Back in 1992, Disney’s animated version of Aladdin was one of their biggest hits both critically and financially during the studio’s pivotal renaissance era. And it’s easy to see why: Ron Clements and John Musker’s version was fun and entertaining enough for the whole families, complete with memorable songs (particularly “A Whole New World”) and scene-stealing supporting turn by Robin Williams as Genie, who famously improvised most of his lines in the movie.
Flash forward to 2019, we are now in an era where Disney prefers to play safe by mining their own vault of previously-filmed animated features and turn them into live-action versions. Frankly, there is nothing wrong with that. I enjoyed watching the likes of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella (2015) and Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016). But others like Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast (2017) as well as both Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) and his recent Dumbo didn’t exactly work out for me. It pains me to say that the live-action version of Aladdin falls into the latter category.
The plot is more or less the same as the 1992 animated version, with only a few minor tweaks here and there. It even gives me a feeling like watching a shot-for-shot remake and this begs me the ultimate question: What’s the point of hiring a maverick director like Guy Ritchie anyway? If you are looking for some sort of originality, you won’t really find it here. Because just about everything that Ritchie did here is a strictly by-the-book formula. Straight out from Disney’s commercially-manufactured assembly line designed to please even for the casual moviegoers. He’s more like a work for hire than a director granted with some creative freedom. Or maybe Disney knew if they would have given him a free ticket to do whatever he wants, the result might be as overly radical as King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, the 2017 epic fantasy-adventure that failed to impress both critically and financially in the box office.
Cast-wise, it was a mixed bag of results. Mena Massoud looks the part, at least in terms of physically speaking, as the titular Aladdin. He certainly proves himself to be quite adept in performing various parkour and other stunt-oriented scenes. But it’s a pity that his acting is disappointingly bland and so does his singing voice. Naomi Scott fares better as Princess Jasmine, displaying a right degree of sass and spunkiness to her role. In fact, she’s the only one in the cast that impresses me the most.
As Jafar, Marwan Kenzari is nothing more than your average one-dimensional villain. Now for Will Smith, whose appearance as the new Genie has already provoked a huge amount of controversy even before the release of the movie. One thing for sure, he’s definitely no Robin Williams and while I appreciate that he doesn’t try to ape Williams’ motormouthed delivery seen in 1992’s Aladdin, Smith’s trademark of wisecracking dialogues only work in a sporadic manner. In terms of physical appearance, he looks fine whenever Smith’s Genie transformed into a normal human being but looks distinctively weird in a blue body, complete with toned muscles.
Technically speaking, Disney has certainly invested a lot of money in bringing the live-action version of Aladdin to vivid life. Kudos go to Gemma Jackson’s lush production design, who successfully captured the colourful world of Middle Eastern cityscape of Agrabah. Whereas Ritchie falters in his formulaic storytelling where he co-wrote alongside John August, he still manages to prove his worth in terms of employing lively camerawork. Save for Smith’s off-putting blue-bodied Genie, the rest of the CG effects are both visually impressive and vibrantly realised.
Now, if only the movie is as good as its sumptuous production values. Aladdin would mark the second time in a row after Dumbo a few months ago that I felt disappointed over Disney’s less-than-stellar results of turning their animations into live-action features. Which makes me wonder, is Jon Favreau’s upcoming live-action version of The Lion King this July would suffer the same ill-fated result? Only time will tell.