So, a critic can overthink a film before it even comes out. A few days ago, I predicted this Guy Ritchie film would be convoluted: too complicated in such a small space (kind of like a genie in a lamp, you can say). I can safely say that this is one of Ritchie’s better offerings. For once, I don’t have a headache. This is involving a film with Will Smith as a spastic CGI genie (more on that soon). In fact, I will take this to a new place. Aladdin actually didn’t do quite enough. Not on a narrative front. It’s too bad, because — and I never thought I would say this — this was shaping up to be one of the better live action Disney adaptations. Believe it or not, folks. What do we have to blame? The final act.
Before I complain like an ogre, first, let me go into the positives. The film is stunning to witness. Agrabah was made spectacularly, to the point that you may expect some set design, visual effects and costume Oscar nominations down the road (but nothing else). Secondly, Mena Massoud is a decent Aladdin. He has all of the charm and likability, but he runs into a bit of trouble in the more demanding parts. Still, Aladdin has to at least be charismatic, and Massoud has that attribute in spades. However, Naomi Scott is a killer Jasmine. In the film’s more intense moments, I was actually hoping this gig would lead to even greater roles for Scott to tackle. She handles adversity quite well.
Both of these performances make up for a “meh” Jafar by Marwan Kenzari. He oozes arrogance well, but I unfortunately never quite felt threatened by him until he obtained his powers (through a genie, of course). For most of the film, he feels more like the annoying uncle that says perverted jokes at the family barbecue. He’s a pain in the ass more than an actual danger. However, no one (and, again, I can’t believe I am saying this) outshines Will Smith’s genie. Yes. I said it. Between the CGI freak-out, and Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air antics in spiritual form, the genie never attempts to be Robin Williams’ portrayal (or even out do it), but rather do it justice. I wouldn’t call it life changing, but I would call it fun. Lots of surprising fun.
There are a few variations that actually feel like improvements. Remember how the story is told by a merchant in the original animated version? Well, we have a similar idea here, but we have a father telling two children a story instead. It leads up to a less-whimsical ending, as the original was more of a cautionary tale by a wise elder. However, we instead get a heartwarming tale of love; soaking the entire film in at this point kind of makes the whole trip worth it. Also, the fear I had of the prince suitor was all but in vain. The suitor is barely in the film. For one, I am glad, but I am also a bit confused. Why bother involving this idea of other worthy princess if they pose as much of a threat as not having any at all?
And this is where Aladdin begins to collapse under its own weight. The story, in Ritchie fashion, is not as strong as the rest of the production. I would actually insist that Aladdin is more stable than most Ritchie films (by far, even), but certain moments just feel paper thin. Aladdin’s turnaround from understanding “street rat” to selfish prince is too quick. There is no true shift into this state of mind. The film even tries to take it back: literally minutes later, Aladdin regrets what he has done. That’s not exactly the greatest character arc in the history of storytelling. It’s like if President Obama fought tooth and nail to have a good image, one day kicked a cat, and seconds later didn’t know why he did it. Insisting a person is a well of charisma and morality, then turning him bad, then turning him good minutes later, is weak.
Then we have the final bought. Remember Jafar turning into a giant snake? Well, this is a Guy Ritchie film, right? Where action takes precedent over structure? There are numerous chase scenes (called it) in the film, but the one time Ritchie could have gone all out with a climax, he doesn’t. Here, it’s a battle of wits. With all the CGI, sorcery and capability afoot, we go with wits. It’s a good lesson, but a very poor climax. If there was a second wind after this scene, or an actual battle before, maybe this ending would have had more oomph. Instead, in a film where literally anything can happen, Ritchie, for the first time in his career, played it safe. I didn’t see it coming, but it doesn’t make it any better.
What I can safely say, is that Aladdin isn’t too bad. It’s not Dumbo mediocre, so at least there is that. The signs of a better film do make this trip harder to relive, though. All of the signs were there. If the cards were played right, Aladdin could have blown films like Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella (live action, of course) out of the water. Instead, those other two films played it safe the entire time. Aladdin went all out, but stepped back just at the wrong times. That renders a film disappointing, not underwhelming. Sometimes, that is worse. Well, it is still worth a shot, and that is possibly the biggest news surrounding this film; one of which was bogged down by low expectations from day one.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.