Film Review: Aladdin (2019)

Going into this year’s live-action remake of Aladdin, I was full of misgivings. The trailers really didn’t do the film any favours, and it looked like it was going to be a very cheap-looking film. Having watched the film, I can say that some of those fears were ultimately realized; the film, for its enormous budget, does often appear awfully small. This is, ultimately, the problem of producing this particular type of fantasy film in a “real” environment. While 2-D animation allows for a truly magical world to explode to life on the screen, these live-action/CGI hybrids, somewhat paradoxically, are often strangely limited in their representation.

For all of that, I actually found myself enjoying the film more than I anticipated, and a great deal of that enjoyment stems from the undeniable charisma and chemistry of the three leads: Aladdin (Mena Masoud), Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and of course the Genie (Will Smith). Masoud is, to put it bluntly, absolutely adorable, and he really seems to have fun in the role. He’s charming and awkward in all of the right ways. Scott, likewise, brings a political bite to the character of Jasmine that wasn’t really present in the original; in fact, she wants to be sultan in her own right, rather than settling as a consort.

And, for his part, Will Smith really owns the role of the Genie. Since no one could ever compare to the screwball, rapid-fire power that Robin Williams brought to the role, Smith opts instead to make it his own. There’s no denying that Smith has that certain sort of charm that has made him such a compelling star for so long, and he brings all of that to bear as Genie. Admittedly, it is still rather odd to see him as the big blue character but, thankfully, the film frequently opts to show him as a fully human character, which mitigates that strangeness.

Plot-wise, film hits the same points as the 1992 film, though there are a few significant differences. For one thing, the film fleshes out Jafar’s backstory–making him a former pickpocket who clawed his way up to the pinnacle of political power. However, that backstory just doesn’t do enough to lift the character into the same realm as he was in the animated film. Marwan Kenzari is fine as far as he goes, but he lacks the screen heft to do anything new or interesting with the role. (Though I hate to say it, his voice just isn’t the right fit for Jafar. Jonathan Freeman, who voiced the character in the 1992 film, made him a far, far more interesting villain). And, unfortunately, this Jafar is significantly less queer than his predecessor.

This defanging of a villain is very much in keeping with the other live-action remakes that we have seen or are going to see. Luke Evans, bless him, doesn’t even come close to capturing the hyperbolic and camp masculinity of his predecessor, and it looks like Scar of the new The Lion King will lack the scenery-chewing queerness of Jeremy Irons’s rendition of the character. While some might greet this as a good thing, I beg to differ, as it robs these villains of the very thing that makes them so compelling and, well, fun.

That’s not to say that Aladdin isn’t fun. Unencumbered by the slavish devotion to re-staging every scene (the fatal flaw of Beauty and the Beast) and with Guy Ritche at the helm, the film is very confident in itself. Ritchie has a very distinctive visual style, and while I wouldn’t say that Aladdin puts these to maximal effect, there are a few flourishes that stand out. And, aside from everything else, Aladdin is just a fun film, one that doesn’t always take itself so seriously.

Enjoyable as it is, it’s worth pointing out that the film still has its problems with representation. Like its predecessor, this film trades (very unreflexively) in Orientalism. As a friend of mine pointed out, it’s just sort of a mishmash of sundry “Eastern” cultures, with no real sense of cultural specificity. Thus, whatever strides forward it makes in terms of racial representation–the cast is, thankfully, almost completely non-white–is undercut by these other issues. As that same friend pointed out, it would definitely help Disney to have a few people in positions of power to point out how woefully tone-deaf they can be (though I’m still not convinced it’s possible to do a version of this story that isn’t fundamentally Orientalist). While we’re on the subject of race: what in the hell was Billy Magnusson doing in that movie? Seriously, does anyone know?

Overall, I’d say that Aladdin is a fine remake. If this is the direction in which Disney is taking these live-action remakes, I think that bodes well for how successful The Lion King will be. Will it hold up the way that it’s predecessor has? Probably not, but for now, it’s an enjoyable enough magic carpet ride.

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