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A ho-hum new world – ‘Aladdin’

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We can all agree that Disney more or less rules the cinematic landscape at this point, yes? We don’t have to like it, but there’s no denying the company’s omnipresence on our screens. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars movies have definitely filled the coffers to overflowing, but those films are far from the only moneymakers in Big Mouse’s stable.

Another high-impact trend for Disney is the onslaught of live-action remakes of their beloved animated films. They’ve been having success with that formula for a few years now, but 2019 sees them really pushing the envelope.

The latest is “Aladdin,” a remake of the beloved 1992 animated film. It’s perhaps the boldest maneuver yet, considering the iconic nature of both the movie as a whole and of the performance by Robin Williams as the Genie in particular. Basically, we’re left to wonder why (hint: the answer is money – it’s always about the money).

This new film – directed by Guy Ritchie (I’m as surprised as you are) and featuring Will Smith assuming the bright blue mantle of geniedom – had the look of an utter disaster early on. And while it turned out to be considerably better than that, it only succeeded in being … OK. Not terrible. Not great. Just OK. And that bland meh-ness is maybe the worst place it could have landed; we’re left with a movie that is almost defined by how unnecessary it feels.

(Of course, it also did nine figures at the box office opening weekend, so what do I know?)

For those of you who somehow don’t know the story, a quick primer: Aladdin (Mena Massoud, TV’s “Jack Ryan”) is a street urchin doing whatever he can to help himself and his monkey pal Abu to survive in the city of Agrabah. He has a kind heart despite his circumstances, so when he sees a woman (Naomi Scott, “Power Rangers”) get into trouble in the market, he helps her to escape.

It turns out, however, that the woman is Princess Jasmine, daughter to the Sultan (David Negahban, TV’s “Legion”). The Sultan loves his daughter but is overprotective of her. He is also being manipulated by the machinations of his Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari, “The Angel”). Jafar seeks power above all else and seeks a mysterious artifact hidden in the Cave of Wonders – but he needs a very special person to retrieve it for him.

A person like Aladdin.

But when Aladdin winds up in possession of the artifact – a lamp – he soon discovers why it is so special. Said lamp is inhabited by the Genie (Will Smith, “Bright”), an omnipotent magical being with the power to grant the holder of the lamp three wishes. Aladdin wishes only for a chance to romance Jasmine, and so the Genie makes him a prince.

Of course, it isn’t that easy. Even as Aladdin – now Prince Ali – makes his way through Agrabah in an effort to court the princess, Jafar has his suspicions about this newcomer. And through his ruthless pursuit of power, he may well find a way to take over the entire kingdom and beyond – even if he must do so at the expense of Aladdin, Jasmine, the Sultan and every other denizen of the realm.

Look, “Aladdin” isn’t bad. There’s a reason the original is so beloved – the story is sharp, the characters are engaging and the songs are outstanding. All of those pieces are still here, so the reality is that this was always going to be a film with a high floor. It’s the ceiling that concerns us.

Because here’s the thing – Will Smith is not Robin Williams. No one is Robin Williams except Robin Williams. And while there’s no disputing Smith’s general likeability, the truth is that he was never going to measure up to one of the top-tier performances of one of our great comedians. Thankfully, Smith (mostly) avoids trying to “do” Williams and finds ways to make the character his own. And honestly, if there was no point of comparison … but there is. The CGI doesn’t do him any favors – there’s a lot of blurry blueness going on throughout – but when Smith is able to be … not blue … he’s fine.

But the Genie isn’t the only victim of CGI flatness. There are large chunks of the film that feel VERY green-screened; obviously, that’s how these movies work, but this is Disney – the results should be better. There are a couple of big production numbers that work pretty well – Prince Ali’s entrance into Agrabah is solid and the first-act chase scene with Aladdin and Jasmine is cool – but despite the fact that “A Whole New World” remains a killer song, the sequence surrounding it was too effects-heavy to really work.

Still, there’s stuff to like here. The music is great. The performances by Massoud and Scott as Aladdin and Jasmine are strong; they have a great chemistry and decent vocals. Both seem like they could easily become stars. The supporting cast is pretty good as well – Kenzari’s Jafar is malevolence personified, while Nasim Pedrad is excellent as Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia. As for Smith? He’s best when he isn’t trying so hard; he’s never going to match the antic firepower of someone like Williams and it feels weird when he tries. When he leans into his own skill set, it’s a far superior performance.

(Note: I beg you to please stay for the credits, when Smith does a rap-heavy remix of “Friend Like Me” featuring DJ Khaled and it sounds precisely how you think it does.)

Again, “Aladdin” is … OK. Kids are going to dig it, regardless of how they might feel about the original. Nostalgia seekers will likely be a little underwhelmed. It’s a perfectly cromulent movie. And really, that’s all Disney needed it to be.

[2.5 out of 5]

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