Aside from ‘fresh’ Smith, confounding ‘Aladdin’ is lively but mundane

BY NEIL MORRIS, CN+R Film Critic
Posted 5/24/19

The still image of a CGI-contorted Will Smith as the blue, buff Genie, found the early marketing Disney’s live-action update of “Aladdin,” was a source of initial castigation and …

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Aside from ‘fresh’ Smith, confounding ‘Aladdin’ is lively but mundane

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The still image of a CGI-contorted Will Smith as the blue, buff Genie, found the early marketing Disney’s live-action update of “Aladdin,” was a source of initial castigation and the fount for well over forty memes. It was already daunting enough for Smith to step into the large slippers of Robin Williams’ iconic voicework from the 1992 animated original. The non-contextual sight of a cerulean Smith—portly and pointy-eared—embodied many of the worst fears about Disney’s latest live-action looting of their animated catalogue.

Well, there’s good news and bad news. “Aladdin” is a movie of two halves. There’s every scene including Smith, which are zippy, humorous, and generally enjoyable. This is the wisecracking, quick-witted Will Smith who became a star of small and silver screen, the Will Smith we haven’t seen enough in recent roles. Even an outsized character and flurry of CGI accoutrement don’t subdue Smith’s personality, and he more than holds his own throughout both overcaffeinated musical numbers and rapid-fire riffing. At various points throughout the film, Smith even adds an agreeable amount of pathos to the character. And before anyone faults Smith for incorporating some modern-day slang and other references into his interpretation, remember that Williams’ lauded Genie includes impersonations of Jack Nicholson, Ed Sullivan, and Groucho Marx.

And then there’s every scene without Smith, a mundane menagerie of sights, sounds, and cultural (mis)appropriation that’s pleasingly passé yet offers nothing new to an already fallow formula. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) remains a street urchin in the Silk Road kingdom of Agrabah. He’s also a thief aided by his pet monkey and partner in crime, Abu. Aladdin meets-cute a beautiful woman (Naomi Scott) whom he deduces is a handmaiden to the reclusive Princess Jasmine. The woman turns out to be the actual princess, a ruse Aladdin eventually uncovers when he sneaks into the palace to woo her. That nocturnal visit grabs the attention of Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the duplicitous advisor to the Sultan, Jasmine’s father. Jafar harbors aspirations to rule Agrabah using the Genie’s power to grant three nearly unlimited wishes to whomever (temporarily) frees him for the confines of his home lamp. Jafar promises riches to Aladdin if he’d venture into the desert Cave of Wonders and procure the lamp. Hijinks ensue that end with Aladdin possessing a flying carpet and a wish-granting Will Smith. Using the first wish to escape the cave, Aladdin burns his second to become a prince, hoping the facade will allow him to court the unwitting Jasmine before she’s cajoled into a marriage a political expediency rather than one of love. We thus have the intriguing juxtaposition of a royal who tries to taste freedom by posing as a commoner alongside a commoner who tries to taste freedom by posing as a royal.

There are small, welcome updates to the animated original along the way, like Jasmine’s leadership aspirations and Genie’s longing for a life beyond indentured service. One of the few new characters is Dalia, Jasmine’s actual handmaiden, who not only provides another female presence but is portrayed by the terrific Nasim Pedrad, the “Saturday Night Live” alum who grasps the nuances of ensemble acting and is pitch-perfect adding comedic color without overpowering the less-adept Scott.

On the other hand, while Kenzari wisely tries to dial down the campy animated Jafar, he veers too far in the other direction, offering a pedestrian, boilerplate baddie. While the animated Sultan was an unflattering Arab stereotype, the live-action version is an overly passive observer. As for the romantic leads, Massoud is doe-eyed, dreamy, and does some nice physical acting, but he’s otherwise an empty vessel. And while Scott is charming and knows how to carry a power anthem, any progressive updates to her character quickly take a backseat to her ornant garb and the treacly, unconvincing love story.

Director Guy Ritchie’s visual effects are harried yet not embarrassing—they keep things lively but always feel tacked on. Indeed, rather than of a larger-than-life, escapist reimagining, the film never overcomes the specter of a community theater troupe romping around a soundstage, sometimes with the help of wire rigging. Tack on a couple of Bollywood-style song-and-dance sequences, and “Aladdin” starts to feel confounding. Will Smith is the only fresh prince in this Arabian artifice. Otherwise, this “whole new world” is a lot of the same old thing.

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