The original animated Aladdin came out just a year after I was born, but I wore through the VHS for years afterward. When adults asked me what my favorite movie was, I told them Aladdin, not necessarily because it was true — that honor went to Sleeping Beauty because I liked the way Maleficent said “Why so melancholy?” to some idiot white guy she captured — but because it seemed apt. How many Disney movies about brown people was I going to get when I was a kid? Not many, so I learned to love what I had.
But even with all the representation afforded to me by these fictional brown people, there’s no denying that Aladdin is the genie’s movie. Sure, it pretends to be a story about a street rat winning over a princess, or about a princess trying to gain some autonomy, or about a bad guy yearning for ultimate power. It is not. Aladdin was a vehicle for Robin Williams’ manic energy. I’d rewind to a few key parts in the original Aladdin when I was a kid — Genie’s frenzied introduction, Genie singing Aladdin into the palace, Genie finally being set free. Genie was the only character that lightened a movie that was mostly blandly romantic or kind of terrifying.
The original Genie was famously written for Robin Williams, and he did so much improv in the voice recordings that they had to rebuild parts of the script around him. And it works — Genie is one of the better Disney sidekicks: He’s warm and funny and kinetic, a giant blue freak who can morph into a slot machine or Jack Nicholson or a zombie or a sheep or Arsenio Hall. Best of all, he keeps the movie moving so fast that you don’t have time to stop, take a beat, and wonder if what’s going on makes any sense. Nothing kills a kids movie quite like getting bored enough to ask adult questions.
So in what world would the live-action Aladdin remake, out this Friday, ever match up to what only a cartoon could accomplish?
The new movie, directed by Guy Ritchie (What? Why??), is the latest in a slate of Disney live-action films adapted from their decades-old animated sources: Cinderella, Maleficent, Christopher Robin, The Jungle Book, Alice Through the Looking Glass, and Beauty and the Beast along with the forthcoming Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, and The Little Mermaid. It remains completely unclear who wanted a live-action version of a movie like Dumbo, which is basically a horror movie about a morose elephant and Colin Farrell, but desired or not, Disney plans on making more of these well into the next decade, much to the chagrin of anyone who grew up on hand-drawn cartoon movies rather than CGI cats voiced by God herself.
Feeling crusty about movies from your childhood getting remakes is little more than a great reminder that millennials are getting old and no one cares what we think about people “ruining” the things we loved when we were growing up — but that doesn’t change the fact that the new Aladdin is objectively terrible.
Sure, kids might like it, but kids like garbage! My friend’s toddler son loves to watch me scream at him on FaceTime; his favorite toy appears to be his dog’s foot. Who cares what kind of movie he likes? Children’s movies are just Trojan horse enjoyment for adults who are forced to take their kids to a family-friendly movie. In that regard, Aladdin does not bode well for anyone old enough to drink but otherwise unable to when the movie is actually playing.
The original was a satisfying 90 minutes long, but the remake clocks in around two hours. The extra padding comes from the strange supplementary plotlines, like the addition of Nasim Pedrad as Jasmine’s handmaiden/horny weirdo/brown Judy Greer type who falls in love with Genie (played by Will Smith), or the inclusion of a new song, “Speechless,” about being silenced, that Jasmine sings twice.
The best thing this remake does is make you want to watch the original. The worst thing it does is make you miss Robin Williams terribly — a reminder that merely sounding funny doesn’t make you funny. When you hear Smith recite certain lines taken directly from the original, it feels like an auditory uncanny valley: Technically, it sounds right, but you know it’s not. You know that there’s only one way to say the words “itty-bitty living space,” because you too were once 7 years old, watching Aladdin for the 30th time on your parents’ bed.
The greatest crime a kids movie can commit is being boring. If you were hoping Jafar would be hot and gay and camp, you’ll be disappointed to find that he’s merely hot, and only in a very mundane way. Will Smith’s Genie is practically sedate; his iteration of “Prince Ali”, much like Genie himself, is slowed down, disappointingly lifelike, and tedious.
And in some warped attempt to meet a 2019 audience where they live, I regret to report that Jasmine is a “Nasty Woman” kind of feminist now. I mean, she still has no personality and her character still boils down to the core tenets of “I don’t want to marry the white guy” and “no one listens to me” and “my dad won’t give me any political control even though I’m like, 22, and I don’t even have a communications degree and have barely ever gone outdoors.” She’s still conventionally hot, but now she wants to be sultan. And great news, her dad lets her! This is a slight improvement from the ending of the original, where Jasmine’s plotline ends with her getting married, but ultimately, it’s still a movie about a princess falling in love with someone who tried to catfish her.
Aladdin fails at the tricky task facing all other Disney movies mutating into live-action: the reconciliation between real faces and cartoonish plotlines. Without the cushion of animation, Aladdin has to have an internal logic, to have a message, to be more thoughtful than any kids movie has the right to be. But this version isn’t whimsical enough to be fantasy, or charismatic enough to be a love story.
Plus, the movie’s director, producers, and writers — who are nearly all white men — were seemingly unequipped to deal with real-world concerns, like the exotification of brown people in a live-action remake of an animated movie. Agrabah isn’t real, but using real people means we have to think about whether these real people are authentic to this fake city. Why do some of the characters have American accents, while the others have what can only be referred to as Vaguely Ethnic Accents (™)? Are they whitewashing this fake city by assuming that Indians and Egyptians and Middle Easterners are all the same, smooshing together cultures and ethnicities and vague histories? Is the bar so low that the public should praise a movie about brown people for managing to not cast white people? (I suppose it is nice that there’s nary a white face in sight, except for Billy Magnussen, who, appropriately, plays a prince that Jasmine hates. And it is nice to no longer feel weird about Williams opening the movie with a catch-all brown-person accent selling unreliable wares in a bazaar. Little blessings in a chaotic world.)
The relative realism of Aladdin, at least compared to the cartoon, opens the movie up to far too many questions that cannot be reasonably answered. Using real people with real facial expressions and real eyeballs who are assumed to have real genitals forces viewers to think too hard about the movie’s complete lack of logic. Some (like me) were understandably upset that Aladdin, who awakened my sexuality at 6 years old, would not be shirtless throughout the movie as he was in the animated version. But, I don’t know, do I really want to gaze upon the nipples of a 27-year-old for 120 minutes with my niece, as she listens to his song innocently, still unaware of the horrible things adults do to each other in private, while I wonder what it would feel like to climb him like a tree? Hard to say, guys, sounds confusing for everyone involved!
The movie, inexplicably, gives Genie a love interest in the form of a real human woman, and presumably he turns into a human man when he ceases to be blue after Aladdin sets him free. Does that mean Genie has been a virgin for thousands and thousands of years? If Genie is able to repair the magic carpet when it gets torn, why can’t he do literally anything he wants to save everyone from Jafar? If the sultan decides to make Jasmine the sultan at the end of the movie, does she even need to get married at all? Why does the entire set look like it was either computer generated or hand-painted by an 11th-grade drama class? Why is Billy Magnussen even in this????
Also, you’re telling me that this is a universe where genies exist but the parrot can’t actually talk like Gilbert Gottfried? Get the fuck outta here.
Look, I know that no one cares that I, a grumpy 28-year-old raised on a healthy diet of Disney movies that my parents put on so they could fight in Hindi and Kashmiri and English in the other room in peace, doesn’t like a remake intended for children. But it’s not like there was some big appetite from the first-graders of the world for Will Smith to rap the plot of a movie that came out nearly three decades ago. But again, kids love trash, they love being pandered to, they love a catchy song and bright colors, so surely enough of them will like Aladdin just fine. But adults — adults know that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. ●