“Aladdin,” which came out in 1992 and starred Robin Williams as a talkative blue genie, might not be the best movie from Disney‘s second golden age of animation, but it has the same enduring charms and memorable songs as the others. “Aladdin,” the new live-action re-whatever with a blue Will Smith popping out of the lamp, may not be the worst product of the current era of exploiting legacy intellectual property (it’s likely that the worst is yet to come), but like most of the others, it raises a simple question: Why?
The answer, which is “money,” might not be a surprise. I know it’s useless to complain about Disney’s desire to make as much money as possible from its different brands. You might as well make a fuss about the animals (and I will). But the movie itself, which isn’t all that bad because it has a lot of skill and even a little bit of art, is pointless in a very aggressive way.
The studio’s old way of making money was to keep its “A” movies from becoming classics by making them hard to find and re-releasing them a lot. Each new small group of viewers could be welcomed into the fandom with a little ceremony: here was something old that was being given to you in a shiny new package, a polished heirloom in the form of a special VHS or DVD edition, or a limited run in theaters. Whether it was “Snow White” or “The Little Mermaid,” things that had belonged to your parents and grandparents could also be yours. (With “Song of the South,” that’s no longer the case.)
There were problems with this approach, such as the fact that it kept using tropes and images that seemed old-fashioned, and not always in a good way. The princess stories are ruled by men. The common ideas about other cultures and races. Things like that. But Disney, which has always tried to do well by doing good, has come up with a series of updates by combining changing social attitudes and improving digital technology.
None of these is better than the original, but that may be asking too much. I can’t think of one, not “The Jungle Book,” not “Mary Poppins Returns,” not the recent, sad “Dumbo,” and not this “Aladdin.” They are strange and ugly hybrids that don’t belong to any particular era, style, or sense of creativity. They are like dishes at a chain restaurant that combines different food trends to make tastes that are different from every known cuisine on earth.
“Aladdin” is not a cartoon, but it takes place in places that look like cartoons. Instead of the grace and flow of animation, these places are made with cold, realistic computer graphics. The animal sidekicks, a mischievous monkey, a loyal tiger, and a mean parrot, are neither cute nor very realistic. With the exception of the genie, the people in the frame with them look like they are dressed up as Disney characters. They run, jump, dance, sing, and wear costumes that are almost always too bright to remember.
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Aladdin, played by Mena Massoud, is a thief who works in the markets of the Middle Eastern-inspired fantasy world of Agrabah. There, he meets Princess Jasmine and falls in love with her (Naomi Scott). Her kind old father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban), is being hurt by his evil vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Aladdin and his monkey, Abu, are joined by a magic carpet and a blue genie who grants wishes and falls in love with Jasmine’s servant, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad).
The choice of actors is great. There’s a fun early chase through the casbah, which is the kind of bouncy action that director Guy Ritchie does pretty well. There are also a couple of Bollywood-influenced songs that remind you, in a good way, of the long history of musicals as a film genre. Some of the voices might make you wish you hadn’t been told. (By far, Scott is the best; Smith is not a good singer.) You’ll hear some old “Aladdin” favorites with new words by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. By the way, Alan Menken is still a great composer.
But the most well-known songs don’t make Ritchie and John August’s version of the story more interesting. Instead, they show how confusing it is. “A Whole New World,” which Aladdin and Jasmine sing as they ride on a magic carpet at night over Agrabah and other beautiful places, doesn’t show how exciting it is to fly or how exciting it is to find something new. The visuals are old green-screen placeholders that don’t do much. In the same way, the genie’s show-stopping song, “Friend Like Me,” contradicts itself. We’ve had a lot of “friends” like this one who changes form and talk fast.
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One of the new songs, “Speechless,” which Scott sings with great conviction, is a clumsy attempt to add some “power princess” feminism to the movie. It feels almost as condescending as the scene in “Avengers: Endgame” where women fight.
And as for the supposed lessons of the movie, which are that you should just be yourself and not let money and power change you, I mean, come on. What makes the old and new Disney classics so popular is that they are able to mix commercialism with magic in a way that makes cynicism feel like it has no chance. When that doesn’t work, the only thing left is to steal.