(2019) ** Pg
128 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Guy Ritchie. Cast: Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen.

/content/films/5161/1.jpgRemaking a still-popular film makes economic sense in Hollywood, but the practice tends to be an artistic dead end. Disney appears committed to its trend of remaking its animated classics in live action, all the way to the bitter end. And why not? Critical and fan drubbings haven’t yet dried up the box office to a point of non-profit, and when they can get Jon Favreau on board (The Jungle Book, The Lion King), they have a shot at pleasing everyone. Alas, it’s Guy Ritchie at the helm of Aladdin, and the results aren’t exactly magical.

The director of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Sherlock Holmes tackles his first musical in Aladdin, and it shows. Especially in the early going, it’s difficult to tell what Ritchie is after, tonally. Working from the 1992 film, which in turn took its cues from the Arabic folk tale in One Thousand and One Nights, Ritchie and co-screenwriter John August don’t stray far from their source material. But Aladdin took heat back in 1992 for its white-guy appropriation and insensitivities, and Disney doesn’t do much to allay similar concerns in an even more politically correct environment.

After the musical prologue “Arabian Nights,” Aladdin introduces us to the titular “riff-raff…street rat” pickpocket (Egyptian-born Canadian actor Mena Massoud) darting about the fictional sultanate of Agrabah. Upon meeting an incognito Princess Jasmine (Indian-English actor Naomi Scott), Aladdin launches into “One Jump Ahead,” the chase number meant to cement Aladdin’s rakish charm and, at least in 1992, the film’s post-Vaudevillian Looney Tunes energy. But the scene exposes the new Aladdin at its worst: a callow Massoud, an awkwardly updated musical arrangement, trick sets, and Ritchie’s poorly storyboarded parkour render a one-time animated highlight into a charmless live-action spectacle.

Soon we meet Will Smith’s Genie in the lamp, a character that kicks this Aladdin’s garish CGI into overdrive. Competing with memories of the late Robin Williams’ arguable career peak, Smith gets buried under unnecessarily overzealous motion-capture technology for all of his scenes in blue-skinned, muscular form. Only when Smith is allowed to cut loose in predominately human form—especially when dancing—does the charisma for which Disney presumably paid handsomely get to work in earnest. Mostly, this means the scenes with Smith actually on camera in human guise after the wish-granting Genie transforms Aladdin into “Prince Ali” and poses as his attendant.

The big production number “Prince Ali” turns out to be this Aladdin’s most fully realized bit of showmanship (the perfunctory but nice-enough remake of love duet “A Whole New World” takes the silver ribbon). “Prince Ali” becomes an adrenalized Disneyland Main Street parade, including a robust rendering of the 1992 song penned by Alan Menken (music) and the late, great Howard Ashman (lyrics). Still, in live-action, all this feels even more like appropriated costume-party exoticism filtered through the Mouse House machine. Menken returns to score the film and pen, with La La Land lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the film’s requisite new Oscar-bait number (old songs being ineligible under Oscar rules). The two-stage rocket “Speechless,” a female-empowerment anthem for Jasmine, adds something to a flat character but still feels tacked on.

Outside of Smith, who successfully falls back on his well-honed comedic style, the cast proves uniformly bland, We’re talking Disney Channel bland. The problem extends from Massoud and Scott to Marwan Kenzari’s evil Grand Vizier Jafar (who compares unfavorably to Jonathan Freeman’s deliciously theatrical 1992 version) and Navid Negahban’s Sultan. The exception that proves the rule, Iranian-American actor Nasim Pedrad (Saturday Night Live) enlivens her every scene as Jasmine’s amusingly lovesick handmaiden Dalia. Obviously, this Aladdin’s diversity is a baby step in the right direction. But it’s probably a bad sign that—midway through the picture’s 128 minutes—I longed for the simpler pleasures of not only the 1992 film but the current Broadway show. Heck, I’d even take a low-rent theme-park version if it spared me this film’s descent into the uncanny valley.

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