Oh, it’s 2019, and Disney has a dream
One that’s been successful before
One that’s not risky or bold
It’s commerical, but hey, it works
When a film’s got so old
In 2D it was told
And the fans may just have forgotten
Buy a ticket, join the hoards
To see something you’ve seen before –
Another Disney live-action remake!
Disney is once again riding the nostalgia train across our screens with Aladdin, the 2019 remake of the 1992 Disney animation, which tried to whisk away its viewers on a magical CGI-carpet ride and revive the love for the original film. Unfortunately, Aladdin is certainly no diamond in the rough of Disney’s growing army of live-action remakes for its misguided direction, poorly conceived villains, questionable CGI and Americanising whitewash of its setting and characters. Despite a kaleidoscopic production design, hearty humour and new narrative additions, Aladdin felt like it was trying too hard to capture the wonder of its 1992 counterpart and ultimately left much to be desired.
Set in the fictional Arabian kingdom of Agrabah, Aladdin follows the story of a resourceful, debonair street urchin named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and his monkey Abu who, after meeting and catching feelings for a disguised Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), is captured by Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the dastardly grand vizier, sorcerer and chief advisor to The Sultan (Navid Neghaban), and persuaded to recovery a magical lamp from the mystical Cave of Wonders. After being betrayed and left stranded in the desert by Jafar, Aladdin unwittingly rubs the lamp and awakens a wisecracking and charismatic Genie (Will Smith) who grants Aladdin three wishes. Together, Aladdin sets on a quest to win Princess Jasmine’s heart by pretending to be a prince.
A remake is a retelling of an already established film updated for a new genre, audience, technology or even medium. I believe a good remake is one that finds a balance between honouring the original film, while not wholly copying it, and taking the story in a new direction, while not losing its essence or core. However, Aladdin failed in this effort because it lost the charm and wonder of the original while not fully exploring the new directions to take the story. Remaking a film like Aladdin is a noble effort and allows filmmakers to rewrite some problematic racial, gender and ethnic representations in the 1992 film. Apart from having an all white voice cast, the original Aladdin portrayed Arabian culture and its male characters as generally barbaric and uncivilised while sexualising and objectifying its female characters (particularly Jasmine), emphasising their bodies over their characters. These are colonial cinematic tropes riddled throughout American cinema, especially Disney with its overt racism rearing its ugly head time and time again from Dumbo (1941) to Peter Pan (1953) to The Jungle Book (1967) to The Aristocats (1970). I can understand why remakes of such films could be necessary – to disempower and rewrite these racist, misogynist, colonial and white supremacist agendas present in Disney’s vault.
However, in attempting to provide a more positive and enchanting feel to Arabia, the film essentialised Arabian/Middle Eastern culture as chaotic, exotic and calamitous for the sake of dazzling entertainment. Agrabah felt like a mirage or a façade, it didn’t feel like a real place where real people live. So Disney, in trying to undo and rewrite the problematic representations of race, gender, culture, religion and ethnicity of your past, is the answer really to retell the same story and inevitably make similar mistakes? Instead of fixating on these problematic blunders, Disney should rather focus on crafting new stories that celebrate and empower characters of colour and female characters from different nationalities, religions, ethnicities and cultures. Films like Moana, Brave, and Coco come to mind. We don’t need a new Aladdin – we need new stories with new characters to tell them from fresh perspectives outside of the usual white, Euro-American-centric tradition. It would truly open up a whole new world.
That being said, Aladdin did offer an interesting addition to the film’s story in the greater narrative prominence and character depth given to Princess Jasmine. Naomi Scott plays Jasmine with great tenacity, elegance and confidence, and the character serves a broader purpose than just being Aladdin’s love interest. Jasmine here has a strong and bold mind of her own and refuses to be silent and controlled by the men in her life. She even has her own song ‘Speechless’ that honours a truly three-dimensional and fleshed out character. Giving Jasmine this greater prominence is a massive improvement of her 1992 portrayal, even if it immediately prompts comparison with that problematic portrayal.
Speaking of strong acting, I must highlight Will Smith’s thoroughly enjoyable take on the Genie. Smith brought such humour, charisma and enthusiasm to the role that he stole every scene. His CGI-blue version was not as endearing as his human version, but casting Smith as the Genie was a fantastic decision. Of course, it is incomparable to Robin Williams’s voice performance in 1992, but Smith didn’t try to emulate this. He brought a fresh new energy to the role and was a major redeeming factor. Mena Massoud gave a competent performance as the kind-hearted Aladdin, but his heavily Americanised accent too felt cartoonish and out of place. The same could be said of Smith’s positionality as the Genie.
The costumes and make-up were very much caricatured, but successfully accentuated the characters and their personalities while also being used to illustrate the thematic focus of class divides, power and wealth, and the true value of self-acceptance. The score was also breathtaking, although this film had all the groundwork for achieving this laid out for them in 1992. The mise-en-scene of Aladdin tried to be visually stunning and capture this element of the 1992 film; however, the film also suffered because of this nostalgic aspiration.
The settings of Agrabah felt fabricated and inauthentic. I felt like I was watching a live stunt performance of Aladdin at Disney World because the settings felt like soundstages where all the action had been perfectly choreographed beforehand, every foot landing in the right spot and every hair blowing in the right direction. It felt too pristine and rehearsed to feel real. This was most prominent during Aladdin’s song ‘One Jump Ahead’. The wide shots and editing used during this sequence were designed to show off the spectacular setting, but inadvertently exposed the façade masquerading as fictionalised reality. Other sets felt very exaggerated and cartoonish or almost entirely crafted with CGI, such as the Cave of Wonders. I was never fully enveloped into the world of the story because it felt gimmicky and cardboard-thin. Furthermore, CGI did not do wonders for Aladdin: Iago (Jafar’s macaw), Rajah (Jasmine’s Bengal tiger), Abu, and the lion-headed sand guardian of the Cave of Wonders all looked synthetic, artificial and even grotesque. Their CGI portrayal stripped away all personality they possessed in the original film (a similar issue plaguing Disney’s 2019 The Lion King) leaving them boring and superfluous.
Guy Ritchie as director was a bizarre choice as Aladdin is surely too far removed from Ritchie’s usual repertoire of British gangster and comedy crime films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998), Snatch (2000), and The Gentlemen (2019). Ritchie may be seeking to expand his cannon, which is commendable, but his direction was muddled and indecisive in this film. Aladdin lacked directorial ingenuity and generic understanding, most likely due to the seismic genre leap from gangster films to family-friendly fantasy adventure. When you strip away all the CGI, scenic spectacle and costumes, the story at its core is told in a blandly mediocre and disappointing way through its cautious fidelity to the original film. From the bravado and energy of Ritchie’s filmography, I expected Aladdin to pack more of a punch with more risks and excitement in its storytelling.
Aladdin’s greatest problem was that it tried far too hard to capture the charm and nostalgia of the original: it tried too hard to be a cartoon. A live-action remake needs to make allowances to more smoothly transition from 2D animation into the real world, but this film tried to directly reproduce the charm of the 1992 animation using a different medium. This is a near impossible task and there’s no wondering why Aladdin felt hollow and unsatisfying by its conclusion.
The performances by Scott, Smith and Massoud could have saved the film from this fate and made it feel more authentic; however, the poor casting and performance of Jafar, the only major antagonist in the film, tipped the scales in the opposite direction. Marwan Kenzari was awful as Jafar. He seemed perpetually confused as to where he wanted to take the character with his performance oscillating between extremes of stoic and icy to manic and livid. The resulting equilibrium culminated in an unconvincing and emotionless performance devoid of any commitment to developing the character. Ritchie was likely also unable to settle on a direction for Jafar, given the sizeable difference between Jafar and Ritchie’s other villains in his filmography.
The sinister, calculating, cunning and power-hungry Shakespearean villainy of Jafar in the 1992 film was completely lost and replaced with a bland, banal and boring character who failed to evoke fear and hatred from the audience. On the one hand you have Scott and Smith who are giving their all, and on the other hand you have Kenzari who is barely pretending to be the grand vizier. This stark contrast between the heroes and villain makes the tension and dramatic action feel cheap and unbelievable. When the villain fails, the stakes of the story fall flat and it becomes hard to become emotionally invested in the characters and their stories as it doesn’t feel they are ever in any real peril. Jafar and Iago were such iconic components of the 1992 film, but here they feel like dead weight dragging behind the rest of the cast.
Speaking of the cast, there has been some interesting criticism of the cast’s eclectic ethnicities all being collapsed into the homogenous label of ‘Arab’: Naomi Scott is Indian-British, Mena Massoud is Egyptian, Marwan Kenzari is Dutch-Tunisian, and Navid Neghaban is Iranian-American. Correctly representing the race, culture or ethnicity of fictional characters is incredibly important, but I also ask if the filmmakers are under a strict responsibility to cast only Saudi Arabian people. Don’t Indian, Egyptian, Tunisian and Iranian deserve an opportunity to star in a prominent Hollywood film? Additionally, Agrabah is a fictional kingdom set in a time where Arabia as we know it could have encompassed land where these other countries exist today. Trade at the time of Aladdin was presumably widespread and well established given the character evidence (eg: Billy Magnussen’s Prince Anders) and mention of other nations in the area with which Agrabah had been in contact. I don’t think it’s inconceivable that actors of Egyptian, Tunisian, Indian and Iranian heritage could play characters in a fictionalised version of Arabia. But it’s encouraging to hear that the filmgoing public is conscious and aware of the importance of cultural and racial representation in film.
Aladdin set out to dazzle and impress with vibrant colours, grand musical numbers and nostalgia for a beloved animated film. While it brought us some strong performances and aesthetic appeal, it ended up trying too hard to reincarnate the cartoonish charm of the original movie and accordingly lost its footing and slipped off of the CGI-carpet. If Disney is to continue their crusade of live-action remakes, it needs to hear this wake up call and understand that certain creative work needs to be done to smoothly arrive at a live-action film from an animated one. They generally succeeded with Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016) (the standard for Disney live-action CGI-based remakes), but spectacularly flopped with The Lion King remake, also directed by Favreau! Who knows what will hit our screens in the years to come, but Disney, if you want to decolonise a racist, misogynist, white supremacist and colonial vault, give us new stories like Moana and Coco, not nostalgic cash-grabbing remakes!
What did you think about the new Aladdin? Is Disney onto something with its new wave of live-actions remakes? Or is it time for some new original stories? Let me know in the comments!