At The Movies - Aladdin Merely A Paltry Arabian Night

By Jordan Bosch - MJ Independent Movie and Theatre Critic

There are fewer treasure troves in the history of world literature greater than the One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Islamic folktales compiled over several centuries.

And they’re an often plundered source for animation, from Lotte Reiniger’s innovative The Adventures of Prince Achmed (the oldest surviving animated feature) to DreamWork’s forgettable Sinbad: The Legend of the Seven Seas, and even Bugs Bunny’s 1001 Rabbit Tales.

But of course the most famous is Disney’s Aladdin, which like every movie of the early Disney Renaissance, repurposed an old formula in a new way, something I’ve become increasingly convinced they’ve forgotten how to do.

I wish Disney had the courage or conviction to retell Aladdin rather than remake it.

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Much like with Beauty and the Beast, it’s an old enough and simple enough story that there are numerous possibilities; while Disney’s Aladdin is so unique and dependant on its lush yet wacky animation, that a live-action version of it seems particularly ridiculous. And yet here we are, at the latest in Disney’s series of excruciating insults to the movies you loved as a kid.

It’s the story of Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a poor thief of the fictional kingdom of Agrabah who falls in love with its down to earth princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott).

He’s recruited by the evil Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwen Kenzari) to enter the mystical Cave of Wonders to retrieve a magic lamp for him.

With the lamp, Aladdin summons the omnipotent and jocular Genie (Will Smith) obliged to serve him with three wishes, which Aladdin uses in an attempt to further romance Jasmine while Jafar schemes to steal the lamp for himself.

This film is directed by Guy Ritchie though you wouldn’t really know it as, bar for a couple of his signature slow-motion edits, his usual style has been repressed. So instead he directs quite blandly, the movie, despite its exotic setting, being visually mundane a lot of the time. The production design outside of the palace is unfortunately dreary, and the action set-pieces don’t have any interesting rhythm to them. Rather they move like choreographed pieces of a stage show, the costumes and acting often having that theatrical rather than cinematic impression too.

But the plot and pacing is more frustrating as, much like the live-action Beauty and the Beast, this film does all it can to make a simple story needlessly complicated. While it’s not as offensively imitative as that film, it shares its weakness for making changes the writers clearly think are better, but hurt the story overall. Aladdin’s introductory scene is combined with his encounter with Jasmine, which may seem economical, but it leaves her without any reason to be in disguise among the townsfolk and him with a much more convoluted and useless thread where he has to convince her he’s not a thief.

Will Smith (right) plays the Genie - a role late great Robin Williams played in the original

Will Smith (right) plays the Genie - a role late great Robin Williams played in the original

A strenuous explanation has to be given as to why Jasmine won’t be able to recognize him as Prince Ali, and the internal and external politics of Agrabah come up every so often (there’s one scene where this tension is ludicrously levied onto a minor character with barely a line in the film) -it’s absolutely irrelevant stuff and all but completely sidelines the story’s themes of entrapment and being true to oneself. Among these are the familiar scenes, but all of the best moments from the original film are stripped of their magic by poor writing or directing choices: the finding of the lamp, the “do you trust me” moment, the ultimate defeat of Jafar; the scene where Aladdin cleverly tricks the Genie into getting him out of the cave without actually wishing for it is replaced with something far less satisfying and far more stupid.

Massoud’s Aladdin shares his animated predecessors’ knack for being incredibly charming one moment, terribly naive the next, (and he actually shows some good comedic skills in a first impressions scene that is really funny if divorced from the rest of the movie), though he doesn’t leave a terribly strong impression. Scott is better; but her Jasmine, perhaps in honour of having been Disney’s first “girl power” princess, is given an annoyingly condescending arc of political aspirations.

She’s also given a comic relief sidekick (and love interest for the Genie) played by Nasim Pedrad, who performs the whole part like one of her SNL characters. Kenzari’s Jafar isn’t in any way menacing, butthe movie does add some interesting dimension to his character, omitting his pointless disguise in the process.

And never underestimate Hollywood’s capacity for shoving white people into non-white movies, as despite it’s time and place, there are indeed Caucasian characters in the film.

But the elephant in the room of this movie since his casting has been Will Smith as the Genie.

The Genie of Aladdin is one of those nigh untouchable roles; in the original film, he (and arguably the whole movie) worked so brilliantly due to the manic energy and frenetic ad libbing of Robin Williams, complimented by extraordinarily creative, wild, and funny animation that can never hope to be matched in live-action.

Consider too that Williams was no piece of stunt celebrity casting, the role was moulded around his personality specifically, and it’s a big reason why he’s one of the most iconic characters in Disney.

And Will Smith, for all of his legendary affability and style, is nowhere near as beloved as Williams, nor can he pull off the late comedians’ generous sensibility and heartfelt sincerity in this part half as well. That being said, Smith is not one of this movies’ failings; in fact he’s one of its better elements.

The writers were at least smart enough to only repeat the barest ofdialogue necessary from Williams’ incarnation and let Smith create the rest of the character himself - settling on a kind of sarcastic life coach with moments of charm and effective humour.

“Friend Like Me” is a notable highlight, achieving at least a vestige of the spontaneity and utter craziness of the original song. “Prince Ali” on the other hand is pretty boring, due to this film refuting a flexible reality to allow for a ton of explicit magic in front of the people of Agrabah. Instead, the Genie is forced to sing most of it from a platform. “A Whole New World”, though nicely sung, is let down again by its directing and editing choices. There are barely more than a couple close shots in what should be an intimate song, instead favouring mediums cut against CGI scenery that never quite leaves the Middle East. We don’t connect to the characters during the song, which was the crux of it’s effectiveness in 1992.

There’s also, in the movie’s most bizarre addition, a new song for Jasmine that aside from being awful, comes at just about the worst place in the story, has no compatibility whatsoever with the other numbers, and is filmed almost as its own music video separate from the narrative. It’s the most sudden, insensible thing I’ve seen in a movie since Serenity!

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Aladdin is one of several tales of world culture that now permanently belongs to the Disney Company, if not literally than in spirit. People the world over are more familiar with the Genie than the jinn, with Jasmine than Badroulbadour. Re-envisioning the story as a variation of their own adaptation rather than the source in One Thousand and One Nights is a way of cementing this ownership. In that, there’s a hostile undertone to the existence of this movie, apart from all other criticisms, and which may be the most important incentive not to see it.

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But you do not leave empty handed as here is this week’s cartoon from 1948….

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