As Disney continues their mercenary, commerce over art, traipse through bringing their animated classics to CGI life, we find ourselves at Aladdin, the movie Robin Williams made famous, now without Robin Williams. Now, in fairness, Will Smith is taking on the role of the Genie that Williams made into an animated classic and Will Smith is a movie God, but he’s still not Robin Williams in terms of his style of performance.
What set Aladdin the cartoon apart was the manic, over the top, non-stop energy of Robin Williams. Williams’ remarkably fast paced riffing and pop references may appear a tad dated, Jack Nicholson impressions aren’t exactly in vogue anymore, but his manic energy and lovable, charming innocence, made that character and that movie more than the sum of its rather average parts. For a moment, imagine Aladdin without Robin Williams: Sappy love songs and bland romance with no flavor and a great deal less fun.
Will Smith is not that kind of performer. Smith is charming and charismatic and he can be goofy when it’s called for, but the Will Smith brand hasn’t been goofy and charming in some time now. When Will Smith grew up and left behind childish performances as in the original Men in Black and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, he developed a more serious and stolid persona. He didn’t become completely un-fun but movies like 7 Pounds, I Am Legend and Suicide Squad are not exactly laugh riots. Not since Men in Black 3 in 2012 has Will sought to make audiences laugh and he hasn’t played straight comedy since 2005’s Hitch.
That raises the question: Is Will Smith funny in Aladdin? Yes and no. Yes, in that in a couple scenes, in the strong second act of Aladdin, Will Smith gets a couple of chuckles. Is Smith the laugh riot that Williams was in the animated Aladdin? Not by a long shot. Smith’s introductory gags, immediately following meeting Aladdin and introducing himself as The Genie, are a little cringe-inducing, rather of the Dad Joke variety. He’s certainly amused with himself but we in the audience are, for the most part, politely smiling while waiting for something to be funny. That said, Smith is the best thing about the new Aladdin.
It occurs to me now that I am 5 paragraphs into a review of Aladdin and all I have done is talk about Will Smith and the faltering comparison to Robin Williams. The reason for that is, if Will Smith is, as I mentioned earlier, the best thing about Aladdin, you can imagine, there isn’t much more to say about the rest of Aladdin. Weak songs, a bland leading man performance from Mena Massoud, and some odd direction from Guy Ritchie are all that’s left and I don’t dislike Aladdin enough to linger on those flaws.
If you are somehow not aware of the plot of Aladdin, the story goes that Aladdin is plucked off the streets by the evil Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) to enter the cave of wonders. Because Aladdin has a true heart he is allowed to enter, along with his monkey, Abu, and he retrieves the lamp which he proceeds to rub. Out of the lamp pops Genie Will Smith, wishes are made, the heart of Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is won and all is well with the world.
The plot is the same as the animated feature only flattened out to a too long 2 hours and 6 minutes. The extra time is dedicated to extra musical numbers, including one brand new original song from composer Alan Menken, "Speechless," sung by Naomi Scott. Speechless is a fine song in and of itself, a power pop ballad about female empowerment. That said, the placement within the film is wonky and off-putting. The song is shoehorned in as a fantasy sequence with all the finesse of a sledgehammer.
I’m being unkind again, let’s talk positives. Once Aladdin makes his wish to be a Prince and becomes Prince Ali of Ababwa, the movie manages to find a new gear. Smith switches from the buff, big, blue genie to his more familiar persona and digs into a belter of a reimagining of the centerpiece tune “Prince Ali.” Smith isn’t much of a singer but the song is smartly paced and it slows to give Smith the chance to rap rather than being forced to try and sing.
From there is a charming party scene where even Mena Massoud’s Aladdin finds a little life, thanks to a little bit of Bollywood musical magic, and for a time you think that Aladdin might just work out. That momentum dies as we turn to the third act and the films flavorless villain, Jafar, takes far too much of the center stage. Marwan Kenzari isn’t bad but this is not a great, memorable villain. The plot pushes hard but Jafar is more wet blanket than super-villain. His defeat isn’t nearly as satisfying here as it was in the animated feature which is surprising considering they are virtually identical.
I’m coming off like I really dislike Aladdin and I don’t. It’s… it’s… fine. It’s okay. I don’t mind Aladdin. I am resigned to the notion that Disney is going to, without a care for art or originality, continue to pump out mediocre live action rehashes of their animated classics because well known I.P is more important than art. The marketing department at Disney may as well start getting producer credits these days as they seem to be the ones making the decisions.
But that is the cry of the artist in a medium of capitalists. It’s not fair to condemn a business for attempting to make money. That said, I don’t have to enjoy it or endorse it, I just have to tolerate it and hope for the best. The best, in the case of Aladdin, is a genuinely charming second act and a not terrible performance by Will Smith. It’s not much but we have to find our pleasures where we can in the mercenary world of Disney remakes.