The 1990s saw two major renaissances for Disney, a creative one and a financial one. The Little Mermaid had come out at the end of 1989 and heralded a major comeback for the animation studio after a dreary decade to become an Oscar-winning box office hit and paved the way for a whole new world of legacy films. The other part of the 90s (that began in the 80s) was Disney’s using their home video VHS releases of their films like hostage negotiations. They would release their classics ‘for a limited time’ and then put them on ‘moratorium’ for an unspecified time – leaving parents and children bereft if they didn’t scoop one up in time and left at the hands of sellers who could fetch $200 a title.
The 2010s have brought a new era for the Mouse House that isn’t so much a renaissance as it is a money-making machine in the remaking of its own animated properties into live-action films that churning out enough cash and prizes that would make Scrooge McDuck envious. The billion dollar worldwide gross of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland set everything in motion brings us to Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, a live action version of 1992 animated film, which couped a nice half billion on a $28M budget nearly three decades ago.
We open on (a human) Will Smith with Nasim Pedrad by his side with two young kids, telling them the tale of Aladdin. “No singing, it’s been a long day,” he says with a wink. That takes us into the film’s intro, “Arabian Nights,” with a swirling camera over the seas and through the city streets of Agrabah and all the way to the Cave of Wonders.
That pushes us to the introduction of our hero Aladdin (an awesome and totally game Mena Massoud) with “One Jump,” as he and his trusted monkey Abu parkour their way through the city, stealing from the bad and giving to the good and keeping little for themselves. It’s a super spirited number and the basis of the Aladdin-Princess Jasmine meet cute where she’s Roman Holiday-ing in the city with her subjects. As Jasmine, Naomi Scott is wonderful – full of passion and beautiful to boot.
If you’ve seen the much-maligned trailer with Will Smith’s version of the cerulean spirit guide and grant wisher, the full version is worse. Part of what made Robin Williams’ manic genie so fun is that every moment, every line felt improved and like it was being drawn in real time as he spoke in his double-timed one-liners, impersonations and stand-up patter. Almost every moment of Smith’s performance feels forced and inorganic. Play a tough guy? Check. Play a mincing queen? Check. Play it in drag? Check. It’s true that Smith has more to live up to than any other character and he tries to play Genie more like a ‘Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It’ version of himself but it fails at nearly every turn. His “Friend Like Me,” the genie’s shining moment is…fine. It tries hard and has all of the bells and whistles of what a blowout number should be.
Far, far less successful is the introduction of “Prince Ali” to the city in order to woo Princess Jasmine. At first, the costuming and production design seem bright and exciting but upon closer look feels more like Cost Plus World Market on a Disney cruise ship after you’ve eaten the bad shrimp. Director Guy Ritchie seems to have learned nothing from being married to Madonna about how to direct a musical number.
The film’s signature song, the Oscar-winning “Whole New World,” fares a bit better and Massoud and Scott sing their hearts out to great affect.
The original animated film was a mere 90 minutes long, just about the exact attention span of the average kid. This new version comes in at a whopping two hours and eight minutes, with expanded and added storylines that mean well (Jasmine wants to be sultan! Genie gets a girlfriend!) and tries to catch up to a modern era of feminism. Jasmine gets a new song (“Speechless”) thanks to Oscar winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land), that is meant to be a triumphant anthem along the lines of “Let It Go,” about not wanting her voice to be silenced. But even in the context of a musical, it’s a fantasy and she remains unheard – a too-on-the-nose moment of intentional irony.
The less said about Jafar, the better. Thirst trap Marwan Kenzari is hot as hell and the idea of ‘hot Jafar’ blew up the Internet when his casting was announced but he is never, for a moment, as menacing and evil as he’s supposed to be. I think it’s mostly his voice. It’s like a high-pitched Jason Schwartzman and comes off as whiny more than evil. As the film’s core villain all fear is dismantled the moment he opens his mouth. When we finally get him shirtless it’s a Scorpion King-level disaster.
Still, there are flashes of great comedy (especially the brief appearances from Pedrad and the absolutely hilarious Billy Magnussen as a Scandinavian-esque prince) and Massoud and Scott are just about perfect.
The success of Aladdin seems almost inevitable and really it’s just the assist to the lay up that will be this summer’s true Disney behemoth, the “live-action” version of The Lion King hitting theaters in July. By then Aladdin will be but a grain of sand in a storm but for now it’s going to get kids and families, and even 90s nostalgia, in the door and in seats.