“Aladdin” doesn’t try to be different enough

Another month, another Disney live-action remake. Mostly, the studio has played it safe. Indeed, many of these films seem nearly shot-for-shot portrayals of their animated counterparts. Does “Aladdin” give us something, anything different to pique our interest?

Eh, a little bit.

Directed by Guy Ritchie, the movie tells the familiar tale of Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a street rat who gets caught up in Jafar’s (Marwan Kenzari) evil plans to take over Agrabah. In love with Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), Aladdin gets the power of the Genie (Will Smith) and tries to woo her.

The visuals are striking, with various hues of blue and gold shining through against the desert. If only the costumes and set designs had the same attention to detail. It’s really hard to show the pain of poverty in a PG-rated family movie. Aladdin looks like he walked in off the set of a high-action stunt show rather than dilapidated streets. The world doesn’t feel real. In an animated world, that commitment to realism can be implied, but in live-action, it’s essential.

Without a doubt, the two stars of the film are Will Smith’s Genie and Naomi Scott’s Jasmine. Will Smith is pretty much playing himself, a magical Hitch to a better looking Kevin James. His guidance scenes with Aladdin really drive the middle portion of the film. He’s trapped a bit by Robin William’s iconic portrayal, but pushes enough of his personality through. Scott’s Jasmine is a much more forceful character than the original, with a new song, new motivation and stronger story role. It’s a redefined role for a redefined feminist age. However, Massoud as Aladdin feels like window-dressing, never able to put forth any kind of real personality and coming across more as oafish than strong.

So what’s new? Well, there’s a new dynamic between Jafar and Aladdin, one that highlights how Aladdin could realistically become the villain. There’s a much-needed expansion of Jasmine’s character and her ambitions. She also has a new handmaiden who has a role to play in the story. The Sultan is less of a buffoon and more of a fallen patriarch. And hey, there’s a new dance number that’s pretty fun.

All in all, it’s pretty similar to the original. Far too similar. The new touches do add something to the film, giving it greater depth, but not enough to warrant its existence. Just like with all of these live-action remakes, the films are beholden to their animated predecessors, serving merely as commercial enterprises devoid of imaginative spark.

For the filmmakers, ignoring the original and going back to the source material would have been the best course, crafting a new 1001 Nights narrative that gave us something new, fun and dramatic. But alas.

This isn’t just Disney’s fault. When the first images for the film came out, the Genie wasn’t blue. The fan outcry was strong and before anyone could catch their breath, the Genie went back to being blue.

When so many people can’t stomach a change to their nostalgia, no wonder Disney is petrified of creating something different.

So we’ll get that “Lion King” remake. And “The Little Mermaid”. And “Mulan.” And on and on. Just keep doing the same thing and everyone will be happy.

Except for those who want to see something new.

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