The Pitch: Like 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin is another live action Disney remake that hews pretty close to its source material, with a select few tweaks here and there. As in the 1992 animated original, the setting is the mythical Middle Eastern metropolis of Agrabah. Earnest street urchin Aladdin (Mena Massoud) falls for spirited but sheltered Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who’s legally bound to marry a prince. A magical Genie (Will Smith) grants Aladdin a princely makeover, but the meddling influence of villainous royal advisor Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) — and Aladdin’s own crisis of confidence — threaten their happily ever after.
A Whole New World: From their character design to their world building, the best Disney animated films (especially those of the ’90s Renaissance era) are absolutely bursting with personality. And that’s exactly what Aladdin is missing. Kinetic action director Guy Ritchie is an utterly bizarre fit for this lighthearted musical comedy; he has no idea how to stage a musical number, and even the action scenes were more exhilarating in the animated original. Other than occasionally slowing down or speeding up his footage, seemingly at random, Ritchie has no real take on the material, and seems weirdly terrified of adding any texture or grit to the world of Agrabah. Because of this, Aladdin winds up looking like a cross between a cruise ship musical and an episode of ABC’s fairy tale mash-up series Once Upon A Time.
A Friend Like Me: The cast do what they can to find some heart within the stiff material. Massoud is a charismatic enough Aladdin, even if he never completely feels up to the task of carrying the film that bears his name. Smith effectively brings his own brand of movie star charisma to the Genie, with some nods to Robin Williams’ iconic performance along the way. He’s not much of a singer, but he’s more than enough of a showman to sell his big musical numbers anyway. (It’s also relatively easy to get used to his CGI look, which threw a lot of people off when the trailer debuted.) Again, however, Ritchie doesn’t have much of a sense of what to do with his floating, all-powerful Genie. Instead, Smith is best in the middle scenes of the movie, as he settles into serving as a Hitch-like dating coach for Aladdin — right down to helping his nervous protégé tackle the dance floor. In fact, Massoud turns out to be such a fantastic dancer that the movie stops dead at one point just to showcase it.
The big problem is that Aladdin’s script (credited to John August and Guy Ritchie) is so focused on over-explaining the film’s themes that there’s no room for its characters to simply be characters. In place of lived-in relationships, we get lengthy monologues delivered by characters awkwardly standing around flatly lit rooms. Aladdin often feels like a book report in which the characters are explaining why they act the way they do, rather than just acting that way. Along with some choppy editing, this robs the film of its full emotional resonance, and makes Jafar and Jasmine’s Sultan father (Navid Negahban) — two characters with endless personality in the original — feel like virtual non-entities.
Speechless: The biggest changes to the ’92 original involve Jasmine, who gets a bulked-up role and a slightly reimagined character (plus a new handmaiden for comic relief, played by Nasim Pedrad). This version of Jasmine wants to one day rule Agrabah, but patriarchal traditions and her overprotective father prevent that from happening. It’s a compelling addition, one that touches on ideas of female leadership in a way too few Disney princess films have before. Unfortunately, the script is once again so eager to over-explain the theme that it forgets to give Jasmine an actual personality to go along with it.
It doesn’t help that Jasmine’s story builds to a terrible (and oddly placed) female empowerment pop ballad called “Speechless”, which seems to resolve a separate arc that the film doesn’t really set up for her. Composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by musical theater wunderkinds Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (who also contributed new lyrics to some of the film’s classic songs), “Speechless” is a blatant attempt to recreate the magic of “Let It Go”, with a little Dear Evan Hansen flair thrown in for good measure. It’s an insipid misfire that will nevertheless almost certainly inspire thousands of YouTube covers. (The better new song turns out to be Smith’s delightfully cheesy credits rap featuring DJ Khaled.)
The Verdict: As I was leaving my screening, I heard an elementary school-aged kid tell her family that her favorite part of the movie was every part of the movie, so Aladdin could wind up working well for young audiences yet again. For everyone else, however, it’s a bland copy of a lush original. It has the same themes and characters, but without the heart or nuance, despite being 38 minutes longer. Still, the source material is strong enough (especially those original Alan Menken/Howard Ashman/Tim Rice songs) that there’s modest charm in seeing it brought to life again, especially with an invested cast. It’s just more akin to the pleasure of watching a great Disney on Ice show than a well-crafted film.
Where’s It Playing? Theaters from Atlantica to Agrabah (or at least Arkansas to Arizona) on Friday, May 24. Wish for tickets now!