The first thing you notice about this $180m live-action reboot of Disney’s beloved 1992 animation is the unexpected poverty of its visuals. The set design has an end-of-year school play vibe, all gaudy colours and plywood walls stuck together with adhesive. It feels more Disneyland than Disney.
The widespread scepticism that greeted Guy Ritchie’s installment as director is vindicated by some jarring editing, with Aladdin jittering his way around Agrabah like a stickman in a child’s flip-book.
Will Smith’s Genie has an easy, campy charm – I wouldn’t be surprised if Smith looked to Queer Eye for inspiration – but it’s undercut by some frankly weird design choices. The animated Genie was a gelatinous figure; Smith’s version is so hench he looks steroidal.
Though Smith is the main attraction, his Genie is surprisingly downtempo, stripped of the hyper-manic energy Robin Williams brought to the role. Jasmine (Naomi Scott) and Aladdin (Mena Massoud) fare better: the two have a sparky chemistry that carries them through some dud scenes, and Scott proves herself to be the best singer on cast with a feminist ballad called Speechless.
But while Ritchie and his screenwriters have been prudent in leaving much unchanged, the alterations that are made leave the film feeling strangely soulless, evacuated of the charm the original. Particularly galling is the way the whipsmart humour of the animation – which featured actual jokes, with setups, tension and punchlines – has been traded for the same ‘awkward’ comedic aesthetic that permeates so much modern comedy. The joke format is the same each time: Aladdin makes a verbal mishap, Jasmine looks baffled, the Genie winces and makes some lame wisecrack. Ctrl C, Ctrl V.
Disney is now in the recycling business, with seven live-action remakes already released and another thirteen in the pipeline. Twenty – that’s all of them, more or less, and there’s something enervating in having to judge each on their merits, rather than as the bloodless profit-maximising strategy of a corporate monolith. The problem isn’t that Aladdin is a bad movie, though it isn’t a good one. It’s that what’s enjoyable about it is largely what has been retained from the original – the carnivalesque street parade that hails Aladdin’s return to Agrabah, for instance – and what’s irksome is that which has been added or changed. A pointless film is somehow even worse than a poor one.