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Movie Review: “Aladdin”

26 May

Let’s get one thing clear up front: this movie was significantly better than I expected. Early images of a (very) blue Will Smith didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and Guy Ritchie hasn’t made an unquestionably good movie since “Snatch.” But although it can’t hold a candle to its predecessor, this live-action update of Disney’s venerable animated classic never becomes the dumpster fire I feared.

There’s a lot to like here: Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a dead ringer for his animated counterpart, and it’s nice that spunky Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) has a bit more to do here than swoon around her palace.

And once Will Smith’s Genie shows up, the film really hits its stride: big musical numbers “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali” are delightful showstoppers, and there are some great new scenes where the Genie—channeling “Hitch”—advises Aladdin on courting Jasmine. And if anything, this film’s version of “A Whole New World” is better than the original—thanks largely to Scott’s powerful vocals—even if the flight itself no longer sweeps our heroes through Greece, Egypt, and China (apparently, the carpet no longer travels at supersonic speeds).

As long as the film stays focused on its core triad—Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Genie—it’s a great success. Alas, things start going awry whenever the film attempts a broader focus.

As plenty of commentators have stressed ad nauseam, the 1992 “Aladdin” trafficked in some questionable imagery and stereotypes. But this film’s version of Agrabah is so sanitized that it feels positively inhuman. Gone are any distinctive or identifying features of particular Middle Eastern cultures or societies, and there’s no effort made to design a cohesive alternative (Wakanda, anyone?). As a result, the setting feels almost offensively sterile: it’s tantamount to setting a movie in Renaissance Florence while refusing to acknowledge that rulers’ laws and policies actually had an effect on citizens, or that churches were more than merely nice-looking buildings. It seems to me that the remedy for crude stereotyping isn’t a kind of doubling down on stylistic Disneyfication, but penning an “Aladdin” update more firmly rooted in Middle Eastern lore and culture (would it have really been that difficult to acknowledge that minarets aren’t just architectural features, but towers from which the call to prayer issues?).

More problematic is the movie’s flattening of character motivations. The 1992 film’s motivations were pretty straightforward: Aladdin and Jasmine are in love, and evil vizier Jafar craves power and domination.

In the 2019 movie, all of that collapses into fixation on the acquisition and use of coercive power. As we learn early on, this version Jasmine is predominantly concerned with defying the social norms that keep her from succeeding her father as sultan. And that, in turn, recasts her opposition to being forced into marriage: the real problem isn’t being forced to marry a man she doesn’t love, but being forced to cede her claim to rule to a man.And likewise, this Aladdin is less motivated by his love for Jasmine than he is by a desire to transcend his lowly circumstances—to truly go from street thief to prince (in fact, I don’t recall anyone actually using the word “love” onscreen).

The character arc of 2019’s Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) is even poorer. For one thing, Kenzari cuts a totally unimposing figure, with his high-pitched voice, sulky demeanor, and over-the-top apparel. This Jafar’s “sorcery” is utterly devoid of any threatening mystical undercurrent, but comes off as a kind of video-game magic, more oriented toward manipulation of matter than connection with a menacing netherworld. And worse, this new Jafar’s endgame merely involves orchestrating the invasion of a neighboring kingdom, for reasons that are never explained or made clear. But hey, power is an end in itself…right?

Why everyone in this movie suffers from the exact same character flaw—an obsession with political power über alles—is beyond me. It’s an irritating sop to modern anxieties, not a natural outgrowth of its characters’ backstories. And for what it’s worth, reconfiguring Jasmine from “obsessed with love” to “obsessed with #leadership” doesn’t make her a more empowered female character—it just makes her less distinguishable from everybody else around her. All of this results in a finished product that feels strangely toothless, sanitized, desaturated.

By contrast, consider the climax of the 1992 film: Jafar seizes the Genie’s lamp, ascends to become both sultan and grand sorcerer, and immediately reshapes Agrabah in his own image. Aladdin returns from banishment to a city suffering under the shadow, where Jafar holds the throne and Jasmine and her father are in chains. Soon after, the height of Jafar’s evil becomes clear: his lust for power is so extreme that he wants to possess Jasmine by overriding her free will (forcing the Genie to make her love him). Obviously, there’s an eerie, psychosexual dimension here—to say nothing of the pervasive occult imagery.

To be sure, this is dark stuff—nightmare fuel for children and adults alike. (It’s really not that surprising that some parents wanted to keep their kids far away from Disney flicks.) But it’s also the raw material from which ironclad ideas about right and wrong are formed: that love can never be coerced or forced, that pride inevitably goes before a fall, and that messing with evil spiritual powers leads only to ruin. I’d go so far to say that the best Disney animated films are classics precisely because of the stark good-versus-evil clashes at their core (the ones that downplay this element—e.g., “Pocahontas”—are nobody’s favorites).

At the end of the day, “Aladdin” is a perfectly adequate movie—no more, no less. Like most of these updates of Disney classics, I expect it will make a truckload of cash and promptly be forgotten. And it’s a pleasant enough summer-movie diversion.

But just like 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast,” it could’ve been so much better. Maybe after losing the city to Jafar, Jasmine could’ve hopped on the flying carpet and laid fiery waste to Agrabah after hearing the tolling of the city’s bells. One can only wish.

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Posted by on May 26, 2019 in Fantasy

 

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