Where is Disney going wrong? It’s an abysmal question and one that Disney (and most) would shrug off considering the financial success of their films, but it is one that is leading audiences and critics alike – who are seeing some of their recent blockbusters – to look back on past films in fondness rather than look forward to anything new. From Beauty and the Beast (2017), to Dumbo (2019), and now Aladdin (2019), Disney is turning back the clock and regurgitating and recalibrating our favourite classics for the big screen. With new actors, live action, and striking visuals that haven’t been seen to this degree before, there is no doubt that the scale of these films is reflective of the current nature of high concept filmmaking – bigger is (almost) always better. This is not to say that the same statement doesn’t ring true across the historic pantheon of cinematic blockbusters, there’s just a constant fleet of these films engulfing multiplex’s across the globe.
So where does Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin sit under that giant umbrella that just can’t be torn no matter the storm of critical backlash? For starters, it’s bigger than the first (or original) Aladdin (1992), so that checkbox is ticked off, and it brings with it a diverse cast full of freshness and new faces (with Will Smith being its most prolific name). Some of these new faces include Mena Massoud who plays Aladdin in what is his most prolific leading role, Nasim Pedrad who plays Dalia and Marwan Kenzari who plays Jafar. Naomi Scott is not a new face as such, though this is perhaps her biggest role to date as Princess Jasmine. It is clear from the films outset that it is much crisper on the eye than its predecessor, and has had all of the softness and warmth of the animation sanded and ultimately, replaced with much harder edges. What was such a standout with the animated version was its simplistic approach to the look and feel of the world it was portraying. Sure, the animations themselves might feel dated now and might not reflect the expectations that have come with high end studio filmmaking, but there was a certain irreplaceable quality about the 1992 version of Aladdin and the Disney films of the time. That quality just can’t be captured today which is what made them so enjoyable as audiences knew that a world like the animated one just couldn’t be found anywhere outside of that film and just couldn’t be lived.
With the live action remake, the same obviously applies as it is a fantastical world, but it lacks the zest that accompanied the original – a lot of which is owed to the late Robin Williams and his voicing of Genie. The story worked alongside its characters or rather, for them, whereas with Ritchie’s version the story is overshadowed by the foreboding look of the film. For one, Will Smith’s Genie is a blue tyrant who has dominated more discussion about the film than anything when he was first revealed. That was just one of the talking points that had audience’s questioning how a live action Aladdin could possibly live up to the piquant animation, with the likes of casting being another. However, the diverseness of the cast and the freshness they bring works more to the films favour in that there isn’t an overly far-reaching background of work to compare or hold these actors ransom to – though the same might not be said for Will Smith and his portrayal. In all fairness, Smith’s Genie isn’t all that appealing on the eye and it is hard not to look past his witty persona and see him as an overlord of sorts. Whereas Williams’ voice had just the right amount of ardour and boisterousness to leave one feeling warm and giddish, Smith’s Genie washes those feelings away as his digitalized face shows that pushing technical boundaries and soaring for that ‘wow’ factor doesn’t always pay off. His character detracts from the films story which is very much a rehash of the original but with a few Ritchie signatures – all of which divulge the looseness of a remake and a director losing innovation.
As mentioned, the film has a visual uplift that is hard to not admire, but it adds nothing new to the Aladdin story. The costume design is stunning and is sure to receive some attention heading into awards season (much like with Beauty and the Beast), the palace of Agrabah is breathtaking in its architecture and the city of Agrabah feels like a long lost desert haven, and the colour palette is exquisite as it captures the cultural borders that these Disney films – with Black Panther (2018) coming to mind – stretch across. It is clear that diversifying to, and embracing upon various Middle Eastern and African cultures is working for Disney as audiences feel a greater sense of inclusiveness in the worlds of these films and aren’t treated as outsiders. Cultural inclusion is synonymous to visual grandeur in Disney films and the results are almost always eye-gasims and an appreciation for the digital effects, art design and production design teams on these big budget blockbusters. Where these films fall flat is where they shun any hopes of cohesive and structured storytelling and prioritise making the film look good rather than feel good – or be good for that matter. Like with Beauty and the Beast (and dare I say the underwhelming Dumbo) these films translate successful stories but fail to translate the success that came with those stories. They bring nothing new to the table and just aren’t invigorating works because they’ve been told the same way before – the same emotions have been felt before. When one tries to invest in the characters, that opportunity is quickly taken away as there is an unrelenting advance between each scene to the point where the film is trying to showcase this familiar iconography and these familiar scenarios from the original whilst never focusing on showcasing its own potential. The songs themselves just don’t hold up in the same way as their tenderness is stripped and their importance to the film, abolished. Ritchie’s version serves to remind you of the original without ever holding its own. Financial success will always be there because there will always be a market for films and stories that have been the foundation of Disney – they’ll just never surpass that foundation and will be the stories that Disney looks to when they want to exploit nostalgia.
The Aladdin story has been seen and heard before: street urchin meets wealthy Princess; is convinced to steal a lamp for Vizier to be with Princess; lamp is special and has a Genie who grants three wishes; urchin becomes Prince who the Princess falls for; lies surface; Vizier steals lamp and uses it to be Sultan; urchin tricks Vizier by cashing in on Vizier’s greed; urchin and Princess (now Sultan) end up together; all is well. This plot summary shouldn’t be taken as an indication of dislike but rather, as a dissatisfaction for the failure to capitalize on the opportunity to strive for innovativeness. Guy Ritchie’s last two films have been King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) – a critical and financial disaster – and Aladdin (2019). He is probably one of the least inspired directors working on big budget films today and hasn’t made anything worth gushing over since Sherlock Holmes (2008). Aladdin only reaffirms that assertion, though it is not so much Ritchie’s fault this time around as it is the studio standards at Disney. Tim Burton’s Dumbo has nothing Tim Burton in it apart from a few intertextual crossovers with the likes of casting and his costume designer and composer. Disney is fast becoming the maker of dreams and the breaker of style – they’re a great gateway for those starting out in the industry, but they’re also a retirement home pushing its older patients out of their third storey, wide view windows so as to remind them that their days on top are numbered.
Perhaps by playing it safe, Disney is accounting for any possible contingencies. With The Lion King (2019) just around the corner, it is difficult to tell whether any ambivalent feelings about it being able to offer anything unique and exciting will be rectified. If Aladdin (2019) is anything to go by, ‘a whole new world’ is fast becoming old and in need of resurgence. I’ve used my first wish, let’s see if it comes true.