Nostalgia can be an opioid. A little bit helps take the edge off growing up or just growing older, like a pleasing balm. But it can also become a relentless addiction, seeping into a culture until all that’s left is a mutually assured craving to live in eternal delusion: a delusion of times gone by, a delusion of a childhood that never ended, and a delusion you can buy that happiness again for 15 bucks a pop (or closer to $50 if you bring the whole family).
And among his other more appealing ventures, Mickey Mouse is also happy to dole out that nostalgic good stuff on a year-round basis. Occasionally this can lead to inventive and genuinely inspired fare like The Jungle Book remake or at least a respectful love letter to the old ways (I’m quite fond of Mary Poppins Returns, for the record). But it can also result in projects as soullessly barren as the deserts in Disney’s Aladdin, the cynical endpoint of a business model built on hollowing out warm memories and then wrapping the emptiness left over in a pretty bow.
The set-up of Aladdin is the same set-up you know. Would you want anything else? The charming street rat the movie’s named after (Mena Massoud) dreams of living in a palace and winning the heart of the rarely seen Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), a young woman who herself dreams of getting out of the palace. To make his dream a reality, he agrees to help the painfully evil Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), a visor of the Sultan and former street rat himself, retrieve a magical lamp from the Cave of Wonders. Jafar betrays Aladdin, but the plucky hero still winds up with the lamp and the Genie (Will Smith) inside.
With Smith at maximum star wattage mugging at his side, sometimes in blue CGI and sometimes even more uncomfortably playing Robin Williams’ best bits, the pair embark on making Aladdin “Prince Ali” in order to woo and legally marry Jasmine. For her part though, Jasmine liked the boy in the market better than this strutting peacock—yet if the two can come together on a flying magic carpet ride, will love follow?
Aladdin is the second live-action Disney remake of 2019 (and there are two more on the horizon), coming only a few months after Disney released Tim Burton’s Dumbo, a project fairly criticized for being a product, but unfairly dinged for being a bad one. Whatever its faults, one could see Burton strive to do something at least vaguely new and meaningful with the material, if only as a creative exercise, and finding a bit of heart in the process. There isn’t even a pulse in Aladdin.
Mostly a series of perfunctory and stilted recreations of the enchanting 1992 animated movie, the picture has lost the music even though most of Alan Menken, Tim Rice, and Howard Ashman’s songbook is still here (they’ve even added a few curdling new ones that attempt to replicate “Let It Go” for Jasmine). But whereas “A Whole New World” was breathtaking as a child in ’92 and is still breathtaking as an adult with its harmonic blending of Broadway styled romance and blissful animation, in “live-action” Massoud and Scott are clearly sitting in front of a blue screen, it’s as banal as humming in the shower. But even then it’s still a step up from how director Guy Ritchie stages most of the early musical numbers.
A showy filmmaker in his own right, Ritchie was an interesting choice to helm Aladdin considering that none of his gangster movies are what one would call family-friendly, and even his Sherlock Holmes flicks had more dirt under their fingernails than Disney’s regular output, however that also seemed like an opportunity. The guy who loves streetwise movies is making the remake about everyone’s favorite street rat. Alas, the first act is the deadliest and most incoherent in the picture. Less successfully tapping into ‘90s Disney Renaissance nostalgia, the beginning veers closer to less cherished memories of ‘90s ABC movies of the week whenever someone begins to sing. Usually a kinetic filmmaker, the boredom Ritchie exudes for the material is only matched by his visceral discomfort in bashfully following Massoud, Scott, or Smith as they walk around strangely cramped sets while belting it out.
This is not to say that the movie is a complete mess. In actuality, a number of the dance scenes quixotically attain the vitality the singing sequences do not, with the centerpiece of the film being a party Aladdin attends and where Smith’s Genie acts more like a bro-y wingman than Williams’ paternal goofball. Meshing Middle Eastern styled dance with Bollywood theatricality, it is a successful detour from the original ’92 movie that is genuinely fun with eye-popping Michael Wilkinson costumes—so much so they do an encore during the end credits—and hints that there could’ve been a version of the Aladdin remake that had its own identity.
The few true amusing sequences in the film, indeed, are original to this version, including Jasmine and Aladdin’s screwball comedy antics sprinkled throughout the picture that gives the princess a lot more autonomy, as well as gives SNL’s Nasim Pedrad the chance to riff off Smith in the background. And Smith himself succeeds at making the Genie his own whenever he’s allowed to play the character as, well, Will Smith in a top-knot and turban. But every so often, he has to hit the same beats as Williams, including playing the mini-characters Williams created in the ’92 movie’s songs by way of spontaneity, and the energy immediately dissipates with Smith’s star persona being contrasted against Williams’ genius–one only animation could keep up with.
Among the rest of the cast, Naomi Scott is a standout and makes Jasmine the other highlight of the film, and she further makes a persuasive case that she’s better than the material she’s offered here. Massoud by comparison is passable enough to wear the dreamy smile and get the film from point A to B, just don’t squint too long when he and Genie attempt to have heart-to-hearts.
But getting from the beginning to the end is all the film hopes to achieve, even if it has to crawl before it’s over. A product that attempts to tap into millennial happy glands like Beauty and the Beast, it is an even more the streamlined and immaculately designed theme park ride that attempts to remind you of a movie you once loved. Only this one is largely executed with the dispassion of a workmanlike country carnival. Young ones can still enjoy it, and for parents of the right age, there might be a tinge at remembering the classic, or simply when Will Smith was in good movies. But if you expect magic in this carpet ride, you’re going to get rolled.
Aladdin is in theaters on May 24.