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Aladdin (2019)

Posted May 27, 2019 By Curiosity Inc.

Richard Williams was an animator at Disney, probably best known as the animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. His other best-known work is The Thief and the Cobbler, a wildly ambitious magnum opus that Williams started in 1964 and never officially completed. (Various rushed hack jobs were released from 1993 onward, but that’s another story and we’re already getting ahead of ourselves.)

Williams turned down an offer to direct Beauty and the Beast so that he could go and work on his colorfully magical story of a street rat and a princess versus an evil vizier in the mystical Middle East. So it was that Jeffrey Katzenberg — the notoriously petty and spiteful head of Walt Disney Studios at the time — decided to release his own “Arabian Nights”-themed fantasy animated picture and beat the long-in-development Thief and the Cobbler to the punch.

So it was that Disney adapted Aladdin, a tale commonly attributed to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights… except that it’s nowhere to be found in the original text. The story of Aladdin was added in the 18th-century French translation by Antoine Galland, who (allegedly) picked up the tale from Syrian storyteller Hanna Diyab. Further complicating matters, the original tale explicitly takes place in China, yet contains many cartoonish stereotypes common to portrayals of the Middle East. Then Disney went and muddied the waters even further by plopping a great big Taj Mahal knockoff right in the middle of their city full of outdated Middle Eastern stereotypes.

Long before Disney did what they do best (ie. liberally adapt an existing tale to fit their established brand and market the shit out of it, thus firmly establishing their take as the primary definitive version known and loved through mainstream culture), the story of Aladdin was a patchwork of fallacies and stereotypes that could never fly in today’s more culturally sensitive times. Especially in these post-9/11 times when we’ve been bombing the Middle East for the past 18 years, but let’s not even go there.

To Disney’s credit, they did a fine job of populating Aladdin (2019) with a live-action cast loaded with POC talent. However, we’ve still got the African-American Will Smith in this Arabian-themed movie, alongside the Egyptian-born Mena Massoud, the British-Indian Naomi Scott, and the Dutch-Tunisian Marwan Kenzari, plus Navid Negahban and Nasim Pedrad of Iran. So the cast is still quite a hodgepodge.

Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Billy Magnussen, playing a royal suitor from a faraway land. He’s an annoying comic relief punching bag who gets maybe two minutes of screen time in total. Trust me, people of color, you’re better off letting the white boy take this one.

Yes, this is all a great improvement over the day nine years ago when this exact same studio put a spray tan on Jake Gyllenhaal and called him the goddamn Prince of Persia. (Yes, that really happened. Look it up.) Yet enough ink has already been spilled on the subject that I’m sure it won’t be enough for the activists demanding more authentic and inclusive portrayal of non-WASP social groups. Hell, given the messed-up origins of the whole Aladdin story, I don’t know if any adaptation of this particular source material would be enough for the more discerning among 21st-century moviegoers.

But here’s a thought: Maybe — just maybe — none this matters because the setting of Agrabah DOESN’T FUCKING EXIST!

The culture, location, and people of Agrabah are all invented by the filmmakers, probably with a minimum of effort because none of that is important to the story. For all intents and purposes, Agrabah is a faraway fantasy land like Narnia, Middle Earth, Westeros, Azeroth, etc. Those were all based on some ridiculously heightened portrayal of medieval Europe — why can’t Agrabah be likewise based on some absurdly romanticized portrayal of “Arabia”? In any case, while I’m all in favor of greater diversity in Hollywood and I sympathize with those who so badly need and deserve better representation in mass media, I’m not inclined to care all that much about the portrayal of a fictional culture.

Especially when the mish-mash of old and new Disney is a far greater problem where this movie is concerned.

Guy Ritchie was tapped to direct this live-action update, and I came into this movie ready to tear Ritchie a new one. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was rightly trashed as one of the most humiliating critical and commercial flops of its year, ditto for The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and that’s not even getting started on how Ritchie fucked up a perfectly good Sherlock Holmes franchise. But then again, it’s patently obvious that this was a studio picture. Every last detail of every last frame has been micromanaged to such an absurd degree that anyone could have been in the director’s chair, and every last trace of their personality would have been scrubbed away beneath endless layers of CGI.

To be entirely fair, this movie does make some changes for the better. The filmmakers introduce the theme of greed as a monster that can’t be fed, warning that no amount of money or power could ever be enough for those who’d wish for it. Making that a more explicit theme works beautifully with the source material, and it dovetails surprisingly well with Aladdin’s development as he learns how to find his own place in the world without any need for a princely facade. Nicely done.

On a similar note, the filmmakers build some extra connective tissue between Aladdin and Jafar (respectively played by Mena Massoud and Marwan Kenzari). In this iteration, Jafar grew up as a thieving street rat just like Aladdin did. The difference is that while Aladdin steals to live, Jafar lives to steal. Jafar is a man who used every earthly and unholy means at his disposal to gain his place at the right hand of the Sultan (played by Navid Negahban), yet he’ll keep on gunning for the throne and pushing to invade other countries, all for no reason at all except that too much will never be enough for his colossal ego.

Meanwhile, Jasmine (Naomi Scott) is still a princess in a gilded cage, this time because her mommy died and Daddy got all overprotective. Far more importantly, Jasmine is a young woman who was literally born and raised to be Sultan, yet a woman taking charge is simply unthinkable and goes against years of tradition. So instead, she has to watch mediocre dicks run the show while hoping to at least marry a viable heir to the throne.

Let’s recap. Back in 1992, Jafar was a two-dimensional villain with no greater motivation than “pure evil”, and Jasmine wanted nothing more than the independence to marry whomever she loved. In 2019, Jafar is a greedy self-serving politician while Jasmine is a progressive liberal who falls in love with and marries a street urchin she met three days prior. The improvement still isn’t quite enough to make them fully three-dimensional characters, but it’s enough to match where the bar has moved over the past 20 years.

(EDIT: Upon reflection, there’s a cross-fade sequence at the end that muddies the timeline a bit. So strictly speaking, there’s no telling how long it took for Jasmine and Aladdin to finally get married.)

Oh, and then there’s the Sultan. Jafar’s mind-control staff is still in place to make sure the character is woefully ineffectual, but at least he’s not the babbling simpleton of the animated film.

Next up is Jasmine’s handmaiden and confidante (Dalia, played by Nasim Pedrad). This character is new to the film, because Jasmine is so much more complex and politically motivated that she needed a sounding board. Otherwise, Dalia contributes nothing. Jasmine could’ve spent the whole time monologuing to Rajah and it would’ve done as much good. Granted, seeing Jasmine being open and relaxed with a girlfriend does show a new side to the character, but I don’t know if that was worth introducing a whole new character who otherwise holds the film back more than elevates it.

Oh, and Dalia has a romance subplot with the Genie. It sucks, and for obvious reasons.

Iago makes a return, now voiced by Alan Tudyk. While the character is still a talking parrot, he’s far from the wisecracking villainous sidekick voiced by Gilbert Gottfried. In terms of intelligence and vocabulary, he’s not quite up to human levels, but still ranks higher than most other birds. Nicely done.

Abu, Rajah, and the Cave of Wonders all make return appearances, and all with their original voice actor, Grandmaster Frank Welker. Otherwise, the character who’s least changed is easily Aladdin himself. Mena Massoud was a fantastic choice for the role, with the good looks and charisma to perfectly sell himself as a live-action stand-in for the animated protagonist. In fact, Massoud only really falls short when he’s called upon to sell jokes and character beats that weren’t in the original animated film.

Will Smith has the opposite problem.

When it comes to serving as Aladdin’s life coach, boosting our protagonist’s self-worth and dishing out hard truths, I’d dare say that Smith does a better job than Robin Williams. All Smith has to do is play out a rerun of Hitch and he turns in something far more heartfelt and authentic than anything Robin Williams could have managed at that pre-Good Will Hunting point in his career. Moreover, Smith is still a phenomenal MC and he knows how to get the crowd pumped up. That’s really what powers the “Prince Ali” number, because it sure as hell isn’t the choreography or Smith’s singing voice.

Will Smith and the VFX team are clearly trying their best to recreate the hellzapoppin’ anything-goes style of the animated Genie (without the instantly-dated pop culture references, mercifully), and it was always destined to fail because all of it was so painstakingly custom tailored to Robin Williams. Likewise, “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” were built from the ground up for Williams’ voice. Having Will Smith sing those numbers makes about as much sense as Christopher Walken singing “I Wanna Be Like You.”

Someone at Disney needs to get the fucking message already that songs for musicals were written with specific parameters to be performed in very specific ways and staged in specific contexts. I don’t care how good Will Smith might otherwise be as Genie, he doesn’t sound a single goddamn thing like what his songs were written for, he couldn’t if he tried, and the songs fall apart as the inevitable result. On a similar note, these filmmakers inserted Jasmine into the “One Jump Ahead” number, thus changing the context far beyond anything the song was written for, and it falls apart.

And yes, all the Bollywood touches with the massive choreography and the colorful costumes might have been a fantastic idea for portraying the story in a live-action medium. If only they didn’t clash with the songs that weren’t fucking written for that!

Easily the best musical number in the whole movie is the one that was written exclusively for this update: “Speechless”, written by Pasek and Paul (they of La La Land and The Greatest Showman) as an empowerment anthem for Jasmine. In fact, this was the scene — at roughly the 100-minute mark — that proved Naomi Scott a bona fide superstar. She can act, she can sing, she can dance, she’s gorgeous, and she can carry a visibly inferior male lead through the entire running time. Anything you could want in The Next Big Thing, she’s got it.

Back to the point, this refusal to commit is a recurring problem with Disney’s live-action remakes. I get that Disney wants to keep what works and update what doesn’t, but they can’t have it both ways. Of course they want to keep the songs and characters that are marketable, but it shouldn’t take a genius to know that the songs and characters don’t stop being marketable just because of a reboot. If the 1960s Batman TV show, the original Star Trek series, and the first two seasons of Power Rangers can still be iconic and profitable after so many iterations of their respective franchises have come and gone, how the red hot and holy hell is it so impossible to have two different versions of Aladdin making money at the same time?

Aladdin (2019) is frustrating in so many ways because the filmmakers were so clearly willing and able to make their own wonderful take on this story. If the filmmakers had let Will Smith play to his strengths, let Pasek and Paul write a whole album’s worth of new songs, and go full throttle with the Bollywood dance numbers and the more nuanced characters, this could have been something truly special. But because Disney continues to insist on keeping the old iconic songs and story beats, even when they don’t fit with the new contexts and cast choices, their live-action updates will continue to exist in the shadows of their predecessors, doomed to look like a watered-down and pale knockoff by comparison.

Then again, this same studio already gave Tim Burton free artistic license to make his own totally different take on Dumbo, and the studio already tried to make an entirely new take on a classic fairy tale with The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. Both were critical and domestic box-office flops. I don’t know what Disney is doing or who’s running it, but something has to change.