You don’t have to be a cynic to recognize Disney’s corporate strategy to re-adapt practically the entirety of its animated back catalog into a seemingly endless stream of live-action or CGI-live-action feature-length films aren’t motivated by artistic or aesthetic considerations, but purely commercial ones. And it’s not just about how much box-office revenue this or that new release generates, but also future revenue via Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+, and, of course, extending intellectual property rights further into the future. It also makes sense why Guy Ritchie – no one’s idea of a family-oriented, mainstream director – jumped at the opportunity to direct the live-action remake of Disney’s 1992 animated classic, Aladdin, with Will Smith, a movie star with remarkable consistency, replacing the late Robin Williams as the cosmically powered, blue-skinned, wish-granting genie.
The title character, Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a self-described “street rat” and thief-by-trade, meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott, Power Rangers), in the opening scene of his self-titled film, in a virtual blizzard of action and chaos. Hiding her true identity so we can see how non-royals live in the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, Jasmine literally runs into Aladdin. Before long, they’re running through the narrow streets and cramped roofs of the city they share, escapees from royal guards who suspect them of common thievery. It’s the “meet cute” scene typically found in rom-coms except it plays out across an explosion of Bollywood-influenced color and seemingly insurmountable class differences. Her high birth and his low one provide Aladdin with one conflict or obstacle to their eventual romantic reunion. It’s also codified into generations-old law supported by Princess Jasmine’s backward-looking father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban).
But while Aladdin’s low birth functions as one background obstacle, it’s the Sultan’s Grand Vizier (Marwan Kenzari), who provides Aladdin: The Movie with its principal antagonist and story engine. Fueled by a desire for power, tired of being “second best,” and like Aladdin, aware that his non-royal lineage means he’ll never become Sultan on his own, the Grand Vizier seeks a magic lamp that only a “diamond in the rough” can find from him in a so-called Cave of Wonders. Aladdin’s attempt to see Jasmine again leads him directly into the Grand Vizier’s path and from there, the Cave of Wonders, the magic lamp, Will Smith’s hyperactive, wish-granting genie, a return to Agrabah as “Prince Ali” astride an enormous, CGI elephant and another, hyperkinetic music number (Ritchie cuts approximately every half-second or less during the scene), and the usual complications once the Grand Vizier recognizes Ali not as a prince from a faraway, undiscovered land, but Aladdin the street thief.
Reworking the original’s now classic songs for modern audiences – bigger, bolder, brighter – the new Aladdin tries to skirt the line between nostalgia and modernization, failing more often than it succeeds. Even with Disney’s near-infinite budgetary resources and the best CGI money can buy, Aladdin never rises to the level of essential, though more often than not, it’s more than passably watchable, less due to Ritchie’s generic direction – minus swooping, CGI-aided tracking and traveling shots, there’s little in Aladdin to suggest the Guy Ritchie who directed Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, or even the truncated, two-film Sherlock Holmes series Ritchie directed with Robert Downey Jr. as the title character. Ritchie obviously realized his old cinematic tricks wouldn’t work for a big-budget, fantasy musical like Aladdin: The Movie, but there’s nothing approaching any of Ritchie’s pet themes about masculinity, power, or violence (impossible in a PG-rated film, no doubt). But outside of getting back in the good graces of Hollywood producers after a string of box-office disappointments, there’s little if any reason why Ritchie would have not only agreed to direct Aladdin: The Movie, but also co-write the script.
While Aladdin: The Movie only feels like a bloated, pale imitation of the original, animated film, the cast, led by Massoud and Scott, both charismatic, dynamic performers, to a lesser extent, Will Smith (borrowing Williams’ best bits without making them his own, while adding a few wrinkles of varying quality or impression), and Marwan Kenzari, giving a one-dimensional villain a second, even third dimension, and the flurry of classic songs, including “Arabian Nights,” “Prince Ali,” “Friend Like Me,” and “A Whole New World,” along with a newly written, female-empowerment track, “Speechless,” for Scott’s character, almost do enough to elevate Aladdin: The Movie beyond mediocre retread and into serviceable entertainment. Based on the evidence found in Aladdin: The Movie, Massoud and Scott deserve to lead or co-lead any number of mainstream films in the future.