Aladdin (2019): My Second Favorite Disney Nostalgia Bait Movie

OK, I’ll cut to the chase. I find Will Smith’s Genie funnier than Robin Williams’s Genie.

Note I said funnier, not more fun if I can make that distinction. Robin Williams’s Genie is probably more fun, but the only funny line of dialogue I remember from him is when Aladdin worries that Jasmine will laugh at him and he says, “A woman appreciates a man who can make her laugh.” Whenever he himself gets a laugh from me, usually when his jaw drops, it’s more because of the animation than Williams. It’s great fun to watch the animators’ keep up with his rapid-fire impersonations, but while he may be the most fun of the 1992 Aladdin‘s strong supporting cast of comedic characters, he’s probably the least funny.[1]My vote for the funniest supporting character probably goes to the sultan or Iago. Will Smith’s Genie makes me laugh a lot more. I also enjoy his relationship with the live action Aladdin (Mena Massoud) better than the relationship between the characters in the animated movie. Here the Genie starts out more condescending and resentful towards his latest master[2]Making him incidentally ever so slightly closer to a traditional djinn. so it has real emotional power when they bond.

I’ll admit that Mena Massoud is just blandly likeable in the lead role, but Scott Weinger was also just blandly likeable as Aladdin in the old movie. And the remake’s script by John August and Guy Ritchie, who also directs, makes the character more interesting than in the original.

There his main motivation for lying about his identity to Jasmine was that he feared she wouldn’t love him if she knew the truth and the main lesson that he needed to learn was to be more confident in himself. Since it was blatantly obvious to anyone watching that Jasmine fell for Aladdin back when he was a homeless pickpocket, this didn’t make for a very interesting character arc. The 2019 movie makes it much more about power being addictive. In 1992, when Aladdin promised the genie to use his third and final wish to free him, the Genie responded by momentarily turning into Pinocchio, indicating he believed Aladdin was lying. Here he cynically observes that the thing about people and wishes is “the more they have, the more they want.” The implication is that Aladdin may mean what he says now but will inevitably be corrupted by the lamp. This proves to be the case. Unlike the animated Aladdin, this one doesn’t even apologize in the scene where he reneges on his promise. The Genie, for his part, is less bothered by that, as he never expected the promise to be fulfilled, than saddened by the revelation that Aladdin now has no intention of ever telling Jasmine the truth about his identity. “You’d rather lie to someone you love than give all of this up,” he says. Some fans of the animated film may not approve of these changes to the characters, but I think they make for a far more interesting scene. Its equivalent in the original isn’t bad per se, but it’s the part of the movie that you have to sit through to get to its main attraction, the comedy and action. I’d say much same thing about the romantic comedy elements, which are much more engaging here than in the old movie where they were, again, not bad, just obligatory.

Naomi Scott as Jasmine is one of the best of the recent live action Disney Princesses. While Emma Watson and Elle Fanning did fine as Belle and Aurora respectively, they come across as girls-next-door despite their celebrity status in real life. Watching Scott in this movie, you really do feel like she’s a fairy tale princess.[3]It’s worth mentioning here that not all princesses in fairy tales are good characters. But even evil fairy tale princesses are typically beautiful and charismatic. She’s helped by the fact that the script’s attempts to make Jasmine more of a feminist character, by having her wish to become Sultan herself rather than just wanting to marry whomever she wants, really do serve to make her more interesting and don’t come across as simply obligatory. Admittedly, the movie is a bit hampered in these attempts by the fact that it’s a Type B Disney nostalgia bait movie, which means it sticks very close to the original movie’s story, which was driven by Aladdin’s actions and the climax of which hinged on his redeeming himself. It’s hard to have Jasmine be the big hero without ceasing to make dramatic sense. Aladdin (2019) gives her more to do by expanding on a moment in the original film’s last act where she refuses to bow down to the villain who has used the magic lamp to make himself Sultan. This is somewhat forced and makes Jasmine more competent at the expense of the other relevant characters, but I get invested enough in her character watching the movie and the speech she gives is well written enough that I enjoy it.[4]And if her accusation that Jafar claims to be seeking glory for his country when he really just wants it for himself was intended as political commentary, I’m impressed by how not preachy it … Continue reading

Jasmine gets the film’s big award bait song, Speechless.[5]There was another one, Desert Moon, which got cut. While the pacing reasons behind its deletion were excellent, it’s worth a listen. While the character is written differently enough, and Naomi Scott’s voice is great enough that she merited more than a duet with the hero[6]Actually, Lea Salonga, who provided Jasmine’s singing voice in the animated movie (Linda Larkin did her speaking) deserved more than that too., the new song sadly doesn’t mesh that well with the preexisting ones. And the staging is rather awkward as it comes near the end and is presented as a fantasy scene inside the singer’s head while all the musical numbers up to this point have been implied to be happening in real life. They’re a mixed bag in general with the Genie’s being the better.

The montage that introduces the movie’s world during Arabian Nights gets things off to a great start. Never Had a Friend Like Me is, if anything, even more fun to watch than its 1992 animated counterpart. Prince Ali isn’t but I can watch and enjoy it without thinking about that. Too many beats of One Jump Ahead though are just recreations of the original only less fun due to not being a cartoon. To be fair though, that number always felt like the choreography and possibly the music was done first and the lyrics afterwards (how else do you explain “one hit ahead of the flock?”), so perhaps there wasn’t much the remake could do. A Whole New World has its charms but is doomed by its realism[7]To the extent that a scene of people flying around on a magic carpet can have realism. to be less visually entertaining than the original scene in which Aladdin and Jasmine seemingly flew not only all over the world but throughout history and returned while the night was still young.[8]It’s a strange quirk of Type B Disney nostalgia bait movies that they do a better job at recreating the magic of the cartoony over-the-top production numbers, like Be Our Guest, than the more … Continue reading

At first glance, Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar may also seem like a pale imitation of his cackling cartoon counterpart, so memorably voiced by Johnathan Freeman. But I’d argue that the relative blandness of this Jafar is precisely the point. There’s nothing unusual about his villainy. Envy and ruthless ambition can be found in all kinds of people, not just over-the-top bad guys. I like the way the script brings out the parallels between Jafar and Aladdin, inherent in the original, with both of them being willing to deceive and trample over anyone to claw their way to the top. This could have been a double standard with Aladdin and Jafar being condemned for seeking more power and Jasmine being praised for it, but the movie seems to be aware of this potential problem and frames Jasmine’s wish to be Sultan in terms of her wanting to help the people of her country rather than just herself. And I’m impressed that the film bothers to give Jafar a specific motive for seeking to invade his country’s ally when I’d have completely accepted him just wanting to do it because he’s the bad guy.

You’ve probably discerned by now that I don’t consider Aladdin (1992) to be a “great” movie in any profound sense of the term. I do consider it great in that it’s a highly entertaining piece of fluff and I’d say Aladdin (2019) lives up to that standard while being a bit more thoughtful and interesting. Now that’s not to say that everything about it is superior or even equal to the original movie. While I enjoy most of the leads more, the remake doesn’t have any original ideas for most of the supporting characters, like Abu the monkey and the magic carpet, and they just end up being less memorable, photorealistic versions of the animated ones. (Though the movie does partially compensate for this with the wonderful new supporting characters of Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) the handmaiden, who plays Nerissa to Jasmine’s Portia, and Prince Anders (Billy Magnussen), a hopeless suitor of Jasmine’s, the relative briefness of whose screentime is one the movie’s disappointments. And I like what the remake does with Jafar’s parrot familiar, Iago (Alan Tudyk), having him say the things aloud that Jafar thinks but conceals.) The action scenes are not as fun and there are parts, though fewer than in most Type B Disney nostalgia bait movies, that have a been-there-done-that-didn’t-want-the-t-shirt feel. And I miss hand drawn animation!

Objectively speaking, I’d say the two movies are about equal. The things which this Aladdin does better make me personally like it a bit more. It certainly retains a good deal of the 1992 film’s cartoony spirit, which distinguishes it from other recent Disney nostalgia bait just as it gave the original its own personality distinct from its Disney animated contemporaries. More than any other Disney nostalgia bait movie, this feels like it was fun to make. I imagine that feeling is an illusion, and it was actually a pain to make, considering all the stunts, dance numbers and special effects in it. But would I ever not be surprised to know that the people making it really were having fun!

References

References
1 My vote for the funniest supporting character probably goes to the sultan or Iago.
2 Making him incidentally ever so slightly closer to a traditional djinn.
3 It’s worth mentioning here that not all princesses in fairy tales are good characters. But even evil fairy tale princesses are typically beautiful and charismatic.
4 And if her accusation that Jafar claims to be seeking glory for his country when he really just wants it for himself was intended as political commentary, I’m impressed by how not preachy it is. I mean it’s preachy but not any more preachy than I’d expect a nonpolitical kids’ movie to be.
5 There was another one, Desert Moon, which got cut. While the pacing reasons behind its deletion were excellent, it’s worth a listen.
6 Actually, Lea Salonga, who provided Jasmine’s singing voice in the animated movie (Linda Larkin did her speaking) deserved more than that too.
7 To the extent that a scene of people flying around on a magic carpet can have realism.
8 It’s a strange quirk of Type B Disney nostalgia bait movies that they do a better job at recreating the magic of the cartoony over-the-top production numbers, like Be Our Guest, than the more emotional dramatic ones, like Beauty and the Beast. You’d think the latter would be easier to do in a photorealistic way.
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