Halfway through Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of “Aladdin,” the title character sits uncomfortably on a Rose Parade float while Will Smith leads a ramshackle chorus in a spirited but mediocre rendition of the beloved tune “Prince Ali.”
It’s not the best scene that this new “Aladdin” has to offer, and it’s not the worst, but it’s probably the key to decoding the entire production. This isn’t a movie. It’s a chintzy revival, specifically designed to appeal to audiences who think “that looks familiar” qualifies as entertainment.
Ritchie’s “Aladdin” looks so familiar that, if anything, it’s hard to imagine why Ritchie wanted to make it. Disney seems to have smoothed out all the wrinkles in the director’s familiar, if sometimes oppressive style. Gone are the textured lighting schemes, the dynamic speed-ramps, and the energetic montages. In their place are flat pastels, straightforward action and long-take musical numbers. If you didn’t tell anyone who directed this version of “Aladdin” and polled the audience afterward, no one would have guessed it came from the director of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” or “Sherlock Holmes.” You probably would have gotten a few votes for Brett Ratner.
The whole production seems to take place in a forgotten alcove of Disney’s Adventureland, a highly sanitized faux-urban sprawl where the destitute look fancier than anybody reading this review right now. It’s a nice place to visit, Agrabah. If you lived here, you’d be bored now.
“Aladdin” stars Mena Massoud (“Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan”) as the title character, a street urchin who’s gotta eat to live, and gotta steal to eat. Massoud is particularly dashing in the role, leaping from building to building and cavorting with his pet monkey Abu while flashing a million-dollar heartthrob smile. Give this man a franchise. Give him a franchise now.
Aladdin runs into Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott, “Power Rangers”), who has disguised herself to mingle amongst her people. Her overprotective father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban, “12 Strong”), wants to marry Jasmine off to one of her princely suitors, even though she has literally no interest. Jasmine is obviously qualified to be Sultan herself; she’s eager, honest, dependable, and she’s understandably annoyed that her father prefers to marry her off to one of the many useless entitled morons who keep trying to buy her rather than let her actually succeed him on the throne.
Meanwhile the Sultan’s advisor, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, “Murder on the Orient Express”), schemes to take over the country. His plan is to obtain the magic lamp from the Cave of Wonders, release the Genie and seize power, but the cave only allows a “diamond in the rough” to enter. So Jafar has been tricking street urchins into walking into that giant tiger’s mouth with no success for a while now.
When Jafar meets Aladdin, a pauper who wants to woo a princess, he sends the boy into the magical cave. The boy gets trapped, but he’s got the lamp, which promptly releases an all-powerful Genie, played by Will Smith, who jumpstarts the plot. He helps Aladdin escape, impersonate a prince, romance Princess Jasmine, and save the kingdom from the bad guy.
No one in the cast of “Aladdin” has bigger shoes to fill than Smith, who takes over his role from the late Robin Williams. The beloved comic originally voiced the animated Genie like a half-mad God of chaos, imprisoned for centuries and entertaining himself by consuming and mimicking popular culture from other time periods.
Smith’s approach is less inspired but no less logical. Taking his cues from the song “Friend Like Me,” Smith plays Genie like he’s the ultimate wingman. Cooler than you, but willing to move heaven and earth to get you what you want, to the extent that although he’s only supposed to offer three wishes, he’s also absurdly generous with the freebies whenever it makes for a good joke or a successful flirtation.
While it would be a stretch to say that Smith makes the role his own, or that he recaptures the magic of Robin Williams, he’s perfectly acceptable in the role. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with Will Smith while he pampers you with expensive baubles, teaches you how to dance and offers dating advice? “Aladdin” is a fantasy film, but the most appealing fantasy it’s got is joining Smith’s entourage.
Scott has the necessary gravitas to play Jasmine, and her chemistry with Massoud is natural and romantic. It’s the script that fails her. Screenwriters Ritchie and John August have such a densely packed movie to remake that all the new additions feel extraneous. Jasmine gets a new subplot about wanting to be Sultan, but the movie struggles to incorporate that yearning into the storyline. Even her big new musical number — a power ballad in the vein of “Let It Go,” called “Speechless” — gets only a single verse before the movie quickly speeds away, back to other plot points. And when she does finally get to belt out that epic song about why she refuses to be ignored — it’s in a fantasy sequence. Nobody else hears it.
The original “Aladdin” was an innovative motion picture, heralding a new era of CG-assisted animation and celebrity stunt-casting. It was bold and exciting. The remake rehashes the original in a pleasing but perfunctory way: It’s extremely satisfying to see these roles finally filled by non-white actors, but the movie still feels like a wholly western interpretation of one of the tales from “One Thousand and One Nights.” The protagonists speak with the most American accents in the cast, the musical numbers are almost exclusively in the Broadway tradition, and apparently, nobody thought that Smith wearing shackles and cheerfully living to make life easier for his “master” would have a disturbing subtext. Or, rather, “text.”
If you don’t think about it very hard (although you probably should), the remake of “Aladdin” might entertain you. But you’d be a heck of a lot more entertained by watching the original film again. Or by going to a real-life parade. Or by doing some light gardening. Or by doing a crossword puzzle.