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[Herald Review] ‘Aladdin’ remake is OK, but not enchanting

Watching the trailer of the “Aladdin,” 2019 remake of the beloved 1992 Disney animation, I thought it would be either be fantastic or a steaming pile of disappointment.

To my surprise, it was neither. The Guy Ritchie film had its fun moments, and was an absolute joy to the eyes. Its characters were likeable, but the flick had some clunky storytelling moments and did not really capture the wonder and magic of the original. 

“Aladdin” / Walt Disney Co. Korea
“Aladdin” / Walt Disney Co. Korea

“Street rat” Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is an impoverished but kindhearted soul who unwittingly falls in love with Sultan’s daughter Jasmin (Naomi Scott), who ran into him while she was walking on the streets of Agrabah in disguise.

Jasmin struggles with the prejudices of the time prohibiting her from becoming the next ruler and helping her people, with the nefarious vicar Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) looking to undermine her father’s authority.

In his attempt to take over the kingdom, Jafar recruits Aladdin to steal a lamp from a magical cave. But when the cave collapses, Aladdin accidentally finds that the lamp holds an all-powerful Genie (Will Smith) that grants three wishes, opening a world of possibilities for the lowly thief.

I liked that Ritchie tried to update the film to the 21st century. Aladdin was given more character, diving deeper into the prejudice surrounding him and his struggles to maintain his personality in the presence of all the power and wealth in the world.

The film really delves into women’s empowerment through Jasmin, who was already one of the strongest female Disney characters in 1992. Throughout the film, she is seen as a person struggling in face of the perception that women should be married and stay at home.

Surprisingly, this works well in making the instant romance between the two protagonists more convincing. She does not just fall for him because he showed her the world, but does so because he is the only person who sees her for who she is.

“Aladdin” / Walt Disney Co. Korea
“Aladdin” / Walt Disney Co. Korea

Despite being an animated film, the 1992 “Aladdin” was loud, flamboyant and bombastic, which is the same for the remake, especially the scenes featuring the Genie. The film was also visually impressive. Perhaps this is because I am someone from outside that culture, but Agrabah looked amazing, as did the world from the perspective of someone on a flying carpet.

The CGI version was also impressive. While it looked cartoony at times, it still worked because the tone of the movie allowed for a cartoony look.

But the narrative was rushed and a little forced. The original animation did not have much character development, but the new one did not add much. Digging deeper into the theme of prejudice and women’s empowerment was great, but I never felt like the film did enough to develop the characters.

Instead they just sang a song about it and the audience were just expected to play along.

There were some questionable storytelling techniques. When Jasmin first appears on the screen, she literally takes two loaves of bread from a stand and gives them away to starving children. When the infuriated merchant demands that she pays him, Jasmin declares that she has no money and reprimands the merchant for calling her thief.

Why would you use that as Jasmin’s defining moment? Taking something without permission of the owner with an intent to do as you please, is by definition thievery. Why not have her help out the children out of her instincts and apologize to the merchant? The merchant is one of her people, too. Why would such a great leader be so self-important after stealing, as if it was hers to give away in the first place? It doesn’t make any sense.

Another weird moment was when Jasmin started singing, and it turned into a full-on music video, leading to the most cringe-worthy scene in the film.

Yes, it is a musical, and I can understand the logic of a monologue about your dream to become the first female Sultan in a song, or even singing while running for your life. But why would everything and everyone freeze in their place? Why would some people just magically disappear as she breaks into a song?

The scene is so tonally different from the rest of the film that it sticks out like a sore thumb. It is literally a music video that has been shoehorned into a movie.

Jasmin was always a strong character, and I felt developing her story arc would have served more purpose than having these forced moments.

But the character of Genie was really what was crucial to this being a successful remake, since it was Robin Williams’ ingenious performance that made this a Disney classic.

And Will Smith was … OK. He had his natural charisma, was funny and likeable, and he did a good job of pulling off a decent Robin Williams. But this is just the problem. Nobody is ever going to be as good at being Robin Williams as the man himself, and I felt like the movie was hell-bent on recreating his performance rather than to have its own unique Genie.

The film cast the Fresh Prince, why not have a rapping Genie? I know “Kazaam” was hurtful, but this is Will Smith, not some seven-foot giant pretending to be a rapper.

Actually I liked the scenes when Genie was disguised as a human. Although it was one of those instances of Will Smith playing himself, his character was still likeable and the chemistry between him and Aladdin really worked there.

Jafar and Iago were also disappointing. In the original, Jafar was such a slime whom everyone loved to hate, and Gilbert Gottfried’s voicing of his evil but the idiotic pet parrot was enjoyable. Here, they are both generic villians.

Overall, it was a fun film, an OK film, but not one that leaves much of an impression. “Aladdin” is a beloved Disney classic and I felt it was too caught up with the original version to be its own movie.

The film opens in local theaters on May 24.

By Yoon Min-sik (