two and a half out of four stars
Thirty-five or so years ago, Disney Studios was the laughingstock of the movie industry. Having peaked with its animation division in the late ’40s, it was running on fumes with a string of successful yet highly vanilla-flavored TV series.
The profitable live-action comedies “The Love Bug” and “Freaky Friday” from the ’70s kept the operation afloat until it was decided by then-CEO Michael Eisner to go back to their bread-and-butter basics.
Beginning in 1988, Disney released “The Little Mermaid” followed by “Beauty & the Beast,” “Aladdin” and finally “The Lion King.” The Disney renaissance was complete and they haven’t looked back since — unless of course you consider going back to these same titles to mine even more riches looking back.
It’s a marketing masterstroke when you think about it. Take the animated movies parents watched and adored when they were children and market them to their children and boom — instant, easy-to-please, built-in audiences. No fools these Disney folks; they don’t mess with success or dare tinker with winning formulas.
Little to nothing is altered, and nowhere is that more apparent than with “Aladdin.” With the sore thumb exception of Billy Magnusson as a lily-white, stoned-looking surfer-dude prince with a mystery European accent, not a single facet of this film is different from the 1992 original.
Everybody’s principal point of concern going in is how Will Smith’s performance as the Genie will stack up to that of Robin Williams. Wisely recognizing he lacks Williams’ enormous knack for accents and rapid- fire delivery, Smith doesn’t attempt an imitation, instead relying on his own considerable charms and ripped physique. Whether on his own or via CGI, Smith hasn’t looked this buff since “Ali” almost two decades ago. The blue body paint doesn’t really work on Smith, but that’s a minor complaint.
Each and every character voice in the animated version was provided by a Caucasian actor, which was never an issue for obvious reasons. For a different set of (hopefully) obvious reasons, Disney went to great pains here to cast performers with Middle Eastern lineage to play these now iconic characters and, at least from a visual perspective, they succeeded admirably.
As the title character, the Egyptian-born Canadian actor Mena Massoud handles the considerable physical demands – including some throwback break-dancing and building jumping — but is somewhat lacking in the personality department. These shortcomings carry over as Massoud doesn’t share any chemistry with Ugandan descendant Naomi Scott as Aladdin’s love interest Princess Jasmine.
Bearing such a close resemblance to the animated vision she could have easily been the actual inspirational model, Scott (also a co-lead in the upcoming “Charlie’s Angels” reboot) is positively luminous and more than pulls off the tricky range of emotions and plucky attitude which defines the fiercely independent and forward-thinking Jasmine.
The true measure of success to this or any other Disney adventure — animated or live-action — is contingent on the writing for and performance of the villain. Easily one of the most memorable of all past Disney bad guys, Jafar is the kind of juicy role every actor dreams of playing, and Dutch-born Tunisian actor Marwen Kenzari (“The Mummy”) turns in something that will thrill many and maybe disappoint others.
Taking his cue from the silent era, Kenzari is a bit too broad and leans a tad too heavily into the role. But in his defense, he was probably instructed to do so. With way too much black mascara and too obvious a sneer, Kenzari’s Jafar will certainly be appropriately threatening to the under-10 set, which, in the great scheme of things, is really what matters most.
A weasel of the highest order, Jafar hungrily lusts for power and is relentless in bringing down Jasmine’s father, the Sultan Hamed Bobolonius II (Navid Negahban, “12 Strong”). In order to do this, Jafar must be in possession of a magic lamp located deep in the bowels of a treasure-strewn cave, and he coaxes Aladdin to retrieve it for him. Things don’t go quite as he’d planned and Jafar spends the remainder of the running time trying to take down the elusive and resourceful Aladdin.
A far, far cry from anything he’s ever done before (with the possible exception of the travesty that was “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”), the once-promising Guy Ritchie (“Snatch,” “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” “RocknRolla”) is nothing more than a hired gun here. Although the screenplay is credited to Ritchie and noted Tim Burton script doctor John August, none of it contains anything close to artistically original but does toss in a narrative morsel that could easily lead to a sequel down the road.
If all you want is to see real people doing what animated characters did far better way back when and/or to introduce your children to an ages-old folk tale, this new “Aladdin” will more than fit the bill.