Whoever keeps hiring Guy Ritchie to make movies, please stop. When he burst onto the scene in 1998 with the indie gem Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, critics and audiences alike were enamored with his gritty, bludgeony style. But that gritty, bludgeony style, which has since become his sole calling card, doesn’t suit every project, and virtually every project that Ritchie has gotten his gritty, bludgeony mitts on has suffered as a result (the possible exception being Sherlock Holmes). To be completely honest, I’ve rarely met a Guy Ritchie film I truly liked. He’s a fixture in my “Useless Movie Directors” pile.
So, obviously, I already had a chip on my shoulder heading into the new, Ritchie-helmed live-action version of Aladdin, but as I told a friend prior to the press screening, “I would like nothing more than to be happily surprised and emerge with many positive feelings.” Well…. Nope. No positive feelings here.
Disney’s move to reinvent its delightful 1992 animated classic — which starred Robin Williams as an insanely funny, manic blue Genie, a sublimely malevolent villain, and a magic carpet with more gusto than your average Labradoodle — into a live-action movie musical, is yet another example of the studio putting greed ahead of artistry. It’s designed to print cash at the box office. And if audiences like it, it’s likely out of the need to convince themselves they enjoyed it rather than feel embarrassed for shelling out hard-earned cash for what amounts to a lousy desert storm.
The new Aladdin (★★) is a nonstop assault on the senses. And while it’s never dull — it goes in the opposite direction of the gob-stoppingly boring Dumbo — it offers further proof that the Mouse House should be much more selective in their quest to pillage their treasured, one-of-a-kind animated collection and create live-action, CGI-enhanced Frankenstein monsters out of them. Sometimes the gambit works: Jungle Book was unique enough that it transcended the original cartoon. And while Beauty and the Beast was, like Aladdin, a virtual point-by-point recreation of the original, the difference lies in the emotional depth of the core material. Beast — in its animated, live-action, and Broadway guises — is a tale fraught with full-on emotion. It has heft, connecting with us on a primal romantic level. Aladdin, though it contains romance, was always designed as light fare, more jaunty and playful than heartrending. It’s meant to be fun.
Ritchie doesn’t understand fun. He only understands bombast. He doesn’t know how to connect to an audience because he’s never mastered the artistry of film, simply the artistry of repeatedly throwing everything and the kitchen-sink at you until it breaks open your skull. There is some gee-whiz technical stuff here — an opening, single-tracking shot seems like a doozy of an achievement, but how much of it is real and how much is CGI? (Go watch Brian De Palma’s opener to Bonfire of the Vanities, accomplished without CGI and then tell me who the real master is.) The editing, choppy and unsettling, seems to have been achieved with a hacksaw. And the performances have far less dimension than the animated counterparts on which they’re based. It’s no small feat to ensure your human actors feel less real than cartoons, but Ritchie manages it with flying colors.
He is also a director in constant search of a top to go over. And then to go over the top he just went over. The movie needlessly piles on visual extravagance until we’re watching the equivalent of a design binge-purge. Aladdin is exhausting to watch, even in its slower moments. It’s way too much, all the time. By the time we make it to a sloppy climax that features, among other things, a crazy chase for possession of the magic lamp, a Mothra-sized parrot, and much smashing of marketplace vendor stalls (I hope their insurance premiums were up-to-date), you start to wonder if walking open-mouthed through a sandstorm wouldn’t be slightly more enjoyable.
Much fuss has been made over Will Smith’s casting as the Genie. Smith, buffed up and a lovely shade of blue, brings an effortless congeniality to the role, which he contemporizes at times to fine effect. Gifted at comedy, Smith’s lovability shines through like a diamond in the film’s rough. Still, there’s no denying the spectre of Robin Williams’ delightful vocal performance — coupled with the animated version’s inspired rendering of the Genie as an Al Hirschfeld caricature — looms heavily over his performance. Smith never really tries to win the Willliams’ throne and make the character his own. Instead, he pays homage to it with a nod, a wink, and a humble reverence.
Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is another story. Rarely has a Disney villain been more impotent. Magnificently, richly voiced by Jonathan Freeman in the 1992 version, Kenzari, an award-winning Dutch actor, opts for a different tact: go high-pitched, whiny, and bland. This isn’t the sumptuously nefarious Jafar we all loved to hate, this is a potato that has somehow learned to speak.
The leads — along with a muscular musical score by Alan Menken that draws generously and beautifully from the original — are the movie’s saving grace. The camera loves Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, and they love it back. With his easy smile, casual winsomeness, and strong, gorgeous singing voice, Massoud is a joy to behold and the movie is his star is born moment. He’s custom-made for teenage girls to hang posters of on their walls and for gay men to secretly hope he’ll one day suddenly come out on the cover of The Advocate.
Scott, meanwhile, can belt one out with the best of them, and “Speechless,” a new song written specifically for the film, offers the movie its one instance of genuine, honest-to-god power. Unfortunately, Aladdin and Jasmine’s famous flying carpet duet, “A Whole New World,” is hampered by muddy and dim cinematography that kills the magic of the critical scene.
There is a timely update to the narrative that lights the flame of female empowerment, a nod to aspiring Disney princesses everywhere who want to become President — though it ignores the demeaning way women were (and still often are) treated in certain Arab nations. No matter, this is a fable and in fables anything can — and does — happen. But wouldn’t it be nice if life imitated art once in a while?
Aladdin is rated PG and is now playing at theaters nationwide. Visit www.fandango.com.