Non-Review Review: Aladdin (2019)

22-05-2019 11:05

Aladdin is a fairly sturdy adaptation of a beloved animated film.

The obvious point of comparison here is something like Beauty and the Beast, with the live action adaptation facing many of the same challenges. By that standard, Aladdin acquits itself quite well. As with Beauty and the Beast before it, Aladdin is a fairly straightforward no-frills and no-surprises effort to transition a classic piece of nineties animation into live action; it lifts both the song and score, the set pieces, the themes, the characters, even the tempo. It is less ambitious or imaginative adaptation process than Alice in Wonderland or Pete’s Dragon, for better and worse.

Carrying a lamp for the original…

With that in mind, Aladdin feels like a clear improvement upon Beauty and the Beast. A large part of this is down to knowing what to do with the roughly forty minutes of storytelling real estate that seem to be added to these projects by default, adapting eighty-minute cartoons into two-hour blockbusters. The cartoons that inspired Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin were already very tightly structured and very well-constructed, so anything added to otherwise highly faithful adaptations those films often feels alien or uncomfortable.

Beauty and the Beast seemed particularly unsure what to do with those forty minutes, leading to strange narrative diversions to answer questions that nobody asked, like, “What happened to Belle’s mother?” In contrast, Aladdin benefits from a much better understanding of where the story can be fleshed out. There are a few clumsy missteps along the way; the new songs often stand out in contrast to those ported over from the original film, and the first act drags a little. However, by and large, Aladdin understand what aspects of the original can stand to be bulked up.

“And you’re sure you want to use your wish for a photo-realistic Sonic the Hedgehog movie?”

If this is to be the future of these adaptations – and the success of Beauty and the Beast means that it most likely will be – then Aladdin is far from the worst template. It is fun, it is light, it is diverting. It has a charismatic cast, and a solid understanding of the story that it is updating. However, it is also a little sluggish at the start and bloated at the end, traits inherited from modern blockbusters rather than a result of the process of adapting the source material.

At the same time, as with Beauty and the Beast, the same core issues shine through. Despite what spoiler culture might suggest, a film is more than just a series of plot events. Aladdin is adapting a film that was designed specifically for another medium, while making a point to stress its fidelity to that source material while translating it to live action. The biggest problem with Aladdin is built into it from the outset; this is an approach to the story that will always work better in animation than in live action.

It’s not quite a whole new world…

Naturally, traditional hand-drawn animation and live action are two different media, just as computer-generated animation is also a different medium of itself. It would be reductive to suggest that these different media have different strengths and weaknesses, but they do tell stories in different ways. The original nineties cartoon version of Aladdin was designed as a showcase for Disney’s animation division, the story built from the ground-up to work within both the limitations and the possibilities of hand-drawn animation.

As a result, the story is packed with elements that work much better in animation than they ever could in live action. Not only are the human (and humanoid) characters consciously stylised as a shorthand introduction to their personalities, but the animals are anthropomorphised in a way that renders them expressive and communicative. Computer-generated animation can do these things, as Pixar demonstrates, but it doesn’t quite work when the film aspires towards verisimilitude.

The parrot Iago, the tiger Rajah and the monkey Abu cannot work the same way in a world designed to look like live action cinema. This is not to diminish the effects work on Aladdin, but simply to illustrate the challenges in adapting the story so faithfully. A more prudent and effective live action adaptation might make a point to play down the importance of those characters, to marginalise them and to understand that they cannot serve the same purpose. However, Aladdin is committed to using them in the same roles as their cartoon counterparts.

Similarly, animation can draw a more consciously stylised world, to portray a more magical and improbable setting for a story like this. In animation, beautiful cities look like they were plucked from the artist’s imagination, looking almost like the etchings and the illustrations in historical texts and so directly evoking that sense of lost wonder. It is harder for live action to evoke that sense of wonder, and it often pushes the story into the realm of science-fiction or fantasy; the worlds of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. It’s no coincidence matte paintings could serve that function.

Well, that’s one way to air a rug.

Aladdin tries. Indeed, cinematographer Alan Stewart consciously and clearly tries to capture the best of both worlds, to shoot the real world without making it seem like “a whole new world.” The film turns up the saturation in exterior shots to make the desert and the city look vibrant. The houses are painted in pinks and blues, the dunes are bright orange waves set against a clear blue sky. It looks quite lovely, but the effort to directly evoke the fantasy of the cartoon occasionally pushes the film into the uncanny, blending live action and computer generated spectacle.

Still, these problems are baked into the premise, and it seems almost redundant to acknowledge them. Aladdin understands exactly what it is doing and exactly what it is indulging. The film even introduces a framing device, allowing an old fisherman to regale his children with the magical story of Aladdin and the Genie trapped in the lamp. There’s something clever and self-aware in this framing device, even beyond the inclusion of Will Smith.

Aladdin is a film designed to both evoke nostalgia from the generation who watched the original film during the nineties and function as something to be shared with their children, similar to the new Star Wars films. The framing device provides a necessary context for the film. This is not so much an adaptation as a patched upgrade. It is a modern twenty-first century skin pasted over a familiar wireframe structure to update it so that it can be enjoyed by a new generation.

It is possible to be cynical about this, to treat this as a cynical effort to repackage familiar intellectual property for a new generation of consumers while trading on the nostalgia of older audiences. However, the best of these adaptations have found something worthwhile in the update process. The reimagined Pete’s Dragon ranks among the finest live-action films that Disney has ever produced. More than that, older properties actively encourage some ingenuity and creativity in reworking them for the modern era.

He’s a genie in a bottle, you gotta rub him the right way…

Maleficent offered a consciously more modern take on Sleeping Beauty, interrogating some of the politics informing the original from the late fifties in a way that felt at least justifiable. Similarly, Dumbo offered the studio a chance to reinvent a classic story by stripping out the explicitly racist elements of the forties classic, and forcing the creative team to put another story in its place. Dumbo is a flawed reimagining, but it has some interesting things to say, including a (gentle but barbed) critique of Disney itself. So there is something to be said for this approach.

The challenge with adaptations of more modern reimaginings like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin is that the originals are not so far removed that they need reinvention or reimagining. Instead, they seem to exist largely so that these properties may remain marketable to a younger generation that has moved away from conventional two-dimensional hand-drawn adaptation. With that in mind, Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin does a pretty good job of understanding its material on a narrative level and understanding how to translate those elements into the modern world.

This is most obvious with the role of the Genie. Despite the title of the film, the central character in Aladdin was always the Genie. The casting of Robin Williams was one of the rare times that an actor’s star persona not only complimented the animated film (as with Jeremy Irons or James Earl Jones in The Lion King), but actively overpowered it. Williams was a force of nature, even in animated form. (And even asking for his involvement to be downplayed.) While Whole New World might have been the big ballad in Aladdin, the showstopping number was always Friend Like Me.

As such, the most important role in the reimagining is Genie as well. Ritchie understands this, casting Will Smith in the role. Will Smith is a bona fides movie star, as much as the concept exists in an era built upon the power of intellectual property. Like Tom Cruise, Smith has struggled in trying to adapt to the new multimedia landscape; he has tried his hand at franchise filmmaking with Suicide Squad and even tried to anchor Netflix’s first blockbuster Bright. However, while Cruise has wedded the Mission: Impossible franchise to his star persona, Smith remains adrift.

Quite the word smith.

This is the key strength of Aladdin. The film needs an old-fashioned movie star. Smith’s inability to disappear into the role is very much the point of casting him. While he does spend time in the character’s iconic blue form, Smith is first introduced without any make-up and spends most of the movie looking a lot like Will Smith. Smith is never meant to become the Genie, the Genie becomes Smith. This is a clever approach, understanding that the cartoon version was inseparable from Robin Williams.

Smith takes a great deal of pleasure in this classical approach to casting and character. Although the version of Friend Like Me that appears in the film itself is largely untouched, the closing credits allow Smith to make it his own with a wholesome rap version that repeatedly alludes to “climate change.” One of the big song and dance numbers finds Will Smith posing as part of group of women, with the joke being how impossible it is to disguise the fact that he is Will Smith; the smile, the beard, the demeanour.

Smith is an old-style movie star, and so he brings the charisma and charm of an old-style movie-star to the film. Despite the fact that the nominal protagonist of the film is the eponymous character, Smith is always fun to watch. In fact, the Genie’s flirtations with Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia have more playful charm to them than the structurally mandated conventional romance between Aladdin and Jasmine. Smith brings presence and energy to the film.

Indeed, the biggest misstep that the film makes in trying to extend the running time is to add a not insignificant chunk of those extra minutes before the introduction of the Genie. Still, even those sequences feel logical and rational. The opening scenes of the live action Aladdin bulk up the material involving the characters to add a greater sense of texture, allowing the audience to get a greater sense of who Aladdin and Jasmine and Jafar actually are before the plot kicks into gear.

Don’t cave under pressure.

There is a sense of pragmatism here, with Ritchie understanding both his own strengths and the way in which the movie might be bent to accommodate them. Class was always inherent to Aladdin; this is the rare Disney story about a male character who is elevated to a prince, and who experiences social anxiety. This is provides an effective point of intersection for Ritchie, who shares a screenplay credit. The introductory sequence – reworking One Step Ahead – owes as much to Ritchie’s work on King Arthur and Sherlock Holmes as to the animated original.

(Then again, the entire sequence is a reminder of the difficulties in translating animation into live action. The lyrics in the original version were much more literal than they are in the live action reimagining, in large part because it would be difficult or impossible to convincingly translate those beats into stunt work with real actors. This has the strange effect of making the song feel overly poetic and abstract, the lyrical equivalent of purple prose.)

Aladdin uses this interest in class and social structures to more effectively parallel and contrast Aladdin and Jafar than the source material did. Jafar is allowed more development and nuance than his cartoon counterpart, his motivations given a greater context than a simple desire for power. Ritchie positions Jafar as a striver, a man who has been impotent and dispossessed, and so has a real hunger to be “the most powerful man in the room.” It’s hardly the most nuanced approach, but it works well enough for the structure of the film.

The film’s preoccupation with class and power adds a sense of resonance to it, particularly the Genie’s repeated observation that what separates Aladdin from his previous “masters” is that he lacks the all-consuming lust for power and glory that defines characters like Jafar; Aladdin does not long to be a king or an emperor, except as an ill-judged effort to impress Jasmine. “Where’s the guy?” the Genie asks when summoned. “There’s usually a guy. He’s usually cheated somebody. Or buried some bodies.”

Prince Not-So-Charming.

That said, there is some lingering awkwardness in this meditation upon power. Ritchie’s Aladdin feels very faintly like an adaptation for the War on Terror. Not in any overt or charged manner, but more in the subtle details added at the margins of the story. Aladdin suggests that the kingdom of Agrabah is still reeling from an earlier tragedy; the death of a beloved queen. This death left the rulers isolated, and is implied to have allowed Jafar to expand his influence over the governance of the region.

Jafar aspires to rule based on fear. He spends a not-insignificant amount of time trying to draw Agrabah into a war with its neighbours, seeing in that potential conflict the opportunity to expand or develop his political power. Aladdin never leans too heavily on this idea, but it does return to it repeatedly. This helps to shade the film’s meditations upon power and class in the context of the twenty-first century. It is an interesting, if under-developed idea, but it does demonstrate that Ritchie understands that he is working a quarter of a century removed from the original work.

Similarly, Aladdin devotes a bit more space to developing Jasmine’s character, understanding that she was one of the more under-developed female leads of the era; a detail that is very obvious given that Aladdin followed on directly from Beauty and the Beast. In fact, one of the shrewder decisions in the adaptation is to give Jasmine an “I want” song, which cleverly carries over the spirit of original musician Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, even if their skill with music and character is still missed. Aladdin makes an effort to give Jasmine her own desires and aspirations, a clever choice.

Aladdin has its charms, mostly in how it understands what worked about the original and in its willingness to update certain elements of the story for a new millennium. More than that, a lot of the ways in which the film uses its extra runtime are clever and efficient; they recognise what it makes sense to add to the basic structure as it stands. However, there is still a sense in which Aladdin might have been a stronger film had it been willing to be a bit bolder, to push a bit further. Aladdin can never be a better cartoon than its source material, and it feels like a mug’s game to try.

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