Aladdin’s missing the magic spark

The most notable aspect of Guy Ritchie’s “Aladdin” is that it doesn’t hit the ground running more so than it goes jogging. A lot of things happen in the movie, as it did in the original 1992 animated film, but it surprisingly lumbers towards the finish line, picking up steam in moments where it should charge ahead.

The film follows Disney’s recent trend to retain their intellectual property rights by milking every drop of their worth. The formula has worked financially until early this year when Tim Burton’s re-imagining of “Dumbo” bombed. Unfortunately, Aladdin could follow suit.

The familiar tale of street urchin Aladdin and how he summons a genie from a magical lamp to help him woo the headstrong Princess Jasmine has become a Disney classic, if not neutered from its original Arabian Nights tale.

A large majority of late 20 to early 30 somethings will have most likely experienced the popular 1992 film and its subsequent cartoon TV series during their youth. It is thus difficult to see this movie carry itself as a whole when it is unwilling to ditch the nostalgic feel.

Much has been said on Will Smith’s performance as the Genie when images of him in both human and CGI form first appeared on the internet. Though the 2019 CGI Genie does look rather dodgy at times, it would be unfair to use Robin Williams’s endearing voice work in the 1992 film as a comparison; Smith holds his own here and makes the character different and charming in that trademark Will Smith way, especially when he’s in his human form.

Charming, too, are the central performances by Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine respectively. They are certainly two of the film’s more pleasant surprises. They have genuine chemistry together, and there’s even effort to mold Jasmine into an empowering feminist icon with a new and fierce “I am woman, hear me roar” power anthem.

Massoud’s introverted new take on the titular character is intriguing though he seems to work better when he’s bouncing off other actors. A particularly hilarious scene where he awkwardly tries to woo the Princess masquerading as Prince Ali showcases Massoud’s potential as a popular future comic lead.

The acting is mostly fine in this movie. It’s the musical sequences that are mostly messy. The moment Will Smith starts to belt out an autotuned “Arabian Nights” in the film’s opening, we cringed and kept on doing so as Alan Menken’s updated musical numbers assaulted us with more cringe-worthy moments. The saving grace was Jasmine’s “Speechless” and “Friend Like Me” showcasing Ritchie’s trademark bombastic energy.

The worst offender is the “Prince Ali” sequence where the lavish costumes and production design, a wonderful display of cultural awareness, are wasted on shockingly mundane dance choreography.

Think Broadway imitating Bollywood captured by a filmmaker who is unsure of how to frame a musical. You know a movie’s in trouble when it’s titled “Aladdin” and you’re reminded of “The Cheetah Girls”.

One more thing to highlight – the power-hungry villain, Jafar. Marwan Kenzari’s portrayal is engaging for the first two-thirds of the film, giving off hints of menace and an interesting backstory to parallel Aladdin’s own quest.

For nostalgic reasons, that aspect is ditched for a more cartoonish one during the film’s finale. Though we understood the decision, the execution was still bizarre. While “Aladdin” does capture the spirit and tries extremely hard to match the energy of the 1992 animation, it unfortunately falls into the category of “films that do not work as live-action”.

Just when it does stray off the beaten path to deliver something new, the film reverts back to the obvious before any real sense of intrigue settles in. It makes us wonder why Ritchie, a seasoned filmmaker known for frenetic action and gangster films, decided to be lax this time around.