What Went Right With… Aladdin?

A review of Disney's Aladdin (2019)

There’s no doubt that Guy Ritchie’s films have been hit and miss; there was of course the classics Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch and there was the average-and-overrated Sherlock Holmes but there was also the downright terrible Swept Away and King Arthur. Seemingly abandoning tales of East-end gangster violence somewhere in the 2000s (since many people pointed out that he’s a toff from Hertfordshire who is related to the Duchess Of Cambridge) Ritchie then began making somewhat mediocre mainstream movies. His latest offering Aladdin falls somewhere in the middle of his filmography; not bad but not brilliant either. Thankfully, this is not a “Guy Ritchie movie” in the sense that the audience are clambering to watch his film, in fact the director could have been anybody. People who are nostalgic for the 1992 animated film or who are fans of Will Smith want to see this movie, and they won’t be disappointed. As long as you’re going to see this film for the cast rather than the director, you’ll be entertained.

With Disney ramping-up their translating of cartoons to live-action movies, Aladdin seems a perfect property to transfer into celluloid especially with the public calling for diversity and representation in mainstream Hollywood. And that being the case, I wonder if this film was supposed to be a Black Panther for people of Arabic decent? The folktale A Thousand And One Nights (aka Arabian Nights) on which this film is based, was after all, an Arabic story. The stars of this film are also descendants of that region (kind of). There’s Mena Massoud (Aladdin) who is Canadian by way of Egypt, Naomi Scott (Princess Jasmine) is mixed race Indian and English, Marwan Kenzari (Jafar) is Dutch but of Tunisian decent, Numan Acar (Hakim) is a Turkish born German, Nasim Pedrad (Dalia) and Navid Negahban (the Sultan) are Iranian-American, and Will Smith (the Genie) is African-American. That’s all of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia covered, which makes a change from all the historical ethnic mis-casting that Hollywood has been guilty of. The cast also includes Nina Wadia (Goodness Gracious Me, Eastenders) in a very short role and by the end of the film, I even recognised the dancer from the Wowcher “Things That Make You Go Wow” adverts (Nikkita Chadha) so you know the casting director trawled the entertainment sector for accurate ethnicities. This is a good sign but at the same time it kind of shows how little ethnic minorities are offered until their skin tone matches the script.

Despite the accurate cast, this movie is not a “Black Panther” in the sense that a viewer who is Arabic or Muslim can feel proud whilst watching it. Black Panther the comic was created by two white guys but was translated to the screen by black talent. Aladdin is the opposite; the source material is something written by brown people but it’s brought to the screen by two white guys. In doing so, despite the cast being a step in the right direction for mainstream Hollywood, there’s something that feels less pro-Middle Eastern and more pro-Disney. Of course you could argue that a mainstream studio like Disney are not going to create a film honouring the ethnicity of the cast, but you forget that Black Panther was also potentially a throwaway, comic book adaptation by Marvel Studios, and yet with the right people involved, it became something the audience were genuinely proud to go see. The film itself was overrated but because the cast and creators were representing their own race, the entire movie became a significant event and a marker in cinematic history. Aladdin is sadly not this, it’s just another money-maker for Disney without any real cultural substance. The fact that the character’s accents vary between generic-American and generic-Middle-Eastern, you know that the filmmakers don’t care much about the place in which the story is set.

Whilst on the topic of the Black Panther phenomenon, people today seem to ignore the achievements of films like Spawn and Blade (films with black leads) which makes it seem like the present day is the pinnacle of minority achievement. If it were not for the forebears doing something original and unique, we wouldn’t have the entertainment we do today. Having said that, it’s undoubtedly thanks to Black Panther (and movies such as Disney’s Jungle Book which came out two years prior to Panther) that films like this are finally being cast correctly so in that respect, Aladdin is part of the new wave of accurate portrayals by Hollywood.

Also in a Black-Panther-esque way, the soundtrack tries to include some apt musical talent: Will Smith is joined by DJ Khaled and there’s also a Zayn Malik track. I’ll leave this whole not-quite-Black-Panther comparison there, save to say that Aladdin is like a potential Black Panther that unfortunately doesn’t quite hit the cultural mark. Speaking of songs, all the fan-favourites (“A Whole New World”, “Friend Like Me”) are present and now there’s the addition of (I Won’t Be) “Speechless”. This new song in my opinion is very corny and was probably best left out although Naomi sings it well.

In terms of the 1992 Disney cartoon, fans and critics act like Robin Williams was the first to do a “comedy genie” but they forget that Lenny Henry did exactly the same thing a year earlier in Bernard And The Genie which showed that inclusivity in the past did occur now and again. In some ways Will Smith is more Lenny Henry than Robin Williams in this film which is preferable because Will Smith being an erratic, energetic Robin Williams-clone would have been terrible to watch. Smith is always cool and humourous and the laid-back style of his Genie is one of the things that makes Aladdin watchable and less of an imitation. The only problem I have with this film and indeed the genie is the poor CGI work when Will Smith’s face has been superimposed onto the muscular blue body, it looks kinda like a deepfake and it’s much better when he takes on human form.

If you group a bunch of actors who all have “it” (that special something that makes them stars) a film that is otherwise average is raised to something better. This is definitely the case with Aladdin. It goes without saying that Will Smith is great at comedy but newcomers Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott are also very likeable and charming, and the pair have some chemistry to make the romance element of the film believable. This is of course a comedy and although it’s a given that the Genie will therefore be comedic, Aladdin also has some funny moments along with his monkey Abu. For my liking, Jafar is not conniving enough, and as a baddy, he’s not someone you secretly root for (like all the best movie villains). Jasmine and Aladdin on the other hand are great, Jasmine possesses the best singing voice and Aladdin can dance pretty well and their personality along with the Genie shines through. I also have to mention Billy Magnussen who plays the relatively small role of Prince Anders. There’s been some backlash to this new character but for me, thanks to the way Magnussen plays him, he’s quite funny and in some ways needed to explain the multicultural setting.

I’ve never read the source material but if the original text is anything like A Thousand And One Nights, the Japanese anime feature film by Eiichi Yamamoto, then this Disney-fied Aladdin misses so much from the plot. Judging by Eiichi’s work, the story should really be a morality tale and a tragedy, and if that was the intention of the original Arabian Nights, then this movie (along with most others) actually does a disservice to the writers’ objective. The tone here is undoubtedly to appeal to children who like bright, shiny, empty entertainment; basically a musical made for a magpie. I suppose a kid-friendly Disney movie isn’t going to go “Hunger Games: Mockingjay-meets-Oldboy” but imagine what’s possible if this public domain story was told with violence and sex, like an 18-rated parable.

Back to this version of Aladdin, this isn’t an original remake and it’s not awe-inspiring or a classic. But then again, it’s not supposed to be a deep drama or a complex action thriller, it’s a light-hearted, musical-romance-comedy and in that respect it’s absolutely fine. This movie is supposed to be a summer blockbuster; bright and cinematic, straight-forward popcorn fodder intended to please the entire family from kids to grandparents. Aladdin is not trying to be something it’s not so it works and like I said, half of the enjoyment is thanks to the cast. Remember where you saw them first.

Brown Panther.

Writing: 4/10

Directing: 4/10

Acting: 5/10

Overall: 5/10

4 replies »

  1. Not a film I’d have watched but after reading this wonderful review I can’t wait to see this… minus kids…just me and popcorn

  2. Well…You had a lot of criticism for this one, and you gave it a 5/10. On your other website I saw the same mark, so it can’t be an excuse for giving criticism to this movie. This should have been put on your other website. Still, as always, the criticism felt original.

  3. Did you read about Mena Massoud not getting any auditions after Aladdin?

    “I’m kind of tired of staying quiet about it,” he says. “I want people to know that it’s not always dandelions and roses when you’re doing something like Aladdin. ‘He must have made millions. He must be getting all these offers.’ It’s none of those things. I haven’t had a single audition since Aladdin came out.”

    It’s wild to me, I say, that he hasn’t booked an audition since Aladdin came out. Isn’t that the whole point of doing things like beating out 2,000 other actors for the lead role in a $183 million live-action remake of one of the most popular animated films of all-time with Will Smith as your co-star?

    “It’s wild to a lot of people,” he says. “People have these ideas in their head. It’s like, I’m sitting here being like, OK, Aladdin just hit $1 billion. Can I at least get an audition? Like I’m not expecting you to be like, here’s Batman. But can I just get in the room? Like, can you just give me a chance? So it’s not always what you think.”

    • That’s fucked up, although to be fair, Hollywood has a track record of ruining people’s careers. I mean, where’s Brandon Routh or Kristanna Loken now?

      It is curious however, that out of the two new leads, the mixed-race brown/white actor went on to star in Charlie’s Angels but the fully brown one can’t even get an audition 🤔

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