Subtlety has never been Guy Ritchie’s strong suit.
The director, best known for Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes franchise and getting away with naming a movie Snatch, relies heavily on swift action, snappy dialogue, and flashy, effects-driven editing to paint an ornate picture of the lower levels of society. Therefore, it’s kind of appropriate that Ritchie would want to take on a live-action remake of Aladdin, one of Disney’s most kinetic and lavish musicals, centered entirely around a street rat in disguise. Yet, try as he may, Ritchie fails to mesh his own style with that of the hand-drawn classic, resulting in an exquisite corpse of CGI nonsense.
Since it’s impossible to look at this movie and separate it from its earlier foundation, Ritchie could have shined by adapting the ornate production as his own. The best of the live-action Disney remakes have justified their existence by departing from their source material while staying true to their tone. But Aladdin’s script slavishly tries to hit every major beat of its predecessor, treating its musical numbers like mile markers, so its few additions stick out sorely.
The problem in replicating the 1992 animated classic, it seems, is that much of its zip comes from the pairing of Ron Clements and John Musker’s mastery of 2D animation and Robin William’s unforgettable performance as the big blue Genie. Try as Ritchie may, but these elements can’t be replicated, especially through an abundance of visual effects and a star as familiar as Will Smith. The Fresh Prince may be charismatic, but he doesn’t have the manic comic verve of Robin Williams, a detail emphasized by a script that works many of Williams’ timeless ad-libs into this Genie’s dialogue.
And yet, the first act of Aladdin is practically begging for any sort of flair at all. After establishing a fun but underutilized Princess Bride-like framing device via the young family of an unnamed Mariner (also played by Will Smith), the film kicks off with a flat rendition of “Arabian Nights.” Smith doesn’t have the singing voice to carry a song, nor is he assisted by Ritchie’s choice to pair it with uninspired aerial shots of the fictional kingdom of Agrabah. As far as musical numbers go, it’s better to be forgettable than downright bad, and the quality of this song soars above some of those to come.
It’s not long until we’re introduced to our titular hero, played by Mena Massoud, and our story kicks into (an admittedly low) gear. This version of the character could have been a bare-knuckled scoundrel that the director has effectively developed in the past, but is instead portrayed as a parkour-prodigy who’s about ten years too late to his own movie. Though he’s mostly confident and charming in his first thirty minutes of screen time, Massoud struggles to develop chemistry with Naomi Scott’s Princess Jasmine, herself a small ember of personality amongst a mostly bland cast. Since we already know the character doesn’t stand a chance with the royal daughter, Ritchie’s film bends over backwards to try and reestablish Aladdin as an awkward underdog for its last two acts.
After a few futile scenes establishing the laws of the land, Aladdin winds up in the hands of the nefarious Jafar, portrayed by a soft-spoken Marwan Kenzari. The villainous Vizier’s presence feels cartoonish and ultimately thin, lacking in the aloof wickedness of its animated counterpart, as if his large enchanted staff could make up for a missing personality. Jafar’s only purpose in Aladdin’s first half is to lure our hero into the Cave of Wonder, where one magic lamp rub later we’re introduced to the most abominable blue lump of CGI to hit the big screen this year. Sonic eat your heart out.
Unlike Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk or Andy Serkis’ Smeagol, the big blue Genie still maintains Will Smith’s face while his body has been replaced with a bulky, Mr. Universe-esque physique. Since the actor is one of the most recognizable stars in the world, anytime his apparition takes on this hulking blue form my brain couldn’t help but notice how off he looked. Attempts at grounding the squashing and stretching of animation through CGI creates an unnatural whiplash effect, treating the Genie, and those affected by his magic, like gooey ragdolls.
There are plenty of smaller moments where Aladdin tries to catch its breath, but unfortunately, that air is stodgy. Nasim Pedrad plays the Princess’ goofy handmaiden, but she isn’t given much to do aside from making googly-eyes at Smith. The Sultan of Agrabah has been stripped of the comical energy and portly figure of his cartoon precursor and replaced with a stoic verve from Navid Negahban. Even Billy Magnussen pops in for a couple of wildly out-of-place sequences, which fails to utilize the actor’s own history in musicals
This version of Aladdin retains all of the original’s songs, which were written by Alan Menken with lyrics by Tim Rice and Howard Ashman, but many have been reworked into big band marches or hip-hop adjacent remixes. Even “A Whole New World” is overlaid atop a dance-y drumbeat. The film’s one new song “Speechless,” a ballad that wastes Naomi Scott’s powerful voice and an opportunity for the Princess to receive her own moment of oomph, is nothing short of a travesty.
In the end, that’s exactly how Guy Ritchie’s live-action take on Aladdin feels, like a mirage of fake panache that wastes its potential. Considering the 1992 animated musical should debut on Disney’s upcoming streaming service around the same time this will probably hit Redbox, do yourself a favor and chose the former. At least its magic still feels real.
Guy Ritchie fails to mesh his own style with that of the hand-drawn classic, resulting in an Aladdin remake that's an exquisite corpse of CGI nonsense.