Aladdin is not a smooth magic carpet ride
Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin is already the fifth in the recent wave of Disney adapting their traditionally animated films to the live action medium, the first (and most creatively successful) of which was Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella in 2015. I didn’t manage to catch Dumbo from earlier this year, but I can still say with confidence that Aladdin exemplifies the good and the bad of this project in equal measure. The film is better than it ought to be, and the biggest hindrance it has is the casting of Will Smith as the Genie. But let’s start with the things that worked.
It is clear from watching the film that those involved care deeply about the production. On a craft level, Aladdin is an amazing achievement. Michael Wilkinson’s costume designs are a huge standout, bringing both the spirit of the original animators’ designs as well as a bold color palette to a film befitting the fairy tale. Accentuating the color choices is the impeccable work of Alan Stewart’s cinematography, making his feature film debut as DP with perfect lighting and setting up shots well to blend in the computer generated elements. The night photography is especially stunning compared to many other recent films, and the “A Whole New World” sequence especially stands out for being clear and easy to see while looking convincingly like night.
The other major standout is Naomi Scott’s performance as Princess Jasmine. She gets some help with the script, which attempts to foreground the princess’s independent streak from the original film, but Scott brings a ton of presence and heart to the role as well. This should be a star-making performance for her, and since the other performances are largely bland and understated, she really stands out. Especially when her handmaid, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) is her scene partner. Dalia is a new character added to the film to give Jasmine someone other than her tiger Rajah to talk to. The two actresses have great comedic chemistry, and it’s nice to have at least one other female character in the film that has a name.
The original Aladdin, and specifically the Genie, pushed the limits of traditional animation. It’s more of a cartoon than most of Disney’s other feature-length output, to the point where Robin Williams remarked that Aladdin is “a Warner Brothers cartoon in Disney drag.” This includes not only some of the character models, but especially the frenetic pace of any scene with the Genie, a character inspired by Williams’ energy as a stand-up comic even before he was cast. The rapid changes and the use of the entire frame of film to demonstrate the Genie’s powers simply can not be translated to a three-dimensional world. It would break all sense of eye lines and geography, making the film a strain to watch. So in translating the character to a live action film, most of these gags are discarded (I’d also be surprised if Will Smith had a William F. Buckley, Jr. impression, but now I want to see it). But by removing them, the “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” musical sequences are robbed of much of their energy, because they ride on Williams’ energy and the visuals created to match. “Prince Ali” fares a bit better because of the sheer number of other performers and the choreography, but it just feels slow.
Of all of the elements directly transferred between versions, the Magic Carpet fares the best, retaining not only the design of the original character, but the “body language” created by the original designer Joe Grant (a legit Disney legend who designed the Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Lady from Lady and the Tramp is based on his dog) and supervising animator Randy Cartwright. Carpet is also the only non-human sidekick to retain much personality from the original film, while Abu, and Iago especially, are hurt by the decision to make them more realistic in design and action. Besides Williams, they were the source of much of the humor of the film, and the gags added to the film to replace their relative absence...do not work.
Aladdin is the first film where the movie gets worse each time Will Smith is on screen. There are a number of problems with the Genie as portrayed in this film. Chiefly is that Will Smith is a poor substitute for Robin Williams. While much of the dialogue is changed to try to match Smith’s delivery, there’s so much of Williams baked into the film’s rhythms and even pacing that it just fundamentally does not work to make a film that hews this close to the original version without Robin Williams. It just doesn’t make any sense to try. There is no aspect of Will Smith’s performance as the Genie, from the character model, to the jokes, to Smith’s singing, that works. Adding insult to injury is giving the Genie, played by a 50-year old Smith, a romance subplot with Dalia, especially because it adds nothing to the story and Pedrad is 13 years younger than Smith (it’s worsened by the fact that in the film, Dalia and Jasmine seem to be roughly the same age based on the way the characters are written).
The other changes to the story don’t fare much better. The original film is a tight 90-minutes, and while there is potentially room to expand the story, I’m not sure what the additional 38 minutes of runtime got us. There’s not a lot of meat on the bones of these Disney films. Animation is too expensive per minute of movie, and they are extensively planned out before ink is put to paper. This film remixes the order of events a little bit, but that just makes the character arcs confused, especially when it comes to Aladdin (Mena Massoud) learning that it is more important for him to be true to himself than be a believable Prince Ali. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) does get some words about his backstory that deepen his motivation, but Kenzari’s performance is muted where he should steal every scene he’s in. Same for The Sultan (Navid Negahban), who is yet another comic character recast into a grounded one.
Aladdin shows superior technical craftsmanship in so many aspects of the film, but its failure to reckon with a change of medium, bungling of story, and underwhelming characters, means that it is ultimately unsatisfying. It’s not that I expect any of these adaptations to be superior to the original work, but different enough to justify their existence beyond a cash grab. Aladdin isn’t as ugly or boring as Beauty and the Beast from two years ago, but it is an excellent example of why movies aren’t just “plug and play” when it comes to altering casting, story elements, or style.