2/10 As Disney plumbs ever deeper into its vault of classic- and renaissance-era features to remake live — or, “live” — it will inevitably begin to withdraw properties that will take more effort to translate into live-action or that make less sense in this peculiar socio-political environment than they did 30 years ago. What is not inevitable, but what has certainly come to pass, is the studio will put less and less effort into these remakes even as they require more over time, opting less for re-imaginings and more for slightly dressier versions of the classic cartoons.
So while this decade started with movies like like Alice in Wonderland, the Tim Burton passion project that unexpectedly grossed $1 billion worldwide and made all of this necessary, Snow White and the Huntsman, which added a melancholy Gothicism to its source material, and Maleficent, which completely re-arranges its story, it is ending with uninspired, bitterly sardonic remakes like Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast.
But Aladdin isn’t sardonic that way, it doesn’t carry that same thinly veiled hatred of its audience and itself. For the most part, it doesn’t carry any emotion at all.
Under the perpetually full moon of Agrabah, impoverished street urchin Aladdin (Mena Massoud) makes his living as a pickpocket. His world is thrown into chaos thrice – first by love when Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) visits him in disguise, then by greed when grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) recruits him to journey into
the Cave of Wonders the mouth of this weird sand-tiger that’s never explained, and finally by power when he takes command of the omnipotent Genie of the lamp (Will Smith).
Aladdin is completely lifeless. To watch this movie all the way through is to hook a heartrate monitor up to a days-old corpse and stare for 128 minutes at the flat line. Character designs range from boring to, in the genie’s case, grotesque, and at times, their costumes don’t seem to fit properly. Even minor stunts are shot and edited evasively. For the most part, songs, and even some dialogue, are synched poorly, and the words don’t appear to be coming out of characters’ mouths. The colors are diluted, and the whole movie is ugly.
The acting, with the exception of a few scenes, is absolutely terrible. It looks like this is everyone’s second or third read-through of the script and they’re not off-book yet.
I almost never go after actors, because it’s almost never the actors’ fault, and it’s clearly not the actors’ fault here. This is a directorial problem. Despite a five-month shooting schedule and reshoots on top of that, scenes seem to have been blocked and shot for expediency and the cast mostly seems confused and unprepared for their roles.
What makes it so eerie is the almost complete lack of movement. Everyone is standing stiff as boards, rarely and barely incorporating their bodies and faces into the performances. You can count on one hand the number of times you actually see characters walking in a scene. It’s as if they’re wearing cement boots – and given that everyone’s almost always shot from the knees up, they might have been.
The entire plot seems to have been re-designed around building as few sets and incorporating as few special effects as possible. They obviously built the town square space needed for the “Prince Ali” scene, but all the alleyways of Agrabah seem to be offshoots of that one square. The palace rooms are lavish in their way, but many of the “cement boot” scenes take place in those spaces, so we don’t really get to see them. The Cave of Wonders, which seems to be physically composed entirely of treasure in the 1992 film, has become a dimly lit dungeon of puke-grey rocks, with small amounts of jewels barely noticeable atop them.
Where it becomes most apparent is the climactic scene after Jafar has acquired the lamp, which is reduced to one long scene in the palace’s great hall in which, again, everybody is just standing stiff as boards and talking. The genie doesn’t grow into a colossus and hoist the palace onto a nearby mountain, Jafar doesn’t turn into a giant snake and breathe fire, the movie doesn’t indulge itself in any way. Everything is kept to a lazy, uncinematic minimum, which feels like a callous swindle in a $183 million event movie.
Where the hell was director Guy Ritchie? The talk at the time of his hiring was that Aladdin would be told in a non-linear format, which is something seen often in Ritchie’s filmography, but that’s much more a factor of screenplay than direction. The slow motion choreography he’s really known for shows up once or twice, but never with real performers because, again, it’s obvious that nobody was prepared to do any kind of stuntwork here.
And Aladdin really isn’t non-linear at all. It’s just got a prologue scene for “Arabian Nights,” which was an absolute necessity anyway as a beloved song.
From that opening credits scene alone, it’s easy to tell that Aladdin is going to have massive control of information problems. It’s held over one long shot that’s actually pretty cool, folding space to track Aaddin’s monkey, Abu, through Agrabah, into the palace where we see Jasmine and her tiger, Rajah, then overtop of the palace where Jafar stands at the Cave of Wonders, which eats some fool and cryptically tells him to find Aladdin.
So there’s no establishment of what’s going on in any way, there’s just suddenly a tiger made out of sand that’s giving unfollowable instructions. This massive re-arrange serves no story purpose, but fits with Aladdin’s apparent aversion to major special effects, which is, again, a massive cheat.
This plot change is one of many to make way for new scenes, though it’s actually kind of tough to tell where that time went – we’re going from a 90 to a 128 minute runtime from original to adaptation, and the new additions are pretty small. The biggest is a song for Jasmine, “Speechless,” in which she says in two parts that she will not be. This is in line with other Disney remakes’ flaccid attempts at injecting rudimentary feminist theory into the inherently sexist genre they’re tied to, and as much as it deserves scorn for being so abject, it’s actually one of the movie’s better scenes. Scott is the only member of the cast who can actually sing, and this is her only scene in which she’s allowed to actually act.
But the best changes are brief moments with Jafar in which he tells Aladdin that he used to be a bottom feeder himself, working his way up from stealing. This pays off in a later scene when Jafar takes off his grand vizier robes, puts on hood clothes, stalks Aladdin and picks the lamp from his pocket, instead of having it handed to him by his parrot.
This addition, though again it’s heartlessly in line with trends of the Disney remakes, adds a lot of depth to a story that really didn’t have any. Making Jafar a direct foil for Aladdin brings their already-existing parallels into much sharper relief – Aladdin’s desire to become a prince is just a younger man’s version of Jafar’s desire to become the sultan. As Aladdin is slowly consumed by power, he is set squarely across from a villain who already has been.
Additionally, as part of her feminism-ization, Jasmine now also wants to become sultan herself, meaning all three principal characters are now vying for the same position. As horrible as this film is and as little as it capitalizes on this opportunity, Aladdin does have a much stronger base plot than its source material.
Whether or not Aladdin qualifies as woke is a fairly interesting topic. As much as its injected feminism backs itself into being part of the movie’s best attributes, it’s haphazard at the best of times, but what’s much more important is the racial breakdown of the cast, which many were watching closely during development. The biggest uproar was over the London-born Scott’s casting – Scott has Gujarati Indian heritage on her mother’s side, the big deal being that India is not thought of as part of the Middle East. The answer to this was rather thoughtful – this version of Agrabah is intended to be a port city on the Silk Road comprised of all the cultures along it, which includes India.
I don’t think that’s remotely the point here, though. I honestly don’t understand “cultural appropriation” as a concept, it seems like something that’s very inconsistently applied, but if the argument against Scott’s casting is that she doesn’t have the cultural background to portray Ancient Persia authentically, no one else does either. Massoud is a native Egyptian, but he grew up going to Catholic school just outside of Toronto. Kenzari was born to a Tunisian family in Holland, and Smith, obviously, was born and raised in West Philadelphia. These guys grew up just as far from the Silk Road as Scott did, but they have the correct skin color and Arabic-sounding names, so they got a pass here.
I think the point isn’t to hire people at the acting level who supposedly have the cultural background required to accurately represent a culture that no one remembers, especially in this particular case when that culture never existed at all. I think the point is to make sure dark-skinned performers, people who look like they could be ancient Persians now and are frequently overlooked as moviestars, don’t get boxed out in favor of white people – and even skin color is a poor standard here when you consider that the fairest-skinned cast member, Nasim Pedrad, is a first-generation immigrant from Tehran.
So this isn’t even a situation where you can’t cast any white people. Just, you know, don’t do blackface.
And yeah, they did blackface. This is a side-by-side of Scott from Power Rangers and Scott from Aladdin.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.