A simple rub of the deus ex machina could’ve solved so many problems.
Who knew Gus Van Sant would pioneer a future Hollywood trend with his faithful 1998 remake of Psycho? Though I doubt a single Disney executive would point to that particular redo as the inspiration for their studio’s current flurry of live-action retellings of animated classics, the comparison is apt. No one, apart from Van Sant himself, was asking for a shot-for-shot update to Alfred Hitchcock’s best known work. But what was once considered a totally unnecessary blunder is now the blueprint for a money-printing machine. Nostalgia has officially run amok. Mass-market culture has fully entered a fugue state.
So here comes another adaptation of a Disney blockbuster that isn’t old enough to run for President. Forget successful revamps of older properties, such as The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon, or even the recent, misbegotten Dumbo. The elderly Mouse House is now reminiscing about its early-90s prime. Beauty and the Beast, that tale as old as “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, earned over a billion dollars on its second go-around in 2017. The Lion King is coming this summer, but first there’s Aladdin, the middle child of Disney’s renaissance.
Though this Aladdin mostly removes the icky Orientalism of the 1992 original, and beefs up the story’s runtime by 40 minutes, it hits all the familiar plot beats. The eponymous thief (Mena Massoud) has a heart of gold; he’s a “diamond in the rough.” Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), a villainous advisor to the Sultan of Agrabah (Navid Negahban), enlists Aladdin to fetch a magic lamp from a mystical cave, step one in his attempt to gain ultimate power. Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), meanwhile, decamps from the royal palace to play a commoner and has a meet-cute with our hero early on. The two yarns interweave when Aladdin snatches the lamp, rubs it for his own purposes and, with the help of its Genie (Will Smith), becomes the latest princely suitor hoping to woo the fiercely independent Jasmine. Need I further recount a story we’ve all already seen 1,001 times?
Here’s the good news: Will Smith’s Genie isn’t the ill-conceived monstrosity early previews have suggested. He’s, in fact, Aladdin’s own diamond in the rough. Smith had to fill Robin Williams’ huge, curly shoes and mainly succeeds. Sure, his big and beefy blue body sends us straight to the uncanny valley. But during the film’s surprisingly good second act, Smith resembles his regular human self.
His performance doesn’t try to match, or even approximate, Williams’ masterful and kinetic turn as the Genie. He instead reinterprets the character from a pop-culture-reference-spewing dervish and into a slightly fey Cyrano, an Aladdin whisperer, which culminates with a wonderful dance sequence halfway through. Genie’s newfound romantic arc with Dalia (the excellent Nasim Pedrad) represents a genuine improvement, one of the few upgrades this rehash has to offer a modern audience.
Otherwise, Aladdin is a misfire, slightly more exciting than a trip to the orthodontist. These songs, arguably the best collection of tunes in the Disney musical canon, are ruined by tepid performances. A new number, sung by Jasmine, has been shoehorned into the narrative to qualify for another Best Song Oscar (“A Whole New World” took it the first time). “Speechless” isn’t terrible, it’s just utterly forgettable.
Director Guy Ritchie bungles the third act, which culminates with a frenetic volleyball game that makes zero sense. A simple rub of the deus ex machina could’ve solved so many problems. Had I been a part of Aladdin’s final aerial exchange, atop a zipping magic carpet, I’d have snatched that lamp and wiped this superfluous remake, Thanos-like, from existence. Next wish? End world hunger.