Aladdin: Live-action, CGI-laden mediocrity actually FEELS like 1,001 Nights

By Liam Lacey

Rating: C-plus

Disney’s new live-action Aladdin runs for 128 minutes - though it has enough digressions, street-chases, musical numbers and virtual fly-overs through bazaars, minaret-and-domed skylines of the fictitious desert kingdom of Agrabah, to feel as though it may actually last 1001 Nights.

Essentially a Broadway show of the 1992 cartoon, digitally inflated to the max, the movie feels like it should be called Aladdin: Infinity Wars.

Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott take it a little slower in Disney’s live-action Aladdin

Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott take it a little slower in Disney’s live-action Aladdin

Aladdin is the latest film Disney’s ongoing program of rebooting of films from its animated catalogue (Dumbo, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast,  and The Jungle Book). that have had mostly mixed receptions from critics. This reception reflects not just the films’ shared mediocrity, but Disney’s exploitation of its legacy and their memories. As comedian David Cross once noted, “Sometimes I think half of these corporations are in it just to make money.”

In one sense, this is new genre territory. Though closer to stage musicals than the endlessly malleable cartoons, they have an auto-tune artifice, suspended somewhere between the human and the digitally simulated. The fact that the cityscape in Aladdin is an actual set designed by Gemma Jackson of Game of Thrones fame, or that the desert scenes were shot in Jordan where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed is, somehow, besind the point: They might be theme parks or arrangements of pixels.

The points where they come to “life” in a sense, is where they look like Broadway shows. In Aladdin, that moment comes when the former street urchin who has transformed into Prince Ali, arrives in the city of  Agrabah with his dancing, singing, twirling entourage. We’re obviously watching the pre-intermission show-stopper of a Broadway production.

In the case of Aladdin, the live movie serves as a passable substitution, margarine to the other’s butter. It’s directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the Sherlock Holmes movies)  whose personal touch is mostly evident in the movie’s gross narrative bloat. Aladdin runs almost forty minutes longer than the original, engulfing most of the 1992 movie’s script and memorable songs (by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice).

There’s some repetition (Aladdin and Jasmine meet earlier),  longer scenes and a little political tweaking: The cast is diverse, Princess Jasmine wants political power and the word “barbaric” has been dropped from the opening song Arabian Nights.

The loss of two-dimensional artistry of the original has some compensation of human warmth. Aladdin (who looked like a rough sketch of John Stamos in in the original cartoon) is now played by Toronto native, Mena Massoud, who has an old Hollywood musical cocky playfulness, though he’s more of a character-singer than a singer-singer. In contrast, Naomi Scott, as Princess Jasmine, not only looks the Disney princess part, but has a big stirring voice, ably employed in a new song, a feminist power ballad called Speechless, which serves as a kind of righteous pandering.

Supporting characters have a fill-in-the-blanks quality. As the evil vizier, Jafar, Marwan Kenzari is bland, more of a conniving Steven Miller-type political snake than a scary powerful sorcerer.  Billy Magnussen as Jasmine’s dufus prospective suitor, and Nasim Pedrad, as Jasmine’s fluttery handmaiden serve as formulaic comic relief. Abu, the entirely digital pet monkey, is more rat-like than cute, but that may be my Capuchin monkey problem. 

 All this, of course – the lovers, the city, the exhaustingly sparkly Cave of Treasures where Aladdin finds the lamp -- are secondary to Aladdin’s main attraction, which, of course, is The Genie.  He was the certainly the highlight of the original movie, a blue animated blob memorably possessed by the late Robin Williams, in a channel-surfing barrage of impressions, matched to the speed of hand-drawn animation.

There was some online fuss about Will Smith taking on the role and negative reaction to the previews. But the worries are misplaced. Smith is fine – a bit strident but relatable as Aladdin’s big brother or surrogate daddy -- with his head bobbing atop a bulbously muscled torso atop a blue geyser. He’s even better without the off-putting CGI enhancements, in his own body and skin, a genial genie who’s only charm is his sunny personality.

Yes, it’s a sad fact that corporations are out to make money, but sometimes,  note to Disney, smaller really works better.

Aladdin. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Guy Ritchie and John August. Starring: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott. Aladdin can be seen at the Scotiabank Theatre, Cineplex Yonge-Dundas and the Varsity theatres-