Aladdin: good, but with a very large hole at its heart

The biggest problem with Disney’s new live-action remake of its 1992 animated feature, isn’t even in the film. But we’ll come to that later.

Aladdin: Mena Massoud and someone who’s not Robin Williams

Before that, let’s talk about what is in the film. It is, by and large, a scene-for-scene remake of its cartoon predecessor, and it’s a handsome thing to look at. With Guy Richie’s direction reined in somewhat compared to, let’s say, Snatch or Lock, Stock (and, when one thinks of his recent outings, such as the execrable King Arthur, this really isn’t entirely a bad thing), it has a certain panache, and it does take pains to make sure you know that you’re on familiar territory — Aladdin, played by Mena Massoud, an actor chosen more for his alarming resemblance to the cartoon original character than for his singing abilities, is still a street rat, the guards tell him that “only the fleas will mourn you,” he falls for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott, a Londoner with a faintly incongruous generic American accent and a lovely singing voice), the daughter of the Sultan (Navid Negahban), who’s under the spell of Jafar (a surprisingly understated and not terribly evil Marwan Kenzari, chewing significantly less scenery that one would expect the role to require), who has a parrot named Iago (Alan Tudyk).

So, if you know the original — and if, like me, you raised a child any time after 1992, you’ll know the original — you know, almost word for word, what to expect for much of the two hours of Aladdin. The songs largely remain the same, although Jasmine is given a pleasingly strong, both musically and lyrically, new Alan Menken number, Speechless, which finally addresses the fact that the original Jasmine was, as has typically been the case with Disney princesses, a pawn for the men to move around as they see fit. She’s still by and large a possession of the Sultan, redeemed by her newfound prince, but at least there’s an attempt to give her some agency here. There’s also an attempt to address the whitewashing of the original, which was set in some non-specifically exotic middle-eastern location but voiced entirely by white American actors. This version is peopled almost entirely by actors of colour, the only white face on the screen being there for purposes of mockery, but there is no consistency — while Massoud was born in Egypt, Scott is of Indian ancestry, and Nasim Pedrad, who plays Jasmine’s maid Dalia, is originally from Iran. It’s not entirely clear what the casting is meant to reflect — on the one hand, it’s good that a film that’s not set in the white west isn’t entirely populated by white westerners, but on the other, there is a tendency among white westerners to assume that anyone a little bit brown is all part of some big amorphous construct called “colour,” and there’s no need to differentiate. Yes, I know it’s a start, and yes, I know, Agrabar isn’t a real place, but I’d like to see something a little more thoughtful than lumping non-white people all together.

But, ultimately, none of this matters. This is Aladdin, this is a remake of possibly the finest hour of perhaps one of the greatest comic film actors of his generation, and so there is no escaping the absence of Robin Williams. His Genie was something quite special. It wasn’t just a role that he played — Williams, famously, improvised much of his monologues, the animators then producing artwork around his lines. His first appearance out of his lamp, in particular, was a tour de force that barely belonged in a children’s cartoon — it was a genuinely brilliant performance. Brave, then, is the man who tries to take on that role. And Will Smith, wisely, didn’t try to reproduce Williams’ manic energy or inspired stream-of-consciousness delivery. No performer could hope to imitate such a singular performance. But instead of finding his own energy, instead of creating an alternative vision of Genie, Smith, rather disappointingly, played it quite straight. There is nothing wrong with Smith’s Genie — it’s not Williams’ Genie, but then, what ever could be? — but there’s not that much remarkable about it either. Had we never seen the original, we’d have been perfectly happy with this version. But Robin Williams was the defining presence of the first Aladdin, and his absence is a very large hole that needed something very special to fill, and while Smith is a perfectly pleasant and engaging presence on screen — there’s a nice framing device which sees Williams as a father telling this children how he met their mother, and he’s engagingly agreeable here — and while he’s smart enough not to try to replicate the unique, he simply doesn’t meet what must, presumably, be an all-but-impossible task.

And so we have to ask the inevitable question: what was the point of this film? Disney are trawling through their back catalogue, remaking their animated classics as live-action efforts, and while some (Cinderella, The Jungle Book) are getting decent receptions, others (Dumbo being the low-water mark here) have been monstrous disappointments. Genie notwithstanding, Aladdin is a fine attempt to reproduce a much-loved film — classic songs like A Whole New World and Prince Ali remain belters, the spectacle is quite spectacular, Richie’s direction gives the film a decent amount of energy and vim, but, absent Robin Williams, the Genie is, sadly, back in the lamp.

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