Disney’s live-action version of its popular animated musical Aladdin (1992) has some inspired moments and a pair of winsome leads, but it can never avoid redundancy. Did the remake genie need to be released into the ether at all? Not on the strength of the new film, at least.
Guy Ritchie, known for zinger-laden British gangster comedies, two Sherlock Holmes updates and a disposable King Arthur movie, is an odd fit for a Disneyfied version of the Arabian Nights folktale. Aladdin, the orphan thief who steals the heart of a princess and gets his hands on a magic lamp in which lives a wish-fulfilling genie, inspired several movies before Disney took control. Disney’s animated film from 1992 had dazzling animation, kinetic pacing, fabulous voice work, and a foot-tapping soundtrack. Most of all, it had the late lamented Robin Williams, who memorably played the garrulous and shapeshifting genie who single-handedly provided the humour and visual gags.
Most of the elements have been retained in the remake. Ritchie keeps the momentum going by designing the action like an obstacle course in a video game. The racially diverse cast has been chosen to bring the original tale closer to its roots. The songs have been reimagined as interludes that pop up with Bollywoodian regularity.
The revisionist storytelling gives more prominence to Jasmine, the princess of the fictional Agrabah kingdom. A slinky and swooning type in the animated production, Jasmine now wants to be taken seriously and rule, and is portrayed with spark and charm by Naomi Scott. Mena Massoud is in good form too as Aladdin, the pickpocket and thief who passes himself off as a high-born prince with the genie’s help.
The challenge of replacing the genie falls on Will Smith, who works hard and yet barely works as a character. Portrayed both as a visual effects-aided apparition and in human form, the new genie is occasionally entertaining and always unnerving.
Marwan Kenzari has his moments as the evil vizier Jafar, who plots to steal Agrabah from Jasmine’s father (Navid Negahban) by controlling the genie. The actors inject considerable energy into familiar proceedings, and the computer-generated animals – the monkey Abu, the parrot Iago, and the tiger Rajah – pitch in too whenever required. Ritchie keeps the 128-movie moving along, but the musical numbers are poorly imagined, and the sets needed to have been more lavish to be truly transporting. The observation that you cannot dance and listen at the same time won’t cut any ice with Indian viewers, who know perfectly well than you can do both.