The long daggers have been out for this movie since it was announced. How dare Disney remake “Aladdin”, how dare Will Smith get cast as the Genie, What the hell is Guy Richie doing as the director of this movie? The purists were waiting with their skepticism and animus and you could here snarky comments everywhere. The same criticisms that have been made by people who hated on “Beauty and the Beast“, “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dumbo“. While admittedly the last two were misfires, “Beauty and the Beast” managed to catch fire at the box office and please a lot of fans of that movie. “The Jungle Book” also managed to overcome early doubts and be a critical as well as commercial success. So the question now is which category is this film going to end up in, Disney Magic pile or Tim Burton tinkering wreck? …I’m going to make you wait a little while longer to find out what I thought. First, I have an answer to a question that many have asked, why is Disney on a remake kick.?
Obviously it is ultimately about money. Disney is a corporation that employs thousands, has millions of investors, and is the largest movie studio in the world right now. Before the mid eighties and after the death of founder Walt Disney, the studio suffered a long nearly fallow period as a film business. They put out family films that were cookie cutter product with a limited vision, and the new animation projects like “Robin Hood, The Rescuers and The Black Cauldron” were creatively weak. The company had relied on their seven year marketing of the vault films to keep the studio afloat. So what if “The Rescuers” under-performs, we have Pinocchio to play in the summer. When you have a golden goose in the cupboard dropping eggs every seven to ten years, you can get a little complacent. It was actually when the dreaded corporate types like Michael Eisner and Jeffery Wells participated in storming the Magic Kingdom, that such complacency was smothered. There was one other problem however, technology. The home video revolution that came about with the video tape recorder put the lid on the potential of these movies to be evergreens, at least in the theater. As the classic animated movies were released on home video, a new revenue stream was created but at the expense of the old one. The old platform would not sustain itself on product that people could own and watch at home, so new product has to fill the theatrical chute. We got live action remakes of “The Jungle Book” in 1994 and “101 Dalmatians” in 1996. These set the template for a remake, tell the same story but do so differently. The biggest worries most people have about the upcoming “Lion King” remake is that it will be a shot for shot reproduction. The trick however is to give us the familiar, while also making it unique enough to draw in an audience. Does “Aladdin” walk the tightrope? I’d say yes.
There are some important key differences between the animated film and this live-action version. Princess Jasmine is a much more assertive character in this telling of the tale. She does not just want to choose who to marry, she wants to be Sultan herself. Aladdin is a thief, but he is one that has some scruples and those are emphasized more in his relationship to Jasmine. Instead of a buffoon, the Sultan is an over protective father and is under the spell of the vizier Jaffar from early on. Jaffar’s plans include an expansion of military power against neighboring countries, but the loyalty of the palace soldiers is to the Sultan. Some of this is ladled on to make the story more adult but it also makes some of the character actions more understandable. The biggest difference is the Genie himself. Robin Williams brilliant comedy riffs can’t be replicated but the Genie has to have a fun and friendly relationship to the title character and those have to fit the actor who portrays him. Will Smith has been devoting the last seven years to films that don’t play to his comic strengths but rather his acting skill, and he has been hit or miss. The role of Genie gives him a chance to put on the jocular persona he was known for and make it work as part of the story. Also, he can sing and he dances a little. From the early reaction to film clips, you’d have thought his CGI appearance was amateurish and either you wanted him blue or you hated the idea of him actually being blue, or both. The way it plays out in the film is perfectly fine and should satisfy the contradictory impulses of those critics.
We do get several numbers from the animated film repeated, but with enough differences to make the experience worth it. I was a little underwhelmed by the early clip of the “Prince Ali” song. On the small screen it loses it’s impact and it looks a little silly. With the power of the full sized screen however, you can enjoy the expansiveness of the dance number an appreciate the more subtle CGi and concomitant use of real sets and actors in the sequence. “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me” is filled with Will Smith moments rather than trying to replicate Williams version. In fact most of the songs had some nice updates on their lyrics and the comic bits from Smith and Richie are more universal than the now dated references from the 1992 film. One of the nice improvements is the way the narrator character from the animated film has been replaced and the new version integrates that character into the story.
I enjoyed the Bollywood style dancing and the gymnastics that are set throughout the film. Again, I saw several people disgruntled with the trailers but when things are seen in total they work pretty well. Guy Richie had some clever camera movements during the chase scenes and the travelogue moments are are interesting. I ended up being very pleased with the movie in spite of my own indifference. This came out three weeks ago and I was not in any hurry to see it, but now that I have, I wish I’d gone earlier, it’s very entertaining and it feeds the beast.