A Word About Disney’s Live Action Remakes.
Often times in art, particularly in film and music, one can see through the true intentions of the studio/artist/filmmaker. For example, one can usually tell when a director or musician tackles a project they’re passionate about. You can almost feel the heart and the passion and the care these artists put into their product to create something not just for themselves, but for their fans. On the flip side, one can sniff out a studio’s shameless cash-grab from half a mile away.
Most of these Disney live-action remakes feel like the latter.
Serving no other purpose than to exploit people’s nostalgia for monetary gain, these films serve no other purpose than to make Disney as much money as possible. These are incredibly safe bets at the box office for the studio – six of these films have grossed over $500,000,000 worldwide (this is counting Aladdin, which, at the time of writing this, has grossed $445,000,000).
But as a result of Disney wanting to cash in on this incredibly easy money, these films feel soulless and heartless.
For the most part, these movies are exact remakes of their earlier animated counterparts. They follow the same major plot points, sing the same songs, recite the same (or incredibly similar) lines. There’s nothing new being brought to the table with these movies. There are no artistic risks being taken, there are no changes being made. We are literally watching the same movie, released years later with a new cast and a nice coating of CGI paint.
2019’s Aladdin is perhaps their biggest offender yet.
I’ve been extremely skeptical towards this movie since October 2016 when Guy Ritchie was attached to direct. I tried to remain optimistic, since Ritchie’s films typically have a sort of kinetic energy to that that make them feel frantic and fast-paced, similar to the 1992 Aladdin.
Robin Williams and Will Smith.
Time went on, and for a while, I forgot this movie was even being made.
Until Will Smith was announced as the Genie.
Now, at the time, there was plenty wrong with this, but first and foremost: Will Smith is no longer the actor he once was.
Funny? Yes. Charismatic? Absolutely. But Will Smith only knows how to play one character – and that’s Will Smith.
With the MONUMENTAL task of filling Robin Williams’ shoes as one of the most beloved animated characters of all time, it was certainly an uphill battle for Smith. This movie still, released by Disney a few months before the movie’s release, did not help his case.
You see, the original Aladdin was made with Robin Williams specifically in mind as the Genie. At the time, he was their only choice, and, had he said no, we probably would have never gotten Aladdin at all. The Genie’s personality and style of comedy was made to fit Robin’s stand-up comedy style of frantic energy and improvisation. Naturally, they even tried to make the Genie kinda resemble him too.
Will Smith doomed himself to scrutiny the moment he signed on for this movie. And, with the release of those movie stills, the scrutiny reached it’s peak. After a period of heavy marketing from Disney leading up to the movie’s release, Aladdin found itself the victim of criticism long before opening day.
But for now, let’s talk about 2019’s Aladdin itself.
Will Smith’s Genie.
Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised. Instead of trying to do his best Robin Williams Genie impression, Smith managed to bring some of his own charm to the character to give it enough of it’s own identity and separate it from Robin’s version. Smith’s version of “Friend Like Me” was the highlight of the movie, and “Prince Ali” had just enough Will Smith charm to make it enjoyable and fun.
Aladdin and Jasmine.
The two leads, Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, played by Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, were great. They worked well off each other and delivered performances that mirror that of the original film well enough. Although I don’t like how the addition of Jasmine’s new song plays out in the movie (we’ll get to that later), the song does a great job of fleshing out Jasmine’s character in a way the animated version never did.
The Film’s Tone.
The film did a wonderful job of establishing a tone and atmosphere early on and sticking to it. Much like the original Aladdin, this movie had a whimsical and fun aura to it, which quite frankly I was not expecting with Disney’s last few remakes. Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland all felt too serious for their own good, and couldn’t quite hit the right balance of the campy fun of the musicals and their more serious, adult themes and messages. Aladdin hit the nail on the head.
1992’s Jafar, played by Jonathan Freeman, is one of Disney’s most iconic villains of all time. Comically evil and grandiose, Jonathan Freeman did an excellent job of translating Jafar’s menace to the screen, making him sinister and slimy, yet knew exactly how to chew the scenery enough to make Jafar likably campy.
This is not the case in 2019’s Aladdin.
2019’s Jafar, played by Marwan Kenzari, was a down-right boring adaptation of one of Disney’s least boring villains. An originally grandiose and proud villain, Guy Ritchie and Disney essentially turned Jafar into Captain Mumbles, stripping away all of the personality he had in the original film. While Kenzari does a great job playing a slimy and conniving politician, he lacks the screen presence to properly capture Jafar’s intimidating and frightening nature once he controls the Genie and becomes the world’s greatest sorcerer, resulting in a neutered version of one of Disney’s most iconic villains of all time.
Guy Ritchie Can’t Direct Musicals.
As a fan of Guy Ritchie, it’s a shame that he turned out to be the wrong choice to direct this movie. The frantic energy his films like RocknRolla and Snatch have could have translated well for this remake, since Aladdin feels much faster-paced than most of Disney’s animated movies. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
At the root of this problem lies one of Guy Ritchie’s biggest missteps with this movie: he doesn’t know how to direct musicals. With the exception of Friend Like Me and Prince Ali, none of the musical numbers in the film carried the same visual flare or style it’s animated predecessor had. The musical numbers had no energy to them, resulting in boring music-video like dance numbers. Perhaps the biggest victim of this was the scene in which Jasmine sings her new song, “Speechless.” A powerfully moving song that does a great job developing Jasmine’s character is handled horribly in the context of the film, which grind’s the film’s narrative to a screeching halt (literally) to have Jasmine sing her song while poorly-done visual affects follow her around as she walks through the palace. “A Whole New World”, arguably a top five Disney song of all time, was one of the most boring scenes in the entire movie, due to the lack of visual flare that plagues the film’s musical numbers and some bad CGI. Which is a shame because Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott did an excellent job with their rendition of the song.
The Lost Magic of Animation.
There’s something about animated films that gives them their own distinct visual style (obviously). Working perfectly for the 1992 Aladdin, the animation style gave the film a distinct personality that the live-action remake couldn’t replicate. More striking visuals is perhaps the biggest difference, in which the difference can be seen in the color palette of the film, Iago and Abu, and the film’s musical numbers, especially “A Whole New World.”
In the animated film, Iago and Abu are much more visually expressive characters than in the remake, in which both are relegated to tertiary characters with absolutely no personality. This exact problem has me worried for Disney’s new Lion King remake, but that’s another discussion for another time, but the point stands – you lose personality and emotion when remaking animated characters in CGI. The characters just aren’t expressive enough any more, which is what makes them work so well in animation in the first place.
“A Whole New World”, as I mentioned earlier, is downright visually boring. In a scene so originally full of color, life and breathtaking animated vistas, the remake is devoid of almost all of the wonder the animated version created with it’s visuals. With the exception of Friend Like Me and Prince Ali, it felt like almost every musical number in the film felt this way.
I went in with low expectations, and those expectations still weren’t met. What I thought would ultimately shine through in the film let me down, and what I thought would be out-right terrible turned out to be pretty great. Unfortunately, Will Smith can no longer carry a film all by himself, and the few positives of Aladdin can’t counter it’s negatives.