Orientalist concerns aside, the original cartoon version of Aladdin is a cherished treasure, elevated from your standard Disney cartoon to something greater than the sum of its parts, thanks to a stellar, manic performance from Robin Williams as the Genie. Finding someone to fill those shoes seemed to be the most crucial part of the remake’s success. It’s hard to say who is the right person that isn’t Robin Williams, but Will Smith is not the one. Genie, unfortunately, is the engine that carries this entire debacle forward. Without a strong foundation, Agrabah will crumble. In 2019, we should be so lucky that the fictional city is still standing. Will Smith’s portrayal of a manic loner who is made of vapor and lives in a dirty brass lamp is wooden but earnest, which makes it all the more sad. There’s a specific energy and verve Williams’s voice acting carried that Smith, sadly, lacks. Expecting Smith’s performance to save this movie, which is perfectly serviceable, is rude to Smith. There is truly nothing he—or anyone—could have done.
It was not my intention to see Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of Aladdin on opening night, but life had other plans for me, which is why I found myself ensconced in a theater with recliners on Friday, wearing a pair of 3D glasses and ready to be carried away by Ritchie’s big budget retelling of a beloved Disney classic.
Structurally, not much has changed, though there have been a few additions to the plot to update it for 2019. The Sultan (Navid Negahban) is still being dicked over by Jafar (Marwan Kenzar), and Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is still a thief doing parkour through Agrabah, which looks like an Epcot imagining of the “Middle East.” Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) has a new handmaiden, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), as well as a renewed sense of feminist empowerment that was largely absent from the original. Jasmine is no one’s chattel but her own, thank you very much, and she will sing not one but two original songs to prove it. Please consider “Speechless,” a song seemingly crafted to fill the “Let It Go”-shaped hole that exists in every new Disney movie. It is a tidy little slice of princess power that this movie did not need, which is essentially what one can say about this remake itself.
The set pieces are lovely, as are the costumes, and the actors did what they could given their constraints. Ritchie clearly relied heavily on special effects and green screens, which means the actors had to work even harder to seem engaged with each other or with their surroundings. “A Friend Like Me,” the Genie’s big moment to shine, was dulled considerably by Smith’s plodding interpretation—understandable, considering the fact that he was likely working on a soundstage and not the computer-generated Cave of Wonders viewers end up seeing on the screen. The same could be said for “A Whole New World,” the most exciting part of the original to me, and a song that still goes hard at karaoke, in the bathroom, or while doing the dishes. Jasmine and Aladdin hop atop the magic carpet, but the ride that they take lacks the fantastical sense of wonder conveyed in the animated version—perhaps because I knew while watching it that both these actors were astride a green screen platform, dodging and singing around invisible obstacles.
Truly, the best part about the entire movie wasn’t anyone real—it was the magic carpet, a completely computer-generated creation that was imbued with an actual personality. When Carpet was torn asunder during the movie’s climactic action sequence, in which Jafar (not hot, and not nearly threatening enough), tries to end the world via his Genie-granted all-powerful magic, I was upset. I tried to rifle through the dusty coffers of my memory to see if Carpet perished in the original; obviously, I was wrong, and obviously, Carpet is repaired anew. The fact that I was elated at its survival but did not care when it seemed Aladdin, Jasmine, the Sultan, and Dalia’s lives were in danger speaks volumes.
Nostalgia is a valuable commodity and movie executives with dollar signs in their eyes are pillaging the recent past to bring new, improved versions of beloved classics to the screen in the hopes of achieving the kind of massive returns Aladdin has—clocking in at $113 million its opening weekend, and neatly trouncing everything else in its path. This doesn’t mean that the movie itself is worthy of such numbers, but it does seem like an easy way to spend two hours on a hot summer’s day when you no longer feel like driving the kids to the Target and back.