I’m having a hard time sorting through my feelings about Disney’s Aladdin, the live-action remake of the beloved 1992 animated classic, so bear with me as I work this out.
Let’s start with the good. The two actors who play Aladdin and Jasmine, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, are fantastic. Massoud moves well and is energetic and breezy as Aladdin. Scott is similarly charming and charismatic. They look great and have great chemistry together and their performances are exactly what you want and need for this movie—they each have star power for days.
But it’s Nasim Pedrad that delivers the best performance in the movie, as Jasmine’s handmaiden, a new character who wasn’t in the animated version. Pedrad’s extensive comedy background allowed her to seem the most comfortable with the comedic bits, when everyone else is a bit stiff (yes, even Will Smith). She is a natural and every time I see her, I continue to be shocked that she’s not starring in her own movies.
The production elements are beyond belief. Disney has spared no cost, understandably so, and you can see every penny on the screen. The special effects that bring animals strikingly to life (a monkey is an adorable and effective supporting character) are phenomenally seamless and well done, and the names Michael Wilkinson and Gemma Jackson should be remembered during awards seasons for costumes and a production design that are immaculate, gorgeous and alone make this movie worthwhile. Disney movies always look great and this one looks absolutely luscious.
There is a certain Disney magic that is sprinkled on this movie that helps it overcome many of its flaws, and it’s hard to not be a sucker for it. The musical numbers work well, even though the big production number looked like it was auditioning to be the opening to next year’s Rose Parade. The songs worked, for the most part, even though I don’t love the one new song, “Speechless,” as much as everyone else apparently does.
Lastly, I was very worried when I first heard that Guy Ritchie was directing this movie. Ritchie seems like the last guy to ever be hired for a Disney movie, least of all a PG-rated one. His filmography is littered with movies about mobsters, low-lifes and criminals and his signature is fast-paced, R-rated, gun-fueled action. Movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch and RocknRolla are testosterone-fueled foul-language fests on amphetamines. Not exactly my first choice for a Disney kid’s movie. But the good news here is Ritchie’s direction is not at all what’s wrong with this movie. The producers say that Ritchie was hired to give the movie a more gritty and realistic look and to put life into the action sequences, both of which he succeeds in doing. The movie moves at a brisk pace and Ritchie does a good job resisting his urges as the movie manages to be sweet and entertaining.
I wish, so much, that I could just leave it there.
But there is so much more that I struggled with in this movie. Starting with Will Smith. Now you might say that he was in a no-win situation, taking on the role made famous by Robin Williams, whose original voice performance as the Genie in the original is the stuff of legend. Nobody could ever replicate what Williams did in that role, and nobody should ever try. Smith says he didn’t want to copy Williams, but he wanted to deliver a performance that was an homage to Williams while adding his own style and flair to the role.
I’ve never missed Robin Williams more. And I miss him every day.
Will Smith’s over-the-top, indulgent and grating performance is the singularly worst thing about Aladdin. I rolled my eyes so many times I started to get dizzy. No matter how much the filmmakers insist that they did NOT want to copy Williams’s performance, there is no way to deny that the character is still the one Williams created, they just tried to alter it to Will Smith’s style. And this is where you realize that nothing about that works. Robin Williams had his own style. Will Smith has his own style. What happens here when the filmmakers try to merge their styles is a lack of any style. It’s painful to watch. Jokes land with a thud—awkward silences in a packed theatre prove that whatever you were trying to do just didn’t work. All the laughs in the movie come from Pedrad. Maybe SHE should’ve been the Genie.
And, finally, there’s no way to tiptoe around this: this is not the time to make a movie where everyone in front of the camera are people of color and everyone behind the camera is white. This is a movie set in the Middle East, all the characters except for one minor supporting character are Middle Eastern and they are all played by actors of color. And yet the writers, director and all but one of the producers are white (and all men). I know there is a heated debate about art being color-blind—it shouldn’t matter what somebody looks like if they are the best one for the job. That would and should be true if Hollywood were a fair place. But it’s not. The tremendous disparity between people of color and women versus white men in top production roles in studio films in Hollywood is sickening. So the awkward imbalance of ethnicity and gender would be disturbing no matter what kind of movie it is, but when you add the fact that this is a movie about the most famous Middle-Eastern folk tale and there still is practically zero representation of non-white (or women) artists behind the scenes is staggering.
Before you think I’m riding my politically-correct high horse, let me remind you of two things: Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians—two Hollywood studio blockbusters whose casts were predominantly non-white, and both of them showed equal representation behind the camera. And both still managed to break box office records and get great reviews (and even win some Oscars). So, guess what—it can be done. So this is why Aladdin, no matter how much fun it is or how beautiful it is, or how charming the actors are, just made me just a little sick to my stomach. And if you don’t believe me that there is some actual white-washing going on here, consider this: every main character in this movie speaks with an American accent (even Scott, who is British), while every supporting character speaks with a Middle Eastern accent. Ask yourself if there is any way that wasn’t on purpose.
And I won’t even go on about the female characters here. For all their attempts to update the story and even add a song to reflect Jasmine’s female empowerment, it all fell massively flat for me as this movie’s faux-feminism was almost as insulting as its subtle racism.
Anyone who has read my reviews on a regular basis knows I usually don’t go on rants like this, but I just couldn’t let this go. Not in 2019. Not after Black Panther. Representation matters. Disney fantasy or not, this movie was made in the real world. And that’s just too hard to ignore.