It’s understandable if it took people a while to come around to the idea of a live-action adaptation of Disney’s Aladdin directed by Guy Ritchie. The Howard Ashman and Alan Menken musical numbers in 1992’s Aladdin are iconic. They seem even more so after the death of the film’s original Genie, Robin Williams, who brought a memorable, highly personal performance style to “Prince Ali” and “Friend Like Me.” So the idea that Ritchie — who specializes in fast-paced crime dramedies, and has never directed a musical — was going to come in and grasp the nuances of staging songs in a way worthy of the original vision was questionable at best.
But when you strip all the music away, Aladdin is at its heart a film about two men, a heist, and a big con — one of Ritchie’s favorite dynamics. Viewed through a certain lens, Aladdin is about a poor orphan (Mena Massoud) and the sultan’s evil vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, who lacks any of Jafar’s necessary sense of menace) chasing down a valuable lamp from a mysterious location, then spending the rest of the movie trying to get it back from each other. Meanwhile, they both angle to get the girl (Princess Jasmine, played by Naomi Scott) through a series of elaborate lies. All of which feels squarely within the wheelhouse Ritchie has lived in through a career of fast-moving crime films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and equally fast-moving adventures like Sherlock Holmes and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Problem is, when you strip the music and animation away, there’s not much left for Will Smith and his merry band of Hollywood newcomers to work with. Aladdin does add one quick personal scene between Aladdin and Jafar, which gives Jafar a tinge more backstory and purpose, and suggests a meaningful connection between the characters. But that angle is quickly dropped. The filmmakers aren’t much interested in developing these characters out of their original two dimensions, or leaning into the character dynamics that make Ritchie movies distinctive. As a result, the whole endeavor feels unfinished and unresolved.
Like Pirates of the Caribbean, Aladdin opens with children in a boat on the open water, almost as if trying to subconsciously remind the audience that once upon a time, Disney did successfully create a viable franchise out of an existing property — and that while critics considered the series unnecessary and ill-advised, it was still entertaining. “We’re doing it again!” Aladdin seems to gleefully proclaim as the camera swoops in to find a decidedly not-blue-skinned Will Smith manning the sails.
Like Williams before him, Smith opens Aladdin with “Arabian Nights,” a song which needed its lyrics altered for cultural sensitivity even back in 1992. Songwriting duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La La Land, The Greatest Showman) have updated the words again for 2019, but for some reason, they also make the song more than twice as long as the original version — a wild choice, given that it ends up in the hands of Will Smith, who is not actually a singer, or even as compelling a “sing-talker” as someone like Rex Harrison.
Ritchie overuses two main devices to keep the story moving along — sweeping views of the gorgeously rendered Middle Eastern city of Agrabah, and additional swooping shots following Jafar’s parrot, Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk), as he flies around spying on other characters and reporting back to the palace. The former takes the film from “Arabian Nights” straight into the heart of the city to encounter Aladdin, who saves Jasmine from getting in trouble in Agrabah’s marketplace. They instantly share a tender love-at-first-sight gaze (which doesn’t work as well on real-life actors as it did with their cartoon counterparts) and then they’re off to the races with a rendition of “One Jump Ahead” that’s less of a jump and more of a leisurely trot.
“One Jump Ahead” offers early hints of everything that will go wrong with Ritchie’s Aladdin — mainly, that the film’s musical numbers fall somewhere between a very impressive Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade performance and one of ABC’s lesser Wonderful World of Disney made-for-TV movie musicals. The film has all the expense and spectacle it needs, but the performances range from perfunctory and fine to downright engaging. The world of Agrabah feels properly (and practically) built out, filled with such color and verve that it’s even odder how labored the musical numbers feel. “One Jump Ahead” is slow and jerky, and begins with no fanfare. It isn’t helped by what are either some funky frame rate choices, or CGI that roboticizes Aladdin and Jasmine’s movements throughout the song.
“Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” also feel slowed down and stretched out. The film serves Smith’s Genie much better when he’s interacting with Aladdin in human mode, without the bombast and with a hint of the charm that used to make a Big Willie summer so damned fun. He even gets a romantic subplot of his own, as he falls for Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad, bringing pitch-perfect comedic line delivery to her role) — a strong story update. In true 2019 Disney fashion, Jasmine gets her own freshly added musical showcase to ensure that the audience understands how empowered she is as a modern, independent woman. Her song “Speechless” sounds like a Jessie J B-side that Hillary Clinton rejected as a campaign theme song circa 2015, but it’s one of the film’s more appealingly performed songs. The only hint of vocal bravado in this otherwise amiable movie comes when Naomi Scott opens her mouth to belt out her musical statements of purpose.
Jasmine’s solo number compensates for the way “A Whole New World” is staged, in a way that makes the film’s world feel smaller, and as if the lyrics don’t matter. (Why sing “Don’t you dare close your eyes” if no one is closing their eyes? Where’s the blocking?) But “Speechless” doesn’t make up for the fact that the film’s best, most energetic musical number comes during the end credits — a Will Smith / DJ Khaled version of “Friend Like Me” that might leave audiences wondering, “Why go to Pasek and Paul at all? Why not DJ Khaled for the whole soundtrack, given that the top-billed star is a ’90s rap icon?”
Perhaps two white men rooted in traditional American show tunes weren’t the best possible choice to update music that wanted to draw from Middle Eastern and hip-hop musical influences, not when the Palestinian DJ Khaled was right there. It was uniquely frustrating to see the best number — the film’s only real original statement of purpose — come at the end of the feature, showing what the film could have been if the creative team had stretched their imaginations instead of mechanically reproducing the original film.
It’s a shame that Ritchie couldn’t execute the musical vision Aladdin requires, and that the music itself wasn’t more imaginative. The film has its positive elements, and with stronger numbers, it might have gelled more effectively. It would be nice to be able to say more than, “Well, at least Aladdin is better than Disney’s garish recent live-action Dumbo.” But at least it is better than Dumbo, because Disney is not going to stop giving us these expensive, unnecessary, generally über-profitable remakes.
At this point, it’s fair to look at Disney as the Michael Scott Paper Company of studios, and live-action remakes as their paper. It doesn’t matter how well these remakes do or don’t do. It doesn’t matter whether the directors are uniquely qualified or have relevant experience, since they’re there to execute a generic corporate vision. It doesn’t matter if they’re released to a great clamor and then forgotten by the next weekend, or released with barely a whisper. And it really doesn’t matter if any of them are actually good. Much like Michael Scott, no matter what happens, Disney is just going to keep making these things and pumping them out into theaters and onto Disney Plus.
Luckily (maybe) for audiences, Aladdin’s final set piece is the film’s best. It could be that the drastic improvement from Dumbo to Aladdin, and that Aladdin was able to end on a high note, point toward a trend of ongoing improvement at Disney, as they barrel toward the third cartoon remake this year. Maybe by the time they made The Lion King, due out in July, they finally figured out the alchemy that would make these films more than loud, clumsy copies of classics. But given their recent history, probably not. Bringing Ritchie in for his first musical was a mystifying choice, but potentially justifiable. Having him produce a film this generic and indistinctive takes the project back into the mystifying realm.