Questionable marketing and rough CGI led audiences to fear Guy Ritchie's 2019 Aladdin remake. After all, why even remake the movie if it’s just going to be a lesser rehash of the 1992 classic? Fortunately, the end product is better than many anticipated, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Disney squandered the chance to make something truly special.
In an unintentional, metatextual metaphor for the studio itself, 2019’s Aladdin starts with daring, clever choices and devolves into a safe, easy cash grab. It shows viewers how these remakes, in theory, could work, and then proves that Disney lacks the bold vision to recapture the magic it once had.
There were signs. After Aladdin's first trailer dropped, the internet exploded with angry questions: Why does everything look fake? Why does the genie look like that? Why release a clip of “Prince Ali” when it's just Will Smith doing a bad Robin Williams impression? Again, why does the genie look like that?
In just the first few minutes, though, Ritchie is able to show that the movie isn’t just a hollow remake, shifting and tweaking the characters and the way the story unfolds, providing more depth and his own trademark style. But as the film approaches the original’s recognizable set piece sequences at the midpoint, these updates start to fade, and the movie transitions into the sort of bland reskin that was Beauty and the Beast.
When work first began on the original Aladdin 1988, Disney Animation Studios was in desperate need of a hit. After a string of box office flops, the studio made the gutsy call to move forward with projects that had been kicking around for a while, and by the time Aladdin made it to release in ’92, the Disney Renaissance was in full swing.
It was a time packed to the brim with some of the best animated features ever, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. The Renaissance saw the studio embrace risky moves out of necessity, and it paid off tremendously.
Just as The Little Mermaid showed the animation studio the proper way forward in terms of making animated fairy tales that feel simultaneously modern and magical, pieces of Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin remake illuminate the proper way to remake one of these cherished classics.
First and foremost, the script, from Guy Ritchie and John August, reworks much of the story, improving bits and pieces in many ways. From Jasmine's newfound depth as a character to an overall willingness to embrace Agrabah as a setting in an actual world, many pieces click together beautifully.
On top of this, there are moments sprinkled throughout that allow Ritchie to embrace his own style. Though a filmmaker known for kinetic British crime stories and underrated big budget failures seemed an odd choice, he brings a sense of life when he’s given room to work.
This is especially on display in “One Jump Ahead,” the song in which Aladdin leads Jasmine across the city, running away from the palace guards after stealing food. While the song’s beat stays the same, the movement of the characters fluctuates between high speed and slow motion, bringing a palpable sense of energy and tension to the scene. Unfortunately, that pace quickly fades out, and the movie's true colors start to show.
Though the movie on the whole isn’t quite as disappointing as Disney’s remakes of Alice in Wonderland and Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin falls prey to similar issues. Every time Aladdin gets going, it’s dragged back down to recreate diet versions of moments from the original movie.
Ritchie and Will Smith try their hardest when introducing Smith’s Genie character to the tune of “Friend Like Me,” but it just comes off as a lame recreation of Robin Williams’ terrific rendition. This happens over and over in these movies, sucking all the energy out and delivering lifeless, boring sequences simply because they couldn’t deviate too greatly from the source material, and it’s a major bummer.
With something like the brilliant 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon, it was a different case because the original was little remembered and little loved, allowing director David Lowery more freedom. The big ones, like Aladdin, are packed with memorable, beloved sequences, and it’s clear Disney is too afraid to move too far away from them.
These days, Walt Disney Studios, as a company, sits atop the filmmaking world, miles removed from where they were just 30 years ago. Now they rely on sequels, remakes and reboots, increasingly abandoning strong choices for easy money, and it’s more than a little disheartening to see.
Theaters are inundated with these lackluster nostalgia trips, from Dumbo a couple of months ago to The Rise of Skywalker this December, with at least half a dozen remakes and sequels between them. If the brilliant additions and changes to Aladdin prove that live-action remakes of Disney’s most beloved movies can actually work, the very nature of the studio today proves they may never be worthwhile.
For the company to allow their directors enough freedom to make daring choices, they’d have to lay off the nostalgia-mongering, and anyone who’s seen the studio’s six-year slate knows that likely won’t happen anytime soon.
Just a few months from now, Disney will release Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King. If there’s anyone in the world that Disney CEO Bob Iger would trust to make a courageous reimagining of their most beloved movie, it’s Favreau.
By directing Iron Man and The Jungle Book, he helped give birth to two of Disney’s most reliable sources of income -- the Marvel Cinematic Universe and these remakes. Maybe Favreau will deliver a significant departure from the source material and we’ll actually get something worthwhile, maybe that will be the studio’s proverbial “diamond in the rough.” But from there, we may have a dark, dull road ahead.
Directed by Guy Ritchie, Aladdin stars Mena Massoud as Aladdin, Will Smith as Genie, Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, Navid Negahban as the Sultan of Agrabah, Billy Magnussen as new character Prince Anders, and Frank Welker and Alan Tudyk as the voices of Abu and Iago, respectively. The film is now in theaters.