Disney’s 1992 classic Aladdin is one of the greatest cinematic arguments for the storytelling potential of animation, which is perfectly expressed through the character of Genie. As voiced by Robin Williams and rendered in two dimensions, he’s a slapstick genius who can conjure anything, appear in any shape or size, and gleefully defy the laws of physics. For years, animation was the only way such a fantastic character could exist on-screen, but in 2019, visual effects have advanced enough that audiences can see a gigantic blue version of Will Smith try to give the same performance. Technological progress has clearly gone too far.
Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of Aladdin, the latest in a long line of Disney revivals of its own greatest works, exists in the same nostalgic sphere as recent hits such as Beauty and the Beast and The Jungle Book. It’s a garish, special-effects-laden extravaganza that still manages to feel tossed-off and half-hearted. The film is entirely devoted to the property it’s adapting, but its mimicry underlines just how pale an imitation it is. The only participant really trying to energize the project is Smith, who—poor man—has to spend much of his screen time transformed into a rubbery CGI monstrosity who’s impossible to take seriously.
The best Disney live-action remakes have distinguished themselves by departing from their source material, as Tim Burton’s Dumbo and David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon did. The hiring of Ritchie, who has directed British gangster thrillers such as Snatch and old-timey epics such as Sherlock Holmes and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, suggested at least the potential for a more bare-knuckle take on Aladdin’s streetwise scoundrel hero. But Ritchie doesn’t have much more to offer than some occasional slow-motion shots. Aside from a few extra-athletic swings through the streets of the fictional sultanate of Agrabah, this new Aladdin (played by Mena Massoud) is a bland facsimile of his two-dimensional forebear, a charming thief who dreams of a better life after he falls for the beautiful Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott).
The most substantial difference from the animated original is the effort made to beef up Jasmine’s role. She sings a couple of truly rancid new songs written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (The Greatest Showman) to emphasize her loneliness at the palace and her ambition to lead the country herself one day. But given that the rest of the movie is so devoted to replicating the story beats, musical numbers, and visual cues of the 1992 film, these incongruous additions just stick out sorely.
The biggest draw, then, is Smith—a razzle-dazzle superstar who’s been on the downswing of late—playing an all-powerful phantasm who lives in a magic lamp that Aladdin retrieves from a cave of wonders. Genie is a plum role, but whatever motion-capture tech has been used to render him … something is not quite right about it. Mapping an actor’s expressions onto a different CGI face (think Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk) is one thing, but the computerized Genie is supposed to look like Smith, and so I could think only about the little, eerie ways in which he doesn’t.
Smith tries his hardest to inject some vigor into a lethargic ensemble. The rest of the cast gets lost amid the opulent set design and hyperactive editing. Marwan Kenzari plays the villain Jafar as a soft-spoken social climber, perhaps in an attempt to correct for the stereotypes embodied in the cartoon’s seething, drawling egotist; unfortunately, he basically vanishes into the background as a result. The Sultan, a comical ball of energy in the animated film, is a quiet, grim ruler in Navid Negahban’s portrayal. These characters’ lines and plot motivations remain the same, but the dynamism they had in Ron Clements and John Musker’s hand-drawn version is missing.
The film retains all of the original’s songs, which were written by Alan Menken with lyrics by Tim Rice and Howard Ashman. But Ritchie appears to have no idea how to cut them together, and Smith’s singing voice isn’t really up to snuff (he essentially talks his way through a lot of the verses, Rex Harrison–style). Massoud is a tremendous dancer and a fun physical presence, but he sounds auto-tuned anytime he breaks into song; the more capable Scott is burdened by her new musical numbers, which break up the action horribly. On top of all these problems is the unavoidable fact that, even with a colossal budget and the spectacular tech available to Disney, live actors can’t replicate the dizzy kinetics of a cartoon.
There’s one glorious moment in the performance of “Friend Like Me,” Genie’s introduction song, when a giant, disembodied blue hand conjures puppet strings over Aladdin and makes him dance around, performing Bob Fosse–esque acrobatics. But inventive sights like that are few and far between. More often than not, Aladdin defaults to clumsily copying the classic that’s etched in every audience member’s mind. One day, the Disney-remake well will run dry, and that’ll be a good day for live-action and animation fans alike. Until then, ticket buyers’ best hope is that the studio’s future efforts attempt bold changes to their source material rather than pay poor homage.