There’s no point in rehashing the plot of Aladdin, Disney’s 2019 live-action remake of their similarly titled 1992 animated film — screenwriters John August and Guy Ritchie (who also directs) closely follow the story of a diamond-in-the-rough street rat and his monkey sidekick who happen upon a magic lamp with a genie inside. Yes, there are additions, roughly 40 minutes of them. Some are bizarre: the Genie (Will Smith) gains a love interest; some are requisite showstoppers for a post-Frozen world: Jasmine (Naomi Scott) gains a new song, “Speechless;” and some eschew universality for specificity: Jafar’s (Marwan Kenzari) quest for the throne is less a power-mad drive and more a thinly veiled Trump allegory.
Granted, these changes are designed to make the movie seem more relevant to audiences of 2019 — and maybe even the filmmakers behind the scenes — but they slow down a movie that simultaneously feels sluggish and manic thanks to Ritchie’s élan for mixing fast-motion, slow-motion, and quick cutting.
There are some highlights: Mena Massoud does a fine job with Aladdin, though he lacks a little in the singing department; the animation of Carpet and Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk) are quite good; and one scene involving the word “jam” is the funniest moment in the movie and showcases a glimmer of Smith’s former comic chops.
The rest, well, it doesn’t come together. Most infuriating are the small changes August and Ritchie make to the original script. Changes that add little, and subtract much; as if neither had any idea what made them work in the first place. Here, Jasmine does not pole vault over Aladdin and Abu to escape the palace guards; she uses it to clumsily falls into Aladdin’s arms. Abu no longer steals the giant ruby from the Cave of Wonders — in direct violation of the Cave’s decree — the ruby haphazardly falls into his hands. Jafar no longer wishes to be an all-powerful genie — thus invoking his imprisonment — he just asks to be the most powerful being in the world, which, apparently, is a genie. Even the exposition about the limitations of a genie’s powers is neutered here — maybe August and Ritchie felt uncomfortable about a black man discussing the reality of servitude and slavery. And when Aladdin wishes for Genie’s freedom, his shackles fall not off a black man’s wrists, but an oversized CGI blue cloud of smoke that looks like a weird distortion of Will Smith. It’s a missed opportunity in a movie loaded with them.
A shame, the 1992 version is one of the best of the Disney Renaissance: a tightly scripted, breakneck-paced piece of bravado animation that still manages to enchant. That movie owed a lot to the spirit of Alexander Korda’s 1940 fantasia, The Thief of Bagdad, an entertaining adventure film that holds up despite some antiquated special effects.
The Thief of Bagdad has a real sense of adventure and excitement. The ’92 Aladdin has that excitement and a whole lot of heart. 2019’s Aladdin lacks all three in spades. And you don’t have to look too hard to see it. Just compare the three version of Genie freed: Rex Ingram flies off, joyfully screaming, “Free! Free!” all the way; Robin Williams yells “NO!” and cackles with all the joy of a child when Aladdin wishes for the Nile; and Will Smith just thanks Aladdin and quietly hugs him. It looks like 10,000 years in the Cave of Wonders has chilled this Genie out just a bit too much.