'Aladdin' Review: A Well-Meaning But Hollow Remake Of A Classic

At a crucial juncture in the new live-action Aladdin, our eponymous hero is in the puffed-up guise of a fancy prince, supposedly encountering the comely Princess Jasmine for the first time. In reality, though, they've met before even as Aladdin is trying to pretend otherwise. In this moment, Aladdin is hopelessly tongue-tied, desperate to please but failing at just about every moment, valiant effort aside. Such is the experience of Aladdin in a microcosm. This film is desperate to please, and trying very hard to do so. And it comes up short almost every chance it gets.If you know the 1992 animated classic from Walt Disney Animation Studios, you can take comfort in already knowing the story of this Guy Ritchie-directed version. There is once again a Middle Eastern kingdom named Agrabah, a friendly homeless thief (Mena Massoud) who's the one person to descend into a mysterious cave to retrieve a lamp with a wish-granting Genie (Will Smith) inside, and a fair princess (Naomi Scott) to fall in love with. And there's once again a nefarious figure named Jafar (Marwen Kenzari) who wants power, and the lamp, for himself. On the surface, at least, little has changed between the original and remake versions.The new qualities in Aladdin that can't be found in its animated forebear mostly revolve around the use of CGI. Aladdin still has a chattering monkey friend named Abu, Jasmine has a pet tiger named Rajah, Jafar has his parrot Iago, and of course, there's the fast-moving and fast-talking Genie. But where hand-drawn animation once was able to bring to life such impossible wonders with fluidity and dexterity, CG has rendered it mostly distracting, if not outright unnerving. Smith, as energetic as he was in his early movie-star days, isn't able to overcome the intensely creepy sense that the CG version of the Genie just doesn't look right. When the Genie transforms himself into a human, it's all well and good; when he's CG, the effect calls to mind the uncomfortable qualities of Tom Hanks in The Polar Express. It just looks wrong and unpleasant.Throughout Aladdin, there's an unfortunate sense that the supposedly freeing abilities of computer effects serve as limitations to this fantastical story. As in the 1992 film, there's a number of songs, with the key romantic ballad "A Whole New World" sung by Aladdin and Jasmine as they ride on a flying magic carpet through various memorable world locations. But this version of "A Whole New World" seems more hollow because of the unavoidable green-screen effects enabling Massoud and Scott to fly through the sky. It's difficult to swept up in a romantic fantasy when every frame of the film serves as a reminder of how quickly the fantasy evaporates.Ritchie may seem an odd choice for bringing a Disney animated musical to life, and there aren't as many surprises up his sleeve as you may hope. Of the various musical sequences, the only one with any true energy is "Prince Ali". It's as colorful and detailed as anything in the original film, and the jittery camerawork and editing seem to calm down a bit to let us simply enjoy the Genie-conjured spectacle for a few moments. "Prince Ali" is, in point of fact, a moment where Ritchie stops trying to force the movie to be fun, and simply allows the naturally enjoyable number to work as it should.Too often in Aladdin, there's a distinct lack of fun. Kenzari, charming a couple years ago in Murder on the Orient Express, offers a more muted take on Jafar, either because of his own work or because of the script, by Ritchie and John August. Understandably, this version of Jafar is less a Middle Eastern caricature; in his place, though, is a stiff and unfortunately lifeless baddie. Even the new version of Iago, voiced by Alan Tudyk, is constantly just...a parrot. Where Gilbert Gottfried was given freer reign to be naturally funny, Tudyk is hemmed in by the script and the photorealistic effects that never fail to remind us that this Iago is a parrot, not a bulbous-eyed chatterbox.Massoud and Scott, as Aladdin and Jasmine, are charming on their own, in spite of their characters still not being very interesting. Jasmine's written somewhat differently in this film — she has mercifully bigger goals than simply marrying for love. But a new song by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, meant to reflect her frustration at being a woman in a Middle Eastern culture that doesn't value her voice, is well-meaning and hollow. The two performers look the part, they try their best, but they're let down both by the script and the needs of a remake hitting all the familiar beats.Could Aladdin have been worse? In that it could've featured a cameo from Michael Buffer saying "Let's get ready for Dumbo", sure. (That, as you may recall, happened just two months ago in the Dumbo remake, and let us never speak of it again.) But this film suffers the way that most of the Disney remakes of late have suffered: it's unable to have its own identity, and unwilling to fully embrace being a shot-for-shot remake of something so many people fell in love with as children. Like the many jewels and gold pieces in the Cave of Wonders, Aladdin is a hollow gem that falls apart as soon as you touch it./Film Rating: 4 out of 10