By Sapna Khajuria
What does it take to make a successful reboot of a well-loved film? Do you tweak the story, or just add a new dimension to it? Do you add a new character or two? Or do you just wish that the idea of a reboot never quite materialised in the first place?
It’s raining remakes in Hollywood – Mary Poppins, Beauty and the Beast, Jungle Book, Dumbo, to name a few. The latest in this list is the live action version of Aladdin. For viewers like me who grew up in the 90s, the original animated version set the bar quite high, largely due to the late Robin Williams’ razor sharp comic timing. His smooth talking, multiple personality-bearing genie was always going to be a tough act to follow, and therein lies one of the many problems with the new film.
The story largely follows the same structure as the animated version – Aladdin (Mena Massoud) as the small-time thief with a heart of gold, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) struggling against both patriarchal norms and the evil vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) that stop her from taking over as the Sultan; and Will Smith as the genie. At opposite ends of the societal spectrum, Aladdin and Jasmine are both trapped in their lives, unable to escape what they are born into, and their initial scenes together are peppy and sweet. Aladdin laments the fact that he’s an orphan, commenting that a monkey (Abu) is the only parental authority in his life. Jasmine has the makings of a good, kind ruler but is shackled by norms and Jafar’s constant mansplaining that prevent a daughter from ascending to the throne. There is a brief nod to girl power and Naomi Scoot brings the emotion to life in the song “I won’t go speechless”, but sadly the scenes that follow do nothing but regress to the male characters coming to the rescue of the damsels.
Scenes with Aladdin being chased through the bazaars of Agrabah have the slick, fast-paced touch that director Guy Ritchie is known for, but the film never quite picks up the energy that the story deserves.
Right from the first song (Arabian nights) that accompanies the opening credits, Will Smith’s singing was a major letdown, particularly given his musical past. The cringe worthy singing (especially in the song “You ain’t never had a friend like me”) can be summed up with one emoji: face-palm! Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott do a much better job with the musical numbers. Naomi Scott in particular has great screen presence and sings like a dream.
While he never matches up to Robin Williams’ smart talking genie, Will Smith brings a dose of easy charm to the genie’s character and there are sparks of humour in scenes where he is at once an entertainer and Aladdin’s personal love guru, but the dialogue is too flat to elicit more than the odd guffaw. The only other scene with a hint of humour is the one where Prince Ali aka Aladdin is introduced to Princess Jasmine and her father. The party-loving Genie who has a soft spot for grey areas and loopholes is just a shade short of being endearing.
Unlike the old trend of whitewashing in Hollywood films, casting Caucasian actors to play characters from Asia / the Middle East (think Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange), the actors are largely of Asian / African origin. Aladdin and Jasmine’s American accents strike the only slightly discordant note here.
The other big disappointment was the dark, drab picturisation of scenes in the song “A whole new world”. Instead of scenes of natural beauty evoking an air of wonder, Ritchie chose to go with drab, monotonous and dark shots of the desert, mountains and a glimpse of an ominous looking waterfall to accompany the beautiful lyrics. If that was Prince Ali /Aladdin’s version of a new world, I’m not surprised Jasmine’s character took so long to warm to Prince Ali!
As the movie ended, I wished that the genie was funnier, that Jafar was scarier, that there was more colour in the songs (other than the over the top Bollywood-meets-Vegas showgirls costumes), that the singing was better. Actually, scratch that. What I really, really wished for, is that the reboot was never made. If it ain’t broke, why fix it, right?
Now that the deed is done, and Disney has cashed in on the original + reboot, let me adopt the glass half full philosophy and list the positives:
Yayy or nay
Definitely worth one watch, especially for younger kids. What works is the chemistry between the lead pair, Naomi Scott’s fabulous singing; and the fact that we don’t have to watch white actors playing Middle Eastern characters.
What does not work
Will Smith’s singing, dull visuals accompanying some of the songs, OTT costumes in the song introducing Prince Ali, a super tame, I-wish-he-was-scary villain; and a lack of energy throughout the film.
Humour quotient and Swear-o-metre
The jokes, though mostly flat, are sweet and clean. No swearing at all.
Worth one watch, but mixed reviews. The pre-teenage lot enjoyed the film, particularly the chase and escape sequences; and Genie’s fast talking style. Abu the monkey and the magic carpet were their favourites. Older children thought Genie was trying too hard to be cool, and found Ali fumbling at trying to impress Jasmine the funniest part of the movie.
Positives to take away from the film / talk to your kids about
“The thing about wishes is, the more you have the more you want”, says the Genie. Talk of greed, kindness, and how clothes maketh the appearance, not the man (What you are on the outside doesn’t change inside, when Aladdin turns into Prince Ali).
To answer the questions at the start of this review, with apologies to Rodgers & Hammerstein, to the tune of “How do you solve a problem like Maria”:
How do you pick a movie for a reboot? | Why would you mess with what is old but gold? | Tinker with songs and make the pace uneven | Can someone put this flibbertigibbet on hold!
(The writer is a lawyer by training, who would rather be a full-time globetrotter, and mom to 12-year-old twin boys who share her love for all things filmy.)