Will Smith is a genial Genie in live-action ‘Aladdin’
Here’s the thing about Disney’s “live-action” remakes of its animated classics: The new versions may be bigger, louder, and more lavish, but they’ll never be original. The thrill of first impact is gone — it isn’t even part of the business plan. These movies exist to keep the company’s intellectual property forever relevant and eternally profitable, because the movies are the widgets that allow all the other parts of the empire to keep spinning. If that means the movies have to be good for that to happen, well, that is part of the business plan.
So even a doubter has to acknowledge that the revamped “Aladdin” — a film that has no earthly reason to exist given the continued existence of the 1992 animated original — is an acceptably entertaining two hours-plus at the movies and occasionally a bit more. It’s a road-show remake, with an engaging but anonymous cast (one big honking star excepted) that works hard to be seen and heard against the heavily digitized backdrops. At its best, “Aladdin” 2.0 re-creates the exhilaration of that initial magic carpet ride with all the pixels it can muster. At its worst it’s an ethno-cultural mosh-pit that never quite leaves the central plaza at Disney World.
Also, this: Why even bother with an “Aladdin” that doesn’t feature Robin Williams? His big blue Genie, a cartoon creation built around the comedian’s whipsaw voice-over improvisations, arguably remains Williams’s finest onscreen hour and it lifted the animated version to an exalted level. In the remake, we get Will Smith, also rendered blue and with his bottom half a smoky haze. He’s fine, he’s cool, he’s Will Smith, and on top of that, it’s an actual performance, but he’s not Robin Williams and he thankfully doesn’t try. It’s like being in the presence of a congenial host rather than being present at genius.
As Aladdin, the wily street thief of Aqaba, we have Mena Massoud, and as Princess Jasmine, newly empowered with a wish to become the next Sultan, we have Naomi Scott. Both are relative newcomers with Broadway-belter voices and, more important, real camera presence — in their scenes together, you feel “Aladdin” come to genuine rather than pixellated life. (The “Whole New World” midnight carpet ride reprise is magical because of their chemistry, not the effects.)
If the two leads are more than theme park character actors signed up for the big show — and Smith is a star and knows it — the same can’t be said for the movie’s Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), a dastardly but fatally drab figure wielding a papier-mache cobra scepter. Where’s the majestic eeeevil of the animated version, itself based on Conrad Veidt’s Jafar in the 1940 classic “The Thief of Baghdad” (from which the 1992 “Aladdin” and, by proxy, this one, swipe more business than is properly acknowledged)?
Also missed: Gilbert Gottfried’s hench-parrot Iago, replaced by characterless squawks courtesy of Alan Tudyk. But the digitized monkey sidekick, Abu, is an improvement, and comic actress Nasim Pedrad in the newly created role of Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia has more and better material to work with than she ever got in five years of “Saturday Night Live.”
The director, surprisingly, is Guy Ritchie, he of manic manly movies like “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” the Robert Downey “Sherlock Holmes” series, and the excruciating “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.” He keeps the elephants moving on time and goes appropriately big on the boffo musical numbers “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali,” gargantuan explosions of color, dancing extras, and CGI wizardry. (The original songs by Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice have been retained, with one new number for Jasmine, “Speechless,” by Menken and Benj Pasek and Justin Paul of “La La Land” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”)
Other than a smattering of parkour in the marketplace sequences, Ritchie keeps his cynical light under a bushel. This “Aladdin” has more action-movie energy (and scary touches) than the cartoon, but it wants to be as broad in market appeal as possible, and it often succeeds.
There’s more than a little irony in this latest version of a fairy-tale set in a Muslim fantasyland coming out at a time when actual Muslims are vilified by a fair percentage of the people who will probably applaud this movie. And forget about ethnic accuracy in an “Aladdin” that putatively takes place in an Arabian desert kingdom yet features borrowed Bollywood-isms up to and including a spirited nautch dance. Disney has always been a cultural leveler when not an active steamroller of original and shared cultural properties, and they’ll continue to be as long as there’s money and market share in it. (Next up, in July: a revamped “Lion King.”)
With “Aladdin,” they’ve done the leveling with just enough style and pizazz that most moviegoers won’t care that it’s a retread, and the leads are good enough to make you hope they’ll go on to something real. But to expect fresh goods from the Mouse House these days requires a lot more than three wishes and a big, blue genie.
Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Guy Ritchie and John August. Starring Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, Marwan Kenzari, Nasim Pedrad. At Boston theaters, suburbs; Jordan’s IMAX, Reading and Natick. 128 minutes. PG (some action/peril)