Review: Guy Ritchie's Live-Action 'Aladdin' Movie Wishes in One Hand
by Adam Frazier
May 24, 2019
Based on the Arabic folktale Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from the book One Thousand and One Nights (aka "Arabian Nights"), plus the 1940 film The Thief of Bagdad, Disney's animated Aladdin from 1992 was the most successful movie of that year, grossing $217 million in the US and over $504 million worldwide. The hand-drawn animated film's massive success led to two direct-to-video sequels, The Return of Jafar (1994) and Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996), an animated series for TV, and a Broadway musical adaptation. Now, after the success of other live-action Disney remakes like Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast, British director Guy Ritchie is reimagining the beloved animated classic as a big-budget, live-action, Bollywood spectacle with flying carpets, magic genies, and a lot of wishful thinking.
Co-written by Ritchie and John August (of Dark Shadows, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Big Fish), the story follows Aladdin (Mena Massoud of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan), a charming scoundrel and street urchin living in the desert kingdom of Agrabah with his monkey, Abu. After befriending the feisty Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott of Power Rangers, "Terra Nova"), Aladdin is recruited by Card-Carrying Villain™ Jafar (Marwan Kenzari of Murder on the Orient Express) to retrieve an oil lamp from the Cave of Wonders. In the process, Aladdin rubs the magic lamp and unleashes a shape-shifting blue genie (Will Smith) who grants the boy three wishes and teaches him the true meaning of friendship along the way.
Like Tim Burton's Dumbo, Guy Ritchie's Aladdin sounds like a good idea on paper, but it's really a tonally confused live-action adaptation of an animated classic with a lot of questionable decision-making behind and in front of the camera. Ritchie, known for crime comedies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, as well as slick, stylish retellings like Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur, seems like a perfect fit for a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque spin on the Aladdin folktale; a fantastical crime caper with emphasis on action, adventure, and dazzling special effects. Unfortunately, that isn't this movie. Tasked with delivering a faithful adaptation of the 1992 musical film, Ritchie is woefully ill-equipped to imbue the story with anything resembling magic. He cannot, in fact, show you the world – shining, shimmering, splendid.
Don't get me wrong, Emmy Award-winning production designer Gemma Jackson (of "Game of Thrones", King Arthur) and Oscar-nominated costume designer Michael Wilkinson (American Hustle, Noah, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) create a vibrant and richly detailed world of bustling marketplaces, majestic palaces, and magical caves, it's just overshadowed by ineffective visual effects and dodgy chroma key compositing that takes you out of the story. Further complicating matters are the performances. Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are sufficient as Aladdin and Jasmine, but watching them fall in love in front of poorly rendered computer-generated backdrops is reminiscent of Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones; fine actors with zero chemistry trying to perform on a set with a little sand and a whole lot of green screen.
And then there's the Genie. Originally portrayed by Robin Williams, the shape-shifting blue entity demands an actor with considerable range – someone who can play funny and dramatic, who can elicit emotion, and sing and dance. Williams, who delivered the first real celebrity performance of an animated character – and quite possibly the best – set the bar so high that recreating his iconic performance would be impossible. Instead, Ritchie sought out the iconic Will Smith to reinvent the character and make it his own. Again, on paper, the decision to cast Smith is sound. The rapper turned actor is an international superstar whose films have grossed $7.5 billion at the global box office, but here all that star power actually hinders him. Unlike Williams, who had the benefit of voicing a character that he didn't resemble, Will Smith is the genie here, or rather the genie is Will Smith. Thanks to motion capture technology, the genie is a big blue Will Smith that raps "Friend Like Me" with all the realness of 1997's Big Willy Style.
Smith's overpowering presence is even more so when you consider he is the only recognizable face in the movie. Navid Negahban (FX's Legion) pops up as the Sultan, along with Nasim Pedrad (Saturday Night Live) as Dalia, Jasmine’s free-spirited handmaiden, but this Aladdin lacks the roster depth that Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella and Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book have. It also lacks the exuberance of Disney's other recent live-action movies – only the Bollywood-inspired "Prince Ali" musical number comes close to capturing the original's spirited whimsy. Not once during the movie's 128-minute time does it make an argument for its existence, instead it only serves to remind us that our time is better spent watching the animated classic (for the umpteenth time), rather than some wishy-washy, half-hearted live-action remake.
Adam's Rating: 2 out of 5
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