There’s no doubt that Disney sets the cinematic gold standard for spectacle. But for Aladdin, the company’s latest live-action twist on one of its beloved animated films, it takes the powers of Will Smith to save the project from a creative tailspin. Directed by Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes), this new Disney venture pilfers its classic 1992 predecessor for some great music and a few rough character sketches — but that’s it.
The Aladdin-ish parts of Aladdin cast that old Disney spell perfectly. We meet the man himself (Mena Massoud, Amazon’s “Jack Ryan”) on the streets of Agrabah, and his devil-may-care attitude is instantly captivating and dangerous. The bones of the ancient folk tale are all here: a mysterious villain convinces our hero to go into a cave and steal a magic lamp. Seeing this familiar tale unfold with crisp cinematography and contemporary visual effects is a wonderful treat. But all that starts to dissolve as a very different movie asserts itself into the one in progress.
Instead of a swashbuckling adventure, the film highlights an administrative drama between Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott, The 33) and Jafar the vizier (Marwan Kenzar, Murder on the Orient Express) to see who will become sultan. (Yes, the princess and the villain have the same goal.) While mildly interesting, this plot simply needs more time to cook. Jafar’s ambition to invade friendly nations has no apparent utility or end game (not even for a villain), while Jasmine’s future vision, aside from being a benevolent dictator, is also a mystery. Go figure it out, kids!
Though Scott’s and Kenzar’s performances are top notch, the bureaucratic power narrative feels like a dousing of cold water that rouses the viewer unwillingly from the warm bath of fantasy adventure.
Aladdin-in-name-only tries to provide both drama and Jack Sparrow-type action but ultimately grinds to the end credits. Kids will laugh at the antics and enjoy the music, but adults may find that the movie has trouble recovering from the malaise that hovers over the second act and doesn’t dissipate.
Simply put, the movie needs more Will Smith. After all, he’s the real Fresh Prince, and he’s also the movie’s saving grace. Smith manages to kindle a warmer humanity in the character of the Genie that Robin Williams, perhaps given the constraint of voice performance, could not bring in the animated version. Embodied partially in computer graphics, Smith also manifests in human form and interacts with the other actors.
Genie even manages to ignite a love affair with Jasmine’s quirky handmaid Dalia (Nasim Pedrad, “Saturday Night Live”). Smith’s humor and buoyancy, reminiscent of his role in Hitch, gives Aladdin some much needed lightness as a counterbalance to the dolorous Jasmine and her tedious drive for power.
While Smith doesn’t rap in the opening song, “Arabian Nights,” rest assured his hip-hop roots shine through later in “Friend Like Me.” Let’s hope Disney releases an extended Smith Cut of the film so we can have more rapping, more dancing and more old-school talent.