Massoud while Jasmine is played by British/Indian actress Naomi Scott. While this is nowhere near as egregious as other recent casting controversies, many would have preferred to seen Arabic actors cast in the lead roles. Most of the casting complaints, however, were aimed at Will Smith’s being cast as the Genie of the Lamp.
On the one hand, Will Smith’s casting makes a good deal of sense. Any actor would have trouble following Robin Williams’ act in the original animated Aladdin because of the sheer force of Williams’ personality. Smith is one of the few actors who can match Williams’ natural charisma as a performer, though his talents are completely different in scope. Williams and Smith also share a similar curse as stars, in that they are honestly talented actors who were frequently forced into reenacting their same old schtick for the sake of a studio contract. For every Good Will Hunting or Ali they made, they made a lot more movies like Jack and Bright.
On the other hand, having Will Smith play Will Smith as The Genie of The Lamp doesn’t really work with the script that Guy Ritchie and John August wrote. There are too many jokes lifted from Williams’ improv act in the original movie and a lot of sequences, like Smith’s sudden appearance in drag during the “Prince Ali” number, fall flat as a result. By contrast, some of the best moments in this movie are those that allow Smith to play the charming trickster he excels at, such as when he plays wingman to Aladdin at a gala party while also trying to pick-up Princess Jasmine’s handmaiden, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad). Is this a lot like Hitch? Yes, but it also works better than most of the other additions to the new film.
The most painful of these additions is Jafar’s newfound status as a warmonger. There is an entire subplot devoted toward the efforts of Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) to get the Sultan (Navid Negahban) to declare war on a friendly nation, which – not coincidentally – was ruled by Jasmine’s mother. She taught her daughter the importance of tending to the needs of the common people as a ruler, though Jasmine struggles to be seen as something other than a potential trophy wife. At least her father has defied the traditions of Agrabah somewhat by allowing Jasmine to choose her own suitor, even though she’s far more qualified to rule than any of the inbred idiots seeking her hand.
Rather than adding context to the conflict between Jafar and Jasmine from the original movie, these scenes grind the plot to a halt. They also set the stage for “Speechless” – an original song written for the movie by La La Land‘s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, which corrects one of the few missteps of the original Aladdin – the fact that the story’s princess doesn’t get a solo song. “Speechless” is a powerful song and an anthem for the #MeToo movement, but it sticks out from the rest of the score by Alan Menken. It also lacks a degree of subtlety equaled only by Jafar’s complaints about how the people of other nations can’t be trusted, which are only one step away from sounding like a Theresa May or Donald Trump speech.
The irony is that with as little restraint as these additions are presented, the movie holds back in other areas. Most of the musical numbers seem to be paced at a down-tempo beat compared to the animated film. This is most noticeable in Aladdin’s “One Jump Ahead,” as he outruns (or, more accurately, out speed-walks) a group of guards as he explains the hazards of a thief’s life. The one exception to this is “Friend Like Me,” in which the CGI flows freely and the visual sight-gags run amok along with a chorus of blue Will Smiths and dancing elephants, in a desperate attempt to equal the original. It comes darn close to succeeding.
Perhaps nothing exemplifies the spirit of the Aladdin remake quite so much as the movie’s treatment of Iago the Parrot. Gilbert Gottfried’s fiendish snarking has been replaced with Alan Tudyk doing a realistic parrot voice and occasionally uttering ominous warnings as he spies on the heroes. Tudyk is a fine performer and he does a great demonic parrot voice, but his performance and character add nothing to the film and are just there because there was a talking parrot in the original movie.
In the end, the Aladdin remake does a lot right and it is a tremendous spectacle. There’s some solid performances and some great production elements. Unfortunately, there’s nothing that truly improves upon the original and even the best scenes, such as the film’s take on “A Whole New World,” only manage to equal the original in scope. In the end, Aladdin is a decent enough popcorn movie but that’s all it aspires to be when, like it’s title character, it should be so much more. This isn’t a diamond in the rough. It’s not even a cubic zirconia.