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Movie Review: “Aladdin”

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

 

Movie Review: “Avengers: Endgame”

In moviegoing history, there has probably never before been an Event Movie on this scale. “Avengers; Endgame” is the culmination of twenty-plus superhero films, the long-promised summer blockbuster to end all summer blockbusters. And in the capable hands of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, it mostly—if not entirely—lives up to that ambition.

(Mild spoilers ahead)

Following the triumph of mad titan Thanos at the end of last year’s “Infinity War”—the extermination of 50% of all living beings in the cosmos—the surviving Avengers have struggled to accept their new normal. The bulk of “Endgame” picks up five years after Thanos’s victory, as Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) finds his way out of quantum space and meets up with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and everyone else. As it happens, Ant-Man has a plan for reversing the effects of Thanos’s cataclysm: using special “Pym Particles” to tunnel back through time and seize the six Infinity Stones before Thanos can weaponize them.

(Yes, this is a time-travel movie—just as everyone expected. As such, the number of plot holes is positively ludicrous. But this is also a comic-book movie, so I highly advise not overthinking these.)

Despite its status as a “final” installment, “Endgame” is a fairly restrained affair through its first two acts (on the whole, “Infinity War” probably devoted more of its minutes to bombastic combat). In place of CGI-drenched mayhem, we’re given retrospective glimpses of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) as our heroes retrace their steps across time to recover the supernatural stones. And happily, that gives the stars of “Endgame”—primarily the original six heroes that starred in 2012’s “The Avengers”—plenty of room to breathe and be themselves.

Now, that’s not to say there’s not a real climax here. The final battle between all of Marvel’s superheroes and Thanos’s monstrous army is one of the most eye-popping spectacles I’ve ever witnessed onscreen—if not the most. And it’s utterly impossible not to sit there with a big, dumb grin on one’s face as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes finally assemble en masse. Frankly, I have no idea how this finale will ever be topped.

(Serious spoilers ahead. Turn back now)

From a narrative standpoint, the greatest success of “Endgame” is its ability to satisfyingly conclude two major character arcs: the stories of Captain America/Steve Rogers and Iron Man/Tony Stark. Tony’s journey—from self-absorbed womanizer to self-sacrificing family man—has been a tale of transformative redemption. Steve’s journey, by contrast, has been one of perseverance: despite being yanked from an age of black-and-white morals into the gray relativism of modernity, he has never once compromised his essential principles. Tony’s tale culminates in his making the ultimate sacrifice; Steve’s ends in a state of virtuous anonymity. To the extent that the whole enormous tapestry of the MCU has really been their story, “Endgame” is a tremendous triumph.

But the same cannot be said of the film’s other characters. The whole first hour of “Endgame” centers on the surviving Avengers sadly reckoning with their changed world: while the Hulk finally finds a measure of inner peace, Thor morphs into an overgrown frat boy more interested in video games than intergalactic heroics. And that’s saying nothing of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, who becomes a murderous avenger leaving a trail of criminal corpses behind him.

None of these arcs—nor those of the film’s more peripheral characters, like Spider-Man or the Guardians of the Galaxy—culminate satisfactorily. This is particularly egregious in Hawkeye’s case: despite amassing the very same “red ink in the ledger” that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow bemoaned in 2015’s “Age of Ultron,” Hawkeye reverts to a state of perfect serenity by the movie’s end.

I’d also submit that the deterioration of Thor’s character is one of the MCU’s greatest errors. I’ll always defend the original 2011 “Thor” film because of its surprisingly rich moral subtext: Thor’s final struggle against Loki isn’t an attempt to save his friends, but rather his enemies—the menacing frost giants of Jotunheim, whom Loki plans to exterminate. The much-maligned sequel “The Dark World” didn’t really call that ethos into question. But 2017’s “Ragnarok”—which recast Thor as predominantly a hammer-toting jokester—took an altogether different approach, and the MCU is the poorer for it. At this point, it’s not clear to me that Thor’s character has much room to grow at all. But in fairness, this isn’t entirely the fault of “Endgame.”

(End spoilers)

At the end of the day, “Endgame” is a serious step up from “Infinity War”—in large part because its events feel pretty final. This might not be the end of the MCU, but it is an end, and the film is far better for it (especially given its predecessor’s forced pseudo-cliffhanger). The stories of Iron Man and Captain America, abstracted away from everything else in the MCU, really are as powerful as anything Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, or any other first-generation superhero film director cooked up.

When I think back over “Endgame,” that’s what I remember—not the stretches of movie that start to drag, not the character arcs that fail to resolve, not the plot holes, but the moments of absolute rightness that bring these heroes’ stories to a close. If this is to be contemporary America’s national myth—that rare thing that can bring divided people together—it’s a good one.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2019 in Fantasy

 
 
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