Mena Massoud and Will Smith in Aladdin (Photo: Disney)

ALADDIN
**1/2 (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Guy Ritchie
STARS Will Smith, Mena Massoud

Disney is turning all of its animated efforts into live-action films at such a fast and furious clip that I shudder to imagine what sorts of titles will be filling marquees in the near future. Should we brace ourselves for the desultory likes of Brother Bear and Chicken Little, or will the studio eventually realize that enough is enough?

Impossible to say, but for now, the outfit is still awash in enough classics that it can hold off on turning to second-tier material. Yet after this spring’s dreary Dumbo, it was impossible to approach Aladdin with anything other than a pained expression and a doubting mind. Luckily, this avoids being the trainwreck that many had predicted, even if it never comes close to matching the exquisiteness of those recent live-action renditions of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast.

Relatively faithful to the beloved 1992 toon rendition, this Aladdin likewise centers on the adventures of the title “street rat” (Mena Massoud) as he pals around with his monkey Abu, romances Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), and runs afoul of the wicked Royal Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). He also acquires the services of the Genie of the Lamp (Will Smith), who grants him the usual three wishes but also becomes involved in his master’s personal business. Clearly, Aladdin never had a friend like him.

As the voice of the Genie in the ’92 version, Robin Williams was so perfectly cast that it became the first time an Oscar campaign was mounted for a performance in an animated feature (even though no nomination was forthcoming). Clearly, only an established superstar — one immune to instant career suicide — could have been considered for the part in the remake, and kudos to Smith for bravely tackling the role in what seemed like a no-win situation. But here’s the interesting thing about Smith’s work in the role. In the earliest scenes, it appears he’s merely going to mimic Williams, which would have been equal parts pointless and embarrassing. But as the movie progresses, Smith settles into his own interpretation of the role, assisted by a script that allows him some unexpected deviations. Most notably, this occurs in the scenes in which he takes on human form and passes himself off as the assistant to Aladdin while the latter is in his Prince Ali Ababwa disguise. By providing the former Fresh Prince with fresh material, Smith is able to escape the inevitable comparisons by fashioning a Genie that doesn’t always instantly bring to mind Williams’ stamped trademark on the part.

Aladdin5cc39fa06b2a9.jpg
Marwan Kenzari as Jafar (Photo: Disney)

But if the film works magic with the Genie, it fails miserably with Jafar. The animated Vizier was a truly menacing figure, and it’s a shame the great Vincent Price isn’t still around to bring him to colorful life. Even so, there were certainly better choices for the part than Kenzari, who transforms the character from a towering villain into a pouty male model of the Zoolander variety. Equally disappointing is the film’s tragic waste of Jafar’s right-hand parrot, Iago. Gilbert Gottfried landed his career role back in ’92, and he was a riot as the incessantly gabbing bird; this Iago (Alan Tudyk), on the other hand, is largely a nonentity, only occasionally bleating a few humorless lines.

Guy Ritchie was nabbed to direct this, but fans of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch have long given up on seeing his kinetic brand of moviemaking resurface again (although one friend did quip that this could have been called Lock, Stock and One Smoking Genie). The helmer is now in hired-Hollywood-hand mode, although, given Ritchie’s talents, that’s not necessarily a debit — sure, he made the snooze-inducing King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, but he also was behind the surprisingly enjoyable update of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. With Aladdin, Ritchie seems to largely stay out of the way of the technicians, allowing the craftspeople to fill the screen with as much color and movement as it can withstand. The lively songs are all still present and accounted for, and there are even a couple of new tunes (one which allows Scott to show off her impressive pipes). It’s all very busy and all reasonably engaging, even if the characters prove to be less dimensional than their animated counterparts.

Kids and families will definitely take to this interpretation, but more discerning filmgoers will find themselves using up all their wishes in search of sturdier entertainment.

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