Although I’ll admit I’ve been wary of the whole “white men fail upwards” approach to blockbuster filmmaking, there are few more obvious examples of it than Guy Ritchie directing the live-action remake of Aladdin. That Ritchie, who started his career making small-scale gangster movies and graduated to a run of nondescript tentpoles after the surprise success of Sherlock Holmes, is directing a giant Disney movie is not surprising in itself. That Guy Ritchie, whose work seems to bear out that he’s never seen a musical or even had the concept of a musical explained to him, is responsible for a movie with several large-scale musical setpieces is significantly more surprising. Any quibble you may have with the directions this new Aladdin go in have to be secondary to how thoroughly bumbled its musical sequences are. There’s more to Aladdin than just the songs, of course, but the final product here is severely hampered by what Ritchie does to them.
The set-up is more or less exactly the same: Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street urchin and thief who scrapes together a living by stealing alongside his trusty pet monkey Abu. That’s how he meets who he thinks is the princess’s handmaiden — but she actually turns out to be Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) herself, slipping out in disguise to experience the world she can only gaze at from her perch. Aladdin, of course, falls for the princess because he thinks she’s a handmaiden; law dictates that she can only marry a prince, which bodes poorly for our riff-raff friend.
Fortunately, he’s soon forced by Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Sultan’s (Navid Negahban) nefarious right-hand man, to go down into a cursed cave to find a magic lamp that Jafar wants to get his paws on. It’s fortunate in the sense that Aladdin doesn’t die, but instead unfurls a genie (Will Smith) who offers him three wishes. His first wish (well, after getting out of the aforementioned cave) is to become a prince so that Jasmine might consider him, after all.
In the vein of every single one of these Disney reboots, Ritchie’s take on Aladdin is reverent to the point of near-irrelevance. The original Aladdin isn’t broken, and there have been no attempts to fix it. The songs (which remain, in the parlance of our time, bops) are more or less the same, with a few lyrical tweaks. The plot is more or less exactly the same, save for the addition of a handmaiden (played by SNL alum Nasim Pedrad) who serves as both comic relief to stretch out the shenanigans (this movie is nearly 40 minutes longer than the animated version, after all) and as a love interest to the genie character (!), which ultimately maybe makes more sense than it should.
It’s therefore difficult to judge the choices that the new movie makes, because in the end most of them were already made for it. Ever since the project was announced, the fact that Smith was walking in Robin Williams’ shoes was a point of contention for most. It’s true that, even at his most gregarious, Smith is hardly the hoobily-doobily dad-jazz improv machine that Williams was, and it’s also true that Williams’ vocal performance is a huge part of the original Aladdin film. (It, in fact, ushered in a brand new era of barely disguised, highly overpaid vocal performances by movie stars in animated movies.) It’s ALSO true that Smith has spent the last few years dipping a toe in edgelord-infested waters by appearing in shit no one asked for like Bright and Suicide Squad, which indicates that he may have gotten tired of the goofy, audience-pleasing Will Smith persona that we’ve gotten accustomed to. The bad news is this: Will Smith beatboxes as the genie and his blue skin and weirdo torso from the trailers appear in the film, just as you would have feared. The good news is this: Will Smith remains a very charismatic movie star and watching him just go mildly nuts is more fun than watching him hunt orcs or diagnose football players with brain injuries.
The same goes for the rest of the cast, which is (thankfully) filled out with lesser-known performers of Middle Eastern descent, so that we don’t have to live through Jake Gyllenhaal slathered in bronzer once again. Massoud — a Toronto actor in his twenties who has, somehow, never appeared on Degrassi — certainly has the right look for Aladdin, though he might be a little green for how much the film requires of him. His Aladdin is great at being a cheeky bugger, but somewhat less convincing when it comes to the film’s heavier lifting. Naomi Scott, who plays Jasmine, shows more range but has considerably less to do — though it seems likely that if there’s a breakout from this cast, it will be here. The biggest casting change comes in the form of Jafar, who goes from older and caricatural in the animated film to a more grounded version that’s barely older than Aladdin.
In the end, it all boils down to what Ritchie does with the material. Ritchie’s presence is really the only wild card in this entire production, which plays it safe despite appearances. Ritchie does fine with the grandeur of the production but mortally whiffs it on the musical sequences, all of which he directs as if they were action scenes. There’s no consideration for rhythm and spectacle; everything is cut to ribbons to the profit of movement. Elaborate musical sequences unfold mostly in close-ups and whip-pans, giving you an inkling of the scope of a particular musical number, but barely letting us see the whole thing. In one sequence, Aladdin has to impress the princess with his dance moves — something he achieves with the help of the genie, who plays him like a puppet. The rest of the royal subjects launch into an elaborate dance, and yet the audience constantly watches over someone’s shoulder or from the corner of the room, as if a gritty immediacy is what we need from a fucking Aladdin reboot. It’s the most chaotically indifferently directed musical since Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables.
I’m not saying that there’s no way that an alternate take on the musical genre is necessarily harmful to Aladdin; I’m saying that taking the Disney bait and toeing the company line just long enough to fuck up the musical sequences is a curious approach. It strikes me as less of a deliberate decision and more of an inherent limitation — there are hundreds of directors out there who are capable of mounting a fluid, dynamic musical sequence. Guy Ritchie, apparently, is not one of them. On nearly every front, this new Aladdin is equal to all other Disney reboots: handsomely mounted, entertaining, useless. ■
Aladdin opens in theatres on Friday, May 23. Watch the trailer here: