In the Shadow of Robin Williams: Disney’s Latest ‘Aladdin’ Can’t Help but Fail

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Disney has run into a problem with their recent slew of live-action remakes.  The movies that they’re now adapting — the new Aladdin included — are all great movies.  There’s surprisingly little that needs, let alone warrants, an update when all is said and done.  The scripts are all generally rock-solid, the songs are as toe-tappingly catchy as ever, the visual splendor of their animation can’t be reasonably approximated (let alone “bested”) by live action conversion.

Not every old-timey Disney movie can be Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959) or The Jungle Book (1977): generally solid but deeply flawed movies that can’t really hold up to their own reputation, let alone what modern audiences have come to expect from children’s entertainment.  Not every movie is as ripe for updates or deconstruction.  Sometimes they were great, maybe even perfect, the first time around.

Sometimes they’re Beauty and the Beast (1991), a movie so insurmountably perfect that the normally animation-averse Academy felt compelled to nominate for Best Picture and then, shortly thereafter, made an entire category (Best Animated Feature) for fear of repeating that honor in the future.  Sometimes they’re The Lion King (1994), arguably the best movie the House of Mouse ever made, animated or otherwise, that doesn’t have a single reason why it would have to be put into the “real world” to begin with.  And sometimes they’re Aladdin (1992), a movie built entirely on the unique and irreplaceable energy of Robin Williams and the boundless visual opportunities that animation opens a story up to.

That, more than anything, is the problem with Disney’s Johnny-come-lately Aladdin remake.  The original movie was already so uniquely and perfectly suited to the wonderful world of animation that any live-action facsimile couldn’t help but fall flat by comparison.  The manic pacing, the inventive visual gags, the fourth wall-breaking mania and the innate cartoonishness of the late, great Robin Williams were all perfect matches to animation from the start.  And when you consider how near-perfect the rest of the film was besides all that, there are all of zero reasons why anybody would ever need to take a second stab at this particular version of this particular story… save for the capitalistic compulsion for the endless pursuit of profit.

That being said, I chose my initial words careful.  The first Aladdin is a near-perfect movie, not an unimpeachable one.  There are numerous occasions to touch up the seems of this contentious story for twenty-first century audiences, just not any that are strictly compelling enough to justify this whole production.

Despite the original taking place in a fantastical approximation of the Middle East, it committed the time-honored sin of whitewashing its voice cast, denying any opportunity of people of color to contribute to a story that, by rights, should be theirs.  I’ll concede the preeminence of Robin Williams, because he is so impossibly well-suited to that role (which, at the very least, as an otherworldly blue-skinned being of near-omnipotence, would be a stretch to assign any human ethnicity to).  And to its credit, the new cast is a gorgeously authentic, pan-Eastern cast that will, despite the rest of the movie, inspire countless diamonds in the rough and ambitious young princesses to follow their dreams in such a world that can’t help but let us down otherwise.

Although it’s easy to overlook with the rose-tinted goggles of nostalgic hindsight, Aladdin, like virtually every other Disney movie of its era, runs a lean 90-minutes long (the better to cram in as many screenings per day as possible and amass as large of a box office gross as possible).  And in the economy of duration, plenty got left on the cutting room floor.  Jafar is underdeveloped even for the generally low standards of a Disney villain, one of the best songs written for the movie — “Proud of Your Boy” — was left absent (and, with it, a moving subplot of Aladdin trying to do right by his dearly departed parents despite the levels he’s been forced to sink to in order to survive in a cruel and uncaring world) and the palace intrigue in the second act is generally too short to support all of the moving pieces that its deceptively complex narrative forces us to pay attention to.

And to its eternal credit, the new Aladdin does a great deal of good to the character of Jafar.  Revealed to have been something of a “street rat” himself who rose to power through his untampered ambition and clandestine means, he makes a fitting foil to our roughed-up protagonist.  We even get to see him use his practiced pickpocketing skills a couple times, although I was immeasurably disappointed that he simply had Iago pilfer the keys to the dungeon for him when arrested, rather than making using of his Batman-esque foresight in carving out tunnels from the dungeon’s cells to his inner sanctum (as established in the original film) or his streetwise talents (as established in this one).

While the extra 30+ minutes added to the live-action narrative did see a number of musical additions — including a powerful (and later reprised) number for Jasmine about how she refuses to step aside and remain silent — it’s genuinely bizarre that they didn’t find the time for “Proud of Your Boy,” a song that would have added so much more to Aladdin’s character than was otherwise shown on-screen.  I mean, that’s half the reason why they make these remakes anyway, right (I mean, other than doubling up on their old-timey box office grosses)?  Taking a second pass at these movies lets them add in the songs that they perplexingly decided to leave on the cutting room floor the first time around.  And yet, somehow, they couldn’t find the time for this pitch-perfect number that would have proven one of the show-stopping additions to the well-worn Disney formula and added additional complexity and richness to our intrepid hero?

Thankfully, though, the extra time allotted for this movie was well-spent expanding the underdeveloped palace intrigue from the first movie.  By and large, that goes to fleshing out Jafar’s character and his intentions for Agrabah once crowned Sultan and developing Jasmine into something of an over-qualified political force to be reckoned with (in much the same mold as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris).  Additionally, a fair bit of time is used to give the Genie something to do other than slavishly following around Aladdin.  He gets a romantic subplot with Jasmines handmaiden that is fun and cute and reminds you of just what a great romantic lead Will Smith is when his movies allow his exuberant charisma to shine through.

Yet, despite these mostly-positive alterations to the first film, the movie itself simply can’t help but fall flat on its face.  Some of this is the necessary replacement of Robin Williams as the Genie.  It is certainly no fault of Smith’s, given that he is so often forced to repeat riffs and gags and beats that were unique to Williams’ inimitable style of performance; anybody who tried would have failed.  He is best when allowed to take the character in his own direction, and I cannot help but feel that the entire movie would have been better suited doing much the same, rather than chasing down the ghost of Robin Williams in damned near every frame of the end product.

The other reason for the film’s lackluster presentation is Guy Ritchie himself, who is undeniably a directly poorly chosen for the task at hand.  So many of the film’s narrative emotional beats have been remixed that the entire movie feels… well… wrong.  It feels off.  It’s like a cover of a song that doesn’t quite hit all the notes right.  This goes from gravely mis-choreographed dance numbers that feel exactly like a mid-2000s music video to all the ways that they robbed Jasmine of her original character strengths and agency (even while inventing new ones for her that would have been put to better use complimenting and expanding her existing characteristics from the 1992 film).

Important narrative setup from the original film (like Jafar’s first failed attempt to procure the lamp from the Cave of Wonders) are montaged over during the “Arabian Nights” song.  The expansive Cave of Wonders, originally a sprawling D&D-esque dungeon of mythic proportions, is reduced to a single, rocky room with a lamp-topped rock-climbing wall and really not all that much treasure to speak of (certainly not the treasure trove from the first movie).  The epic reveal of the now-Genie empowered Jafar is strangely underwhelming, especially compared to the epic coup that underscored his original takeover.  Everything plays a scant half-note or so off from the original, creating the most infuriating dissonance: a movie that almost, but doesn’t quite, live up to its potential as a good movie.

In the end, Aladdin is a fun enough time at the movies in-between other major summer releases.  It’s not nearly as good as the movie it’s remaking, but then again nothing was ever going to be that.  It’s fun, it’s colorful and it still has a few slid musical numbers to sing along to.  There are certainly worse ways to spend $10 and a couple of hours, just as there are certainly better ways to do the same.

Rating:  3/5

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