Less interested in shedding new light on old stories than in maintaining brand familiarity, Walt Disney Pictures have effectively spent the last five years making the most expensive corporate PR clips in media history. The goal isn’t to bring audiences together through expressions of collective imagination and cultural heritage; it’s to keep customers loyal by selling them the illusion of childhood totems.
Disney’s decision to remake Aladdin is perhaps more illustrative of this philosophy than any of their previous projects. Infamously criticized by civil rights groups for its racism and cultural insensitivity, the beloved 1992 hit posed something of a problem for an outwardly progressive company whose primary audience now consists of “woke”, social media-savvy millennials. Giving it the live-action treatment thus made sense as a means to improve the company’s image by presenting the audience with the opportunity to enjoy the film they grew up with without having to feel guilty or think critically about it.
Hence we have the familiar tale of Aladdin (Mena Massoud), now performed by an almost uniformly Middle-Eastern cast complete with culturally accurate pronunciations and idioms. The sultan gets affectionately called “baba” by his daughter instead of “father”, revised lyrics to “Arabian Nights” describe the fantasy kingdom of Agrabah as “chaotic” rather than “barbaric” and revellers are encouraged to brush up their “Friday Salaam” in accordance with the country’s Islamic culture.
These touches aside, the principal changes to the story revolve primarily around the motivations and goals of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) and, surprisingly, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Jasmine’s rebellion against the gendered restrictions of princess life takes a more political turn as she resents the fact that she will never succeed her father as sultan despite her knowledge of world affairs. Jafar’s greed is explained by a rags-to-riches backstory obviously designed to make him a dark reflection of Aladdin, and part of his nefarious actions involve trying to talk the Sultan into invading his late wife’s native kingdom.
Individually, any one of these changes could have successfully taken the story to new places. Combined, they pull character arcs, themes and plot threads in different directions that never come together naturally, beholden as they all are to the imperatives of the original feature’s plot. Jasmine’s quest for empowerment never connects with Aladdin’s journey of self-respect and Jafar’s new motivations end up completely superfluous as they’ve been forcibly grafted onto a pre-determined character arc on which they have no impact.
This clash of ideas permeates the entirety of the film’s choices, from the musical cues (cringe as Mena Massoud’s auto-tuned rendition of “One Jump Ahead” gets awkwardly slapped onto a chase scene that has no musical rhythm to it) to Will Smith’s valiant but futile attempts at retrofitting a character specifically designed for Robin Williams’s unique manic energy into a format that doesn’t support him. The film’s heterogeneous identity puts it in a constant emotional stalemate that prevents it from truly coming to life, despite its actors’ efforts.
Reflective of this stalemate, Guy Ritchie’s usually hyperactive style appears unusually neutered here. Ordinarily, it might not be bad to see his excesses reined in by strong studio management but they’ve been traded for a bland compromise that keeps his sense of movement but ditches the energy that usually drives it. This is especially apparent in the film’s musical numbers, all of whom struggle to replicate the originals’ colourful delirium in a different medium while also putting a new spin on them. This permanently unresolved tension robs the songs of any sense of scale or energy – “Prince Ali” in particular, is shot and edited in a series of frontal medium shots and wide shots better suited for a Thanksgiving parade than the epic Broadway extravaganza it should be.
New songs don’t fare much better; Jasmine gets a big Oscar-baiting power ballad about the ways men constantly deny her voice that painfully tries to be a new “Let It Go” and fails despite Naomi Scott’s creditable vocal work. A comedic dance number involving Aladdin, Jasmine, back-up dancers and a little magic help from the Genie tries to go for Arabian-flavoured Bollywood but just looks like a weak Comedy Central parody. Coming from a director with such a proven sense of rhythm, this tone-deafness is especially disappointing.
Naomi Scott’s grounded sincerity and unexpected comic timing is one of the few bright spots in a cast that bears the brunt of the film’s identity crisis. Struggling to bring an extra dimension to a character whose whole initial appeal lay on his evil simplicity, Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is a slimy bore whose late attempts at megalomaniac grandeur provoke more laughs than Will Smith’s entire screentime. Mena Massoud plays up Aladdin’s insecurities to good effect but he’s too lacking in chemistry with Smith and Scott to be fully convincing as either a street-smart hustler or a romantic dreamer.
Aladdin isn’t as bad as Bill Condon’s reprehensible Beauty And The Beast remake but such a low bar isn’t enough to recommend it other than as a demonstration of the limits corporate filmmaking places on its makers’ own imaginations. Whether it’s trying to take the story or characters to new places or to improve its representation of Arab and Islamic culture, all the film’s commendable efforts are hampered by their fundamentally mercantile origins. Every attempted change hit against a concrete wall of brand imperatives until the film ends up a dark mirror of its titular protagonist, unable to settle on who it wants to be or transcend the circumstances of its birth.
Dir: Guy Ritchie
Scr: Guy Ritchie, John August
Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Numan Acar, Alan Tudyk, Jordan A. Nash, Taliyah Blair, Amir Boutrous
Prd: Kevin De La Noy, Marc Platt, Jonathan Eirich, Dan Lin, Max Keene, Mark Mostyn, Ivan Atkinson, Karl McMillan
DOP: Alan Stewart
Music: Alan Menken
Run time: 128 mins