Sunday, June 2, 2019

Aladdin (2019): A Review (Review #1215)


I am not so tied-in with nostalgia for the original animated Aladdin to think a remake is a crime against cinema. This new adaption of Aladdin is one of the many live-action versions the Disney Company will raid its fabled vault over to make more money. Aladdin is OK, which is damning with faint praise but there it is.

Adding a few new elements to the story, Aladdin pretty much follows the 1992 original. Young street urchin Aladdin (Mena Massoud) lives off his petty thieving and rescues a young girl who claims to be handmaiden to the Sultan's daughter. The girl is really Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), unseen by the people for years ever since her mother's death. She yearns to become Sultan, which is impossible for a female.

Curiously, someone else yearns to be Sultan: Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Grand Vizier. To do that, he needs someone to find a specific lamp within the Cave of Wonders, a 'diamond in the rough'. Aladdin may be that man. Through the actions of Aladdin's pet monkey Abu they are almost killed in the Cave, but they find help from a magic carpet and the fabled Genie (Will Smith), bound to Aladdin for three wishes.

Aladdin uses his wishes to 'become a Prince' to court Jasmine with, but she is not entirely taken by "Prince Ali". To their surprise, her heart has gone to Aladdin, not 'Ali'. Jafar too suspects something is rotten in the state of Agrabah. He now takes control of the Genie to rule over all, but Aladdin has a few more tricks up his sleeve to save the kingdom and the girl he loves.

Image result for aladdin 2019Aladdin should sink or float on its own merits, but director Guy Richie (who cowrote the script with Christopher August) seems or was told to essentially make Aladdin a perpetual shout-out to the original versus creating something wholly new.

Incidentally, this is why I think better of the Cinderella and The Jungle Book remakes: they felt unique to themselves and independent of the Disney originals. Aladdin never felt that way. Instead, it felt like tired old territory, more a cover band than a cover song.

This is despite the actors' best efforts. Massoud to be fair was flat when he sang not just vocally but in delivery. Of particular off-note was his opening number, One Shot, which was more interested in the choreography of the action than in either the emotion or enthusiasm it was sung in. What should be a number sung by a joyful rascal avoiding capture instead almost sounds like a dirge. It is when Massoud is not singing that he does best. His Aladdin is more insecure around Jasmine in a romantic comedy style. He shows the character's genuine kindness and sincerity.

He is outmatched by Scott, who can carry a tune. It's a pity that the only original song to this version, Speechless, is more Pointless. It's bad enough that it is split up into two sections, but it's a failed 'girl-power' ditty more in tune with something out of La La Land or The Greatest Showman. It therefore should not surprise anyone that it was written by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, the songwriters to the aforementioned films. It feels forced in and isn't memorable.

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Scott, however, is memorable: her Jasmine mixing naive with her own brand of wisdom and courage. Any failure on her or Massoud's part is strictly due to the script, which they do their absolute best to elevate. They should have bright futures ahead.

Curiously, Kenzari as Jafar was more interesting than Aladdin. Again, despite the script Kenzari's Jafar was someone with some kind of motivation (he relates to Aladdin that he too started out poor but rose to power). It's a credit to Kenzari that he keeps Jafar in control and resists the temptation to go all-in on the crazy. Jafar here did seem at times more misguided than evil (perhaps a result of reducing his straight-man/parrot Iago to nothing), but Kenzari did much better than the material. I can also see why the hashtag 'Hot Jafar' came about.

Now, to Will Smith. Smith is the most likable star working now and in Aladdin you see him doing his absolute best to make Genie into 'Will Smith': a likable, charming, wisecracking Fresh Prince of Agrabah. However, Smith was slumming through Aladdin, where his two big numbers: Friend Like Me and Prince Ali felt dull and unenthusiastic. It brings to mind a term I created: faux-happiness, where everyone wants to show how joyful they are but end up showing a stiffness underneath the grins.

Image result for aladdin 2019Friend Like Me and Prince Ali are meant to be big, lavish, joyful numbers, full of color and spectacle. However, they end up rather rote and lifeless, making all that bouncing about more sad to watch. It was like watching a live-action Auto-Tune performance. Even what should be the big number, A Whole New World, seems less charming than it should be. Only Scott and Massoud's pleasant manner makes it remotely interesting.

Smith was pleasant, but not interesting.

Smith's Genie was at the center of the major change from the original, a subplot involving a romance between a human-looking Genie and Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), Jasmine's actual handmaiden. This plot element bookends Aladdin but it isn't necessary to the film as a whole.

Aladdin was like Smith: pleasant but not interesting. It is not a terrible film but I don't think it will supplant the original. Only the trio of Massoud, Scott and Kenzari are worth anything, far above the material with Scott being the standout singer despite having an awful song to showcase it.

Aladdin is not A Whole New World. It's the Prince Ali version: big, flashy, colorful but inauthentic.


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