Disney’s latest live-action remake feels the most manufactured yet; a production-line retread with the weakest of new additions to justify its existence (and bloated running time). Unlike previous retellings of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast and even this year’s lacklustre Dumbo, the singular voice of its director - Guy Ritchie takes the chair here - is nowhere to be found among the efficient but bland filmmaking.
Mena Massoud stars as the titular street thief who discovers a magical lamp, summoning forth a genie (Will Smith) to help him win the heart of the lonely Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). Marwan Kenzari plays the wickedly covetous Jafar, who has his own designs on the throne.
Massoud (making his major Hollywood debut) comes as close as one could get to a live-action clone of the animated Aladdin, like a piece of photoreal fan art brought to life. Scott’s Jasmine gives the film some semblance of a beating heart, all piercing eyes and mischievous smirks. Her occasional tendency to over-act is a much-needed life raft against the tidal wave of boredom that is Kenzari’s Jafar.
Delivering every line with a latent drawl (and whose main signifier of power-hungry rage is a slight widening of the eyes), Kenzari can at least be commended for conjuring the dullest screen villain of the decade.
The difficult hurdle with this film was always going to be the Genie, portrayed with such unmatchable vigour by Robin Williams in the 1992 classic. The casting of Will Smith inspired incredulity, then mockery once preliminary images appeared of the Men In Black star looking like a member of the Blue Man Group who got lost in the uncanny valley. From a casting director’s point of view, one sees the appeal: at one point, Smith was the most appealing showman in Hollywood, and the role of Genie demands such an all-singing, all-dancing act.
To his great credit, he just about pulls it off. ‘Realistic’ CGI can never quite capture the squash-n-stretch genius of the Williams’ original, but Smith’s heart is clearly in it. His first few minutes of screen-time are the films finest, soured only by a ghastly piece of self-referential corporate branding which sees a version of the Disneyland castle make its way onto an ancient map.
Producing Genie as a digital being comes at a cost. The budget leftover from such a massive creation shows its limit in the fuzzy outlines around Jasmine’s tiger and the flatness of certain blue-screened landscapes. Ironically, ‘live action’ Genie is the one thing that works because of a similarity to the cartoon source, while almost everything else is strangled by the change in format. The exaggerated archetypal design of the characters (from the proportionally dubious Sultan to Jafar’s whole-body sneer) can only be achieved through animation: here, the human cast are largely distinguishable by which particular beard and turban arrangement they have, and the colourful costumes are muted by dim colour-grading.
The nadir of this is best exemplified in the “Whole New World” sequence - what should be the centrepiece of the film, the flight of fantasy that shows Jasmine the incredible beauty beyond her own four walls (and gives Disney another excuse to push their karaoke-friendly chart-topper). In hand-drawn form: a sweeping joyride through painterly and impressionistic landscapes. In this new version, one may as well be blindfolded. A city at night with substantial cloud cover and all the lights turned off isn’t particularly exciting when rendered photorealistically - who’d have thought?
There’s a Bohemian Rhapsody-esque appeal of hearing the classic showtunes revamped by the finest sound engineering Mickey’s money can buy, and Jasmine also has her agency solidified with a new song, “Speechless”. But musical numbers like these demand more than coldly competent direction and flat camerawork no better than countless stage productions. There’s no real life to them, and that raises this critic’s prevailing question: where is writer-director Guy Ritchie in all this?
It’s certainly true that his particular brand of louty swagger is the last thing you’d want in a supposedly progressive version of this story, but the visual razzmatazz of his joyous Sherlock Holmes movies are sorely missed. If singular directors having their identity stamped out is the price we pay for Disney’s crowd-pleasing reheats, this whole new world looks very dark indeed.
Aladdin opens nationwide in UK cinemas today and in the US on Friday.