Aladdin (2019)

I did myself and this film a favor, I think, by not revisiting the original Aladdin first. I know that if I’d watched the 1992 classic before seeing the 2019 remake, or if I’d even watched it before writing this review, the new movie would seem worse to me. My memories of the original aren’t enough to color my opinion here, because as was the case with Dumbo, I haven’t seen the original on which this new remake is based since the 1990s.

I was a boy who grew up in the 90s, and that was a time where, if you’ll forgive me some politicization, all marketing was driven heavily by gender norms, and boys’ marketing was driven heavily by toxic masculinity. Everything was about machismo, aggression, bad dudes and rad’ ‘tudes. As is still the case, I’m sure, once a boy got to middle school, it became a panicked scramble to ditch all things that made one appear babyish, and adopt a fascination with all things which would make one seem more grown-up. As I swore off Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Nicktoons and (at least tried to hide my affection for) Pokemon, I picked up South Park, the swear-laden cartoons of Cartoon Network’s [adult swim], and R-rated movies of a sort I knew my mother wouldn’t approve.

Disney movies were the first, and easiest sacrifice for me at that age. Disney, everyone knew, was for babies. The Emperor’s New Groove, Monsters, Inc.; Lilo and Stitch, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles…I missed everything between my arrival in the sixth grade and the eventual release of Wall-E. As an adult, I fixed most of these oversights, but I still haven’t seen Ratatouille, which many consider to be Pixar’s best work.

So, while I understand everyone considers the original Aladdin to be a masterpiece, and my vague memories make me say, “yeah, that tracks,” I am very much a stranger to the original at this moment in my life. I plan to watch it again, very soon, but I’ve specifically chosen to review this remake with eyes unclouded by nostalgia, so let me finally get into it:

I didn’t hate 2019’s Aladdin. At times I rather enjoyed myself while watching it. But it’s definitely a mixed bag, and it’s also unnecessary. Even when it’s doing its best, it never really justifies its own existence.

With that condemnation out the way, it’s worth talking about all it does right, given that you can easily guess all it does wrong.

After a slow opening that insists on more chemistry between the lead actors Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, we find ourselves after like a half hour at the Spooky Cave of Mystery and Creeps. It takes a while to get here, but once we do, we reach the beginning of a pretty long marathon of quality entertainment that kicks off, largely, with the introduction of Will Smith’s genie character.

I’m so disappointed to read all the critics who are dumping on Smith’s Genie. I haven’t really enjoyed a Will Smith performance since…well, maybe the ’90s, to be honest, and I thought he was really delightful in this movie. He, or maybe just his character, elevates the second act to a point that, for a while, I was having honest-to-goodness fun. I stopped checking my watch and just enjoyed the show.

Smith is no Robin Williams, but again, I’m not approaching this with my nostalgia goggles or the bias they carry. I thought Smith was perfectly likable in the role, and further, I thought that the CG was mostly great. The introduction of this character is also the first time that the movie’s wider CG elements begin to open up and I thought, except for some close-ups on fake animals, the film used its CG smartly and well.

Apropos of the general look of the thing, this movie is gorgeous. The editing is a little choppy and rapid for my taste, but when it is settled down and you’ve got something to look at for more than two seconds at a time, the scenery (real and digital), the sets, and the costumes are absolutely gorgeous. It has a surreal, too-colorful thing going on that might take a viewer out of it, but for me it was perfect for just that reason, and I wondered how much better a Prince of Persia film might have been, had it had this more flowery version of an Arabian sensibility.

The genie gets a little extra subplot, and I didn’t mind that. Except for the amount of time things took, I didn’t mind most of the additions. One that really struck me as off-key, though, was Jasmine’s turn as a Strong Female Character™ and seeker of political justice. She wants to be Sultan here, good to her people, and even has a whole song written around standing up for what’s right and using one’s voice. I found it very grating, but then, maybe it will have a meaningful impact on little girls who watch it over the next twenty years. I guess it just rung hollow to me, but then, I’m not the target audience for this character, or indeed, qualified to pass judgment on her.

As for Jasmine, or rather her actor Naomi Scott, she didn’t do much for me. Most of the acting in this movie isn’t great, to be honest. It’s either just…off, as with Scott, or it’s way too over-the-top, as with Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar. That said, and at the risk of looking hypocritical after my review of Kathryn Newton’s performance in Pokemon Detective Pikachu, I think it’s better in this sort of film to be a little over-the-top, than to be flat.

As I said at the outset, this film is unnecessary. But I didn’t hate it. I’m still basically positive on it. The new song wasn’t that bad, and I don’t think the actors are as bad of singers as other reviewers have suggested. While it did run too long, and without good enough reason, I think this movie was good enough. Unlike Dumbo, it didn’t offend me as a film-goer.

I’m going to give it, with some nerves, 3 stars out of 5 and call it Good. Enough.

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