By: Kevin Jordan
A problem with your REMAKE!!
As Disney continues to chew through live-action remakes of animated classics with Aladdin as the latest, all I can think is when will it end? The recently released Dumbo came and went with little notice, got panned by more critics than not and, depending on the marketing budget, will be lucky if it finishes in the black. 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was a wild box office success despite being devoid of any creative or fresh content and lacking anything resembling a soul. Now, we have the new Aladdin, arguably the best pre-Pixar animated film in the history of Disney, getting its turn in the rotation. Disney is betting that people’s nostalgia for the movie in general will outweigh the skepticism of Will Smith stepping into Robin Williams’ shadow as Genie. Ironically, Will Smith should have been the least of everyone’s worries.
If you have ever been to Disneyland or Disneyworld or Disney-On-Ice or a well-funded high school, you will recognize the level of performances by actors not named Will Smith in Aladdin. That is not to impugn the good folks at the theme parks who toil away for our entertainment. It is to impugn many of the humans in the movie who had no business being anywhere near a feature-length, $200 million dollar summer tentpole. Not that it is their fault that Aladdin’s casting director watched their auditions while unconscious, but it became almost painful to watch Will Smith highlight how completely out of their league was the rest of the cast.
It would be pointless to talk about the plot since everyone saw the original Aladdin (boy meets girl, boy finds magic lamp, acid trip featuring animated Robin Williams, wish, wish, giant snake, wish, boy marries girl). I do want to mention that there were a couple of nitwits sitting behind my son and me in the theater that were not only chattering throughout the film, but were also gasping at things on screen as if everything in the film was a complete surprise (and one of these people is a press member who also believes it’s cool to scroll through messages on her phone during movies). If it’s too much to ask for you to shut the hell up (and I did ask), at least have the decency to eat popcorn while you do it to ensure a chance that your next exaggerated gasp is your last.
Anyway, since the screenwriters (John August and Guy Ritchie) wrote a screenplay that was as different as night and later that night, I’m going to shine a violently bright spotlight on all of the main characters we know from the original. To start with, our lead actors – Mena Massoud (Aladdin) and Naomi Scott (Jasmine) – were about as flat as you can imagine. Both of them are exactly what you would find in a Disney Channel afternoon TV show. They are both extremely easy on the eyes, but extremely hard on brain. They deliver their lines as if they learned them that morning and have the chemistry of a brother and sister. Luckily, the two of them can both sing, so they aren’t completely useless.
Then, there is Marwan Kenzari playing Jafar, easily the most miscast actor in the film (and maybe in all films this year). Where cartoon Jafar was tall, lanky, menacing, and spoke with a deep, sinister voice, Kenzari looks short, is not menacing in the slightest, and speaks in a somewhat high-pitched, nasally voice. Kenzari seems to have no idea how to play a convincing villain, choosing to pout half his lines through his Jafar-beard while complaining about not being Sultan. He also has a weird thing about trying to start wars with every one of their allies and I cannot help but think that Ritchie (who also directed Aladdin) wrote Jafar as a subtle way to take a few shots at a certain petulant, tantrum-throwing, ally-attacking President. All the more reason to be completely turned off by this incarnation of Jafar.
Speaking of miscasting, Navid Negahban portrays the Sultan. Original Sultan was a dumpling of a man and a bit of a doofus. In contrast, Negahban delivers a Sultan that is that is dead serious. There are no crackers being shoved into Iago’s mouth. He is not gleefully riding Magic Carpet around the throne room. Even when a massive procession introducing Aladdin as Prince Ali comes parading down the streets, Sultan has to be prodded repeatedly by Genie to tap his finger on a rail to display any hint of pleasure. Negahban’s filmography is quite extensive, but I know him from FX’s show Legion. If you haven’t seen Legion, Negahban portrays a deliciously sinister villain, which just adds more confusion to the casting decisions. Apparently, they never watched Legion because Negahban should have been the obvious choice for Jafar. To make matters worse, Disney very recently completed the purchase of FX (among many other former Fox entertainment properties), which means Negahban already worked for them.
For me, the character that was screwed up the most was Iago. Gilbert Gottfried’s original Iago was snarky and devious and delighted the part of us that enjoys playing pranks on coworkers (try switching a couple of keys on the keyboards of people who watch the keys when they type). This new Iago is completely devoid of any personality, despite being voiced by the very talented Alan Tudyk. It is literally just a CGI parrot that squawks words once in a while. I still throw out the line “a problem with your DAUGHTER!” when the situation merits it and I died a little inside when this new Iago showed up (and so did Gottfried).
On the bright side, Will Smith was really good. I know people were in anguish about anyone following up Robin Williams, but did they forget who Will Smith is? I know he has done some garbage movies lately, but he is still Will Smith. As Genie, he put together a performance that was one part unique and one part homage, perfectly balancing the two to create a new, but familiar Genie. He is fun, he is charismatic, and he is the reason why people won’t walk out of this film.
Sadly, Smith is the only bright spot in this film. All of the old songs are back, which is nice only in that they weren’t butchered the way Christopher Walken and Bill Murray butchered their respective Jungle Book songs. There are also a couple of new songs that sound like they were churned out of the Disney pop-song-inator, which you will forget before they are even over. It is also hard to watch a Guy Ritchie-helmed film that is decidedly not Ritchie-esque (I can picture a corporate Disney overlord smacking him on the back of his neck every time he tried to insert his style). Essentially, this remake takes the charm and likability of the original and shoves it into a wood-chipper. Gee, I can’t wait until The Lion King remake releases.
Rating: Ask for all of your money back and make your kids watch the original. Even Will Smith won’t mind.