Thursday, June 20, 2024

‘Aladdin’ Finds Magic in an Old Story

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Sweet jumping Jehoshaphat, Guy Ritchie did it. He pulled off the near-impossible: I finally enjoyed a Disney live-action adaptation. Aladdin isn’t great and it still has loads of issues—but it’s charming. Ritchie imbues the classic tale with a sense of fun and whimsical cheesiness. 

As it has been well documented, I am not a fan of Disney remaking it’s animation classics. Oftentimes great care has been taken to replicate the original scene for scene. This total disregard for how animation works versus how live-action works have gifted us some of the more brazenly boring mainstream offerings of the past few years.

Aladdin is no different. Largely the same story as the original animated classic, it has an additional hurdle altogether. The shadow of Robin Williams as the Genie looms large over Ritchie’s production. The casting of Will Smith in the role was a smart one. Loveable and goofy, Smith has the movie star charisma necessary to carry a film like Aladdin.

But Ritchie and his writers try too hard to adhere to the source material. They ignore certain lines and moments written exclusively for Williams. The result is often a wonderful performance hampered by the shackles of a previous one. Who knows what might have been had Smith been allowed to give his own interpretation of the Genie; free from William’s shadow?

Yet, when Smith is allowed to be his own version of Genie, well it’s a whole new world. It helps that Smith is surrounded by a cast willing, if not permitted, to play to the rafters. Mena Massoud’s Aladdin is every bit as handsome and devil-may-care as his animated counterpart. Naomi Scott’s Princess Jasmine is given not just more to do, but also a handmaiden, Dalia (Nasim Pedrad).

The linchpin of the piece, aside from the big blue wonder, is, of course, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). The evil sorcerer who plots for the throne, possession of the lamp, and the Princess. So much plotting and yet so little vamping. For a live-action musical, though, Ritchie and his production designer have leaned into making the sets colorful. Still, animation has a lushness and a depth to its color that pales in comparison to the real thing. An overall subduedness hangs over the whole movie as a consequence.

Ritchie’s usual visual flair is kept largely in check. Shot by Alan Stewart, Aladdin looks and feels like a Broadway play being filmed. Part of the movie’s charm comes from how brightly lit the scenes are. Aladdin is lit more like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers minus the Technicolor pop than it’s live-action brethren. Stewart’s camera is nevertheless alive at times.

In the beginning, a family on a ship sits down to listen to a father tell a story. The camera raises up into the noon sky before turning a lush dark blue—the desert night. It zips across the desert as the credits roll. It’s not the reinvention of cinema. But compared to how staid Disney live-action movies have become it feels positively epic.

The little things are what separates Aladdin from the herd. Unlike Beauty and the Beast, it doesn’t waste precious run time trying to answer questions no one asked. An act that not only sunk Beauty and the Beast but only spawned more questions. Fairy tales are not logic puzzles which need to be solved. Ritchie and his team, in lieu of tying up loose ends, opt instead to flesh out characters.

Scott’s Jasmine is more politically minded than her animated counterpart. The script, written by Ritchie and John August, avoids the pitfall of making her abandon her dreams of ruling purely because of a handsome street rat. Jasmine’s desire to be Sultan comes not from her desire to rule, but to lead. She has a deep knowledge of Agrabah’s history combined with an abiding love for its people. Corny as it sounds, she views being the Sultan almost as a civic duty.

Late in the movie, she has the song “Speechless.” Ritchie, Stewart, and Scott come together for what is, hands down, the single best cinematic musical moment of the movie. A rousing anthem about self-confidence, sacrifice, and yes, girl power.

It’s easy to mock “girl power” because of how prevalent it has become. But let’s not forget that woman of color have largely been denied this particular cliche. Not to mention the reason we have been inundated with this particular trope is that men have for so long told women they did not have power.

Scott’s voice is quite frankly destined for Broadway. It has a rich full quality about it and she has charisma enough to spare. It is her performance that raises “Speechless” from “additional new song” to “anthem.”

Alas the musical aspect, while good, still suffers the fate most musicals these days suffer. Disney and non-Disney musicals alike seem willfully ignorant of how to capture a song and dance number. The “Prince Ali” number comes close to being a spectacle. But it is merely a live-action rendering of the original scene. 

Kinetic though it may be, it harkens back to the issue with understanding the difference between animation and live action. You can move quicker in animation than you can in real life. Real life uses fewer frames per second. Fewer frames equal slower movement. *

The movement itself is more fluid—again more frames. Hand drawn or even computer composite is about creating fluidity through lines and space. Real life has to deal with flesh and blood actors. While it may look pretty, an uncanny valley effect happens. It’s not so distracting as to detract from the energy of the number. Sadly, it is distracting enough to steal some of the thunder from Smith’s take on the infamous song.

In spite of all of this, I couldn’t help but have a good time. Sue me. Aladdin reminded me of an old television show from my childhood, Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre. My bone-deep cynicism was no match for the likes of a smirking Moussad and a gregarious Smith.

The whole cast shares a wonderful easy going nature with each other. During the introduction of Prince Ali to Princess Jasmine, Smith and Massoud have a nice back and forth. Aladdin can’t help but say only the wrong things at the wrong times. Genie acting as both friend and a Greek chorus can only stand by in awe of Aladdin’s self-destruction. “Some things magic can’t fix brother.”

On the other side, Jasmine and Dalia can only stare in sheer astonishment. Dalia does her best to sell the Prince while Jasmine seems torn between second-hand embarrassment and mild fury. The point is everyone has a point in the scene. The Sultan (Navid Negahban) is trying to help Aladdin not make an ass of himself while Jafar does what Jafar always does: he plots.

The tragedy of a talented cast hobbled by filmmakers showing fealty to the source material is the teasing hint of what might have been. Kenzari’s Jafar is a dashing figure with a magnetic presence. But we can tell he’s chomping at the bit to go broader. His Jafar is suitably evil and malevolent but had he been allowed to go big, indeed had any of them aside from Smith been allowed to, Aladdin would have fewer valleys and more peaks.

Aladdin, if nothing else, is a step towards correcting an egregious racist but beloved classic of my childhood. Amid the entire cast, there is not a single white character (except for a minor one) in the whole movie. Much like The Sun Is Also a Star, the lack of whiteness is positive and shows a world more recognizable to its audience. Though I wish the diversity would have spread to behind the camera. Baby steps I guess.

Aladdin is not a perfect movie. Like Venom and Justice League, what doesn’t work irks me and what does makes me giddy. Granted the movie has far more moments that make me giddy than didn’t. But in the end, Guy Ritchie shows us there is still magic in that old rusted oil lamp.

*Author’s Note: An earlier edition of this article incorrectly stated, or implied, animation had fewer frames than actual footage. The statement has been corrected.

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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