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Disney's new 'Aladdin,' starring Will Smith, is a mostly pale imitation of the original

The real question the film has to answer is: Why remake “Aladdin” at all?
Aladdin, played by Mena Massoud, meets the larger-than-life blue Genie, Will Smith, in Disney's live-action adaptation "Aladdin," directed by Guy Ritchie.
Aladdin, played by Mena Massoud, meets the larger-than-life blue Genie, Will Smith, in Disney's live-action adaptation "Aladdin," directed by Guy Ritchie.Disney

The concept behind the “live-action remakes” of Disney’s cartoon classics is a simple one: Modern CGI has advanced to the point that fairy tales that were once only possible to create via animation can now look just as magical with live actors. Indeed, the films the House of Mouse has selected thus far have been stories that once upon a time would have been impossible to depict in real life: “Cinderella” and her pumpkin carriage, “Dumbo” and his flying ears, “Beauty and the Beast” and its supporting cast of housewares, and now “Aladdin” and his Genie, one of the most animated characters — in every sense of the word — in Disney’s pantheon.

The original “Aladdin” came out in 1992, part of a slew of Disney box office smashes that started with “The Little Mermaid.” It was the highest grossing box office hit of the year, with five Oscar nominations, including two nominations for original songs “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me.” It also featured a timeless Disney moral about the difference between wish fulfillment and true happiness. Instead of trying to be someone you’re not, why not love yourself for who you are? It’s a message one wishes Disney had taken more to heart, especially now.

Instead of trying to be someone you’re not, why not love yourself for who you are? It’s a message one wishes Disney had taken more to heart.

Some of Disney’s remakes, like “Beauty and the Beast,” have attempted shot-for-shot recreations. “Dumbo,” on the other hand, re-imagined the story nose to tail, a change necessitated by the original’s racial stereotyping. “Aladdin” falls somewhere between these two poles. The original included casual racism that would similarly need to be updated (although some critics allege it has not, in fact, been removed from the new version). But much of the 1992 original is considered “classic” enough that a full rewrite was not possible.

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The result is a bit of a hodgepodge of old and new. Aladdin (Mena Massoud) finds and rubs a lamp, the Genie (Will Smith) grants him his wish to become Prince Ali so that he can woo Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott.) However, in between these major plot milestones the film turns into a buddy comedy between the Genie and Aladdin, while Jasmine tries to prove to her Sultan father that she would make a good ruler, husband or no husband. These new additions are often funny and well done. But unfortunately, the rest of the movie feels like, at best, a pale imitation of the original cartoon, and at worst, embarrassingly bad.

The film’s treatment of the Genie is a good example of the movie’s flaws. The original Genie character was a supporting one. (He doesn’t show up for over 30 minutes and has less screen time than Abu the monkey.) But Robin Williams’ rapid-fire, manic impressions made the film an instant animated classic, and one of the best Williams vehicles ever made. In this new movie, Smith’s Genie is the star from the beginning. But Smith isn’t a strong singer, doesn’t improvise at breakneck speeds and his energy, while high, is not dizzying. Instead, he has the thankless task of Not Being Robin Williams.

This is a tremendous waste of Smith’s talent. There are thousands of men who could easily Not Be Robin Williams; why not just let Will Smith be Will Smith? And indeed, when the film stops forcing Smith to attempt his best Williams impression, everything improves enormously. This is also true for the new Aladdin and Jasmine. Naomi Scott is a find; she makes even some of the worst moments of the film almost work. If there’s any justice in the world, this will be start of a long and impressive Hollywood career for her. Massoud, who was the end result of a global casting manhunt, is a decent enough actor and a passable singer, but where he truly shines is with his dancing. Sadly, the film largely wastes this opportunity, too, with the exception of the added “Harvest Dance” number.

And speaking of music and dance, it is unclear why Disney chose director Guy Richie, but the musical sequences are poorer for it. Richie has no clue how to stage giant musical showpieces, which only adds to the movie’s stilted feel.

At least Disney can say the songs from the original still hold up — even Will Smith’s radio-friendly cover of “Friend Like Me” that plays over the credits. But the same cannot be said of the movie’s only major new song, “Speechless,” a number obviously created specifically for the Oscars’ best original song category next January. Don’t worry, it won’t qualify.

Ultimately, like all these live-action remakes, the real question the film has to answer is: why? Why remake “Aladdin” at all? The answer should be because Will Smith can bring something new and exciting and contemporary to the Jinn character. The answer should be because Disney has the power to take a cast of relatively unknown South Asian actors and make them household names in America at a time when Hollywood is finally starting to realize the power and promise of diverse casting. At times, we glimpse what that movie might have looked like. But, then like a genie returning back into his lamp, the vision vanishes like a mirage, and we’re left blinking into an empty, slightly smoky void.