In tabloid parlance, “sugar babies” are sweet young things who sleep with wrinkly old things who buy them shiny new things. A bonk buys a bauble. The sugar babies say they’re delighted with the state of their affairs, and yet I feel sorry for them. Imagine how sorry I’d feel if I’d known them for years and knew of the dignified lives they’d abandoned, and you’ll understand how sorry I feel for the three Hollywood sugar babies who gave us the live-action remake of Aladdin. Director Guy Ritchie, writer John August, Will Smith: I remember when you guys had self-respect.
Ritchie made Snatch. August wrote Go. Smith is maybe the most charming leading man of his generation. Now they’ve all perpetrated a textureless, humorless, anodyne cinematic gift-shop souvenir. Their Aladdin makes High School Musical look cutting edge. Disney’s first Aladdin, from 1992, was not only cutting edge, but essentially conjured up a whole new world of animated blockbusters that adults would watch willingly. After The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) resurrected Broadway showstoppers, Aladdin appended to its Alan Menken tunes a fast-moving plot, top-notch comedy, and even some scares. It grossed $217 million domestically — a completely unheard-of sum for an animated feature at the time.
Some of the live-action remakes Disney has cranked out in recent years stick closely to their animated predecessors while adding star power (Beauty and the Beast), but most (e.g. Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book) at least try for a fresh spin on their source material. Ritchie’s Aladdin is a whole old world, almost a scene-for-scene remake, except this time with three comprehensively dull actors playing Aladdin, Jasmine, and Jafar.
As the street rat-turned-prince Ali, Mena Massoud is so aggressively bland he could be a missing member of NSYNC, except he can hardly sing. Naomi Scott, as Jasmine, is unspeakably beautiful, but she doesn’t make the audience love her; she just passively expects us to. Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is too cute to be scary. All of them are out-acted by the magic rug, though none is quite as annoying as Smith, the only star in the show.
Smith does not grasp that he is not Robin Williams and we don’t want him to be Robin Williams. The original was the first movie that figured out how to build around Williams’s frenetic stand-up act, and did it ingeniously. I’m not just saying that because I love Williams’s legendary WFB spoof — “There are a few provisos, a couple of quid pro quos.” Williams was funny and freewheeling. Smith isn’t a stand-up and doesn’t earn laughs, yet the CGI wizards keep altering his look as if he were Williams doing rapid-fire impressions. Nor is he a singer. To observe what he’s doing here is a toothache. Do it a different way, Will. You’re an actor, for heaven’s sake, and a good one.
The film is a dismal reminder that Smith has always had an unctuous quality, a politician’s need to please everyone. Watching Aladdin, I was reminded that he turned down Django Unchained, which was written specifically for him by one of the finest screenwriters of the age, so he could instead direct his energies to Men in Black III. Risk-aversion is sapping his creative energy.
The same with Ritchie. And August. Together, they’ve made what may be the worst desert movie since Sex and the City 2, the one that gave us the one-liner, “Ooh, Lawrence of my labia.” Sure, these guys will collect huge paychecks. But they could do that without, you know, betraying themselves. They could cash huge paychecks (or slightly less-huge paychecks, or maybe even just large paychecks) doing work that is interesting. “Guy Ritchie makes boring movies for people who don’t care” is a sentence no one who saw Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels ever expected to read. Yet look at his recent resume: Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes 2, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the most interesting movie he’s made in a decade, and it’s not all that interesting. True, one can only make so many indie films about British gangsters, but Ritchie’s work doesn’t even look like Ritchie’s work anymore. Aladdin could have been shot by any TV hack.
I haven’t even gotten to the film’s P.C. touches, of a piece with the overall mood of the film, which is surrender — to mediocrity, to anticipated Twitter mobs, to the little voice in your head that says a Disney movie need not have any flavor whatsoever. Changing “barbaric” to “chaotic” in the opening number’s wisecrack “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” was probably wise, but what’s the point of the insipid girl-power number thrown in at a moment of supposedly dire peril for Jasmine? It’s walled off in a fantasy sequence in which Jasmine solves her problems by simply wishing them away.
Thanks to such padding, the film runs over two hours while telling almost exactly the same story as the 90-minute original. As for the lackluster casting, the producer of Aladdin vowed to make “a diverse version of the movie. . . . We’re not here to make Prince of Persia.” But by failing to find anyone with genuine movie-star appeal to fill the human roles, the filmmakers set themselves up to make something as mediocre as Prince of Persia. “Please don’t hate us” is not an attitude conducive to artistic achievement. Play it safe, and you may come up with something that doesn’t play at all.