The live-action Aladdin remake is what you get when you take what white people think the Middle East is and colonize it with peppy, witless background actors.
I don't need to set up the premise of Aladdin for you; you already know the story. And that's what the new Disney live-action remake assumes, too, skipping character introductions in the beginning for a montage of the hot-spots in the fictional city of Agrabah - from the Sultan's palace overlooking the sprawling city to the Cave of Wonders with its Mufasa face. It's a sweeping CGI landscape, and after the nauseating roller coaster we meet our hero, Aladdin, played by newcomer Mena Massoud. He's running from the palace guards and bumps into Jasmine in the market, played by Disney Channel's Naomi Scott; he immediately charms her. Their chemistry is as instant and intolerable as a TV dinner.
Disney's Aladdin Official Trailer - In Theaters May 24! www.youtube.com
All this action takes place on a painfully tacky sound stage, bustling with vaguely Middle-Eastern-looking people of all different kinds. Beards and burkas, eyeliner and turbans; it's like the wardrobe department raided the "Oriental" section of a Halloween Adventure store. And that's what the painful points of this film are: its creative failures. The Disney Aladdin story in itself is an American-made bastardization of Middle Eastern and Oriental cultures blended together to be consumed. Much like Pocahontas and Mulan, it was a story written by white people to sell toys to all the little boys and girls of America. So no one should expect this movie to depict literal Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon, or a whole host of other cultures that are being flimsily referenced. But to anyone who has actually been to the Middle East… the environment looks more like an amusement park attraction than a place anyone could conceivably live in. Guy Ritchie puts so much effort into imitating the world of the animated original that the film misses opportunities to shine on its own.
Massoud does a serviceable job as Aladdin, as his handsome blank expression becomes endearing after a while. But Scott steals the spotlight with her genuinely compelling performance as a politically-minded princess who longs to be sultan. As the movie chugs along, you start to get the sense that this should have been Jasmine's movie. Her character motivation is much stronger than Aladdin's, who ultimately just wants to impress some chick he met one day earlier. Luckily, Jasmine gets plenty of screentime to show off her acting and singing chops, which provide the only breaks from obnoxiously noticeable autotune.
Surprisingly, Will Smith is pretty good in this movie. That is to say, when he isn't the weird, uncanny-valley/blue-man-group Will Smith we glimpsed in the film's trailers, he holds it down as the Genie. The most glaring moments of disillusionment come when Robin William's iconic one-liners are recited word for word. For instance, Smith just can't quite capture the comedic timing Williams had with his "teeny-tiny living space" line. The musical number "Friend Like Me" was particularly painful, but that might have been my stomach adjusting to the sight of a blue, photo-realistic, steroided Will Smith floating on a cloud. With that being said, when Smith isn't blue, he's fun to watch. His best moments come from playing the classic, 6'2, lovable Will Smith. There's a particularly phenomenal scene in which Aladdin is attempting to impress the princess as Prince Ali, and Smith's ad-libs were the freshest part of the entire film. I won't spoil them, but you'll be genuinely laughing the entire time.
Should you see this movie? Eh, sure. It offers some good new ideas that I would have loved to see explored more, like Genie hanging out among the humans and Jasmine's growth as a royal leader. Those concepts stand up well on their own and allow the actors to leverage their very obvious strengths. But director Guy Ritchie either didn't have a vision for this film or he wasn't allowed by the Disney powers that be to realize it. So instead, we have cartoonish acting, hokey sets, and very, very low stakes in a movie that should be a mystical adventure. If you're not too concerned with something new and just want to watch a bunch of faux-Arabs onscreen acting out your favorite childhood movie, then this live-action remake of Aladdin is for you.