A mere two months after Tim Burton’s utterly unnecessary Dumbo, Disney is back, praying that you’ve already forgotten about that disappointment, with its latest live-action makeover, Aladdin.
This time around, the high hurdle of nostalgia may be especially hard to clear. After all, the song-and-dance Arabian nights love story isn’t so distant in the rearview mirror that it feels like ancient history the way that Dumbo or even 2015’s Cinderella did. So when Will Smith first pops out of his lamp as the buff, wisecracking blue Genie, our memories of Robin Williams’ whirling dervish wish-granter are still fresh. Smith may pinball around, mug, and scat like Cab Calloway-meets-the Fresh Prince, singing “You ain’t never had a friend like me”. But the problem is, we have — and not that long ago.
Smith gets off to a bit of a slow start as the Genie — or maybe it just takes us a while to get used to someone else putting his stamp on Williams’ rat-a-tat borscht-belt schtick. The actor has signed up for an impossible assignment. But he still gives it everything he’s got, which is a lot. It’s the leads, unfortunately, who end up being more one-dimensional than their cartoon predecessors. As the thieving “street rat”, Aladdin, Mena Massoud is dreamy but a bit flat, especially his singing numbers. Naomi Scott fares slightly better as the fiery, cloistered Princess Jasmine, even if her musical numbers give off the whiff of a Broadway belter trying to reach the cheap seats. Together, the two have what could be charitably called Luke-warm chemistry even if they couldn’t be easier on the eyes if they were hatched in a hi-tech genetics lab on the outskirts of Agrabah.
Directed by razzle-dazzle stylist Guy Ritchie, who has become less and less interesting as a filmmaker the bigger and splashier his budgets have gotten, the plot is beat-for-beat faithful (even if it runs a half-hour longer than the 1992 animated version). So the big question hanging over the whole thing is… why? Like Dumbo, the new movie is a big, lavish fantasia that no one asked for or particularly needs. There are no new wrinkles, no real new take. Even the original’s more objectionable Middle Eastern characterizations are left untouched — the one place that it could have really used an update. It still has more stereotypes than you can shake a scimitar at.
And yet, the new Aladdin is hardly the folly that the advance bad buzz prepared us for. The candy-colored costumes and production design are stunning, Alan Menken’s songs are as infectious as ever, the dance numbers have an electric Bollywood flair, and some of the bazaar chase sequences have a Young Indiana Jones sense of rollicking, Rube Goldberg fun. But mostly it all feels too dutiful, too familiar. This is where we are in 2019. The ever-quickening half-life of pop culture has gotten so short that we’ve now officially entered the era of diminishing returns. It’s the new normal. What’s old is new again — but not quite as good as you remembered it. Aladdin is…fine, but it has no real reason for being beyond, you know, capitalism. A whole new world, it’s not. C+