Who were Disney’s three wishes for director of the new Aladdin? Given the brain-deadening faithfulness with which their animated classics have been remade as live action films, one would presume they’d look for an unambitious stylist. Rob Marshall might have gotten a call – but he’s between Disney films. Bill Condon? Tom Hooper? A dozen wishes aren’t enough to explain Guy Ritchie, who’s never composed an elegant frame in his life, at the helm.
If you’ve watched the animated 1992 Aladdin enough – either with children or as a child yourself – you might find yourself uttering the lines in Ritchie’s film before they’re spoken onscreen. The characters, too, will be familiar: “street rat" Aladdin (Mena Massoud), princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), evil vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) and his parrot, the flying carpet, Abu the monkey. Massoud even looks like the cartoon Aladdin, with his expressive eyes and bony structure. The only real change is Will Smith’s genie, who talks at a more easygoing pace – a boring but understandable decision to not try and replicate Robin Williams’ manic patter in the original.
Right from the opening number, in which the singer ululates “Arabian niiiiights, Arabian moooon", the Middle Eastern clichés are unrelenting. You have flying carpets and magic lamps, scimitars and sorcerers, a pet tiger, and a song that boats of Prince Ali – the result of Aladdin’s first wish – having “slaves, servants and flunkies". Then there’s the usual cavalier attitude towards accents. Kenzari does a passable evil “Arab" snarl. Smith, Scott and Massoud don’t even bother. The charming Nasim Pedrad, playing Jasmine’s maid, does Los Angeles one line, Tehran the next.
Aladdin in many ways resembles a failed Bollywood historical. Jasmine’s pink, gold and green ensemble looks like a reject from Ashutosh Gowarikar’s unsurpassably tacky Mohenjo-Daro. There’s a dance sequence which is just crying out for an Indian film choreographer, though that’s more palatable than a shoehorned-in “empowerment" number, which has Jasmine bellowing “All I know is I won’t go speechless" (after it’s done, the fake prince still has to rescue the princess).
Disney has been remorseless with its remakes, regurgitating the animated classics frame for frame, note for note. There's something off-putting about their confidence in churning out 15, 20, 30-year-old films almost exactly as they first appeared. The dearth of original ideas in Hollywood is scarcely worth commenting on, but audiences too are hugely complacent, and complicit. Aladdin is the worst kind of studio “product": $183 million dollars spent without grace or wit or intelligence. It’s also a continuation of Hollywood’s inability to deal with Middle Eastern characters as anything but fundamentalists or exotic caricatures. Call it harmless fun at your own peril.