In a recent episode of the Indiewire Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum director Chad Stahelski talks about the roll of the stunt co-ordinator. He explains about the way a stunt co-ordinator works, employing narrative cohesion to their stunts, and inventing ways of making action and violence work. Stahelski explains how he’s applied his extensive history as a stunt co-ordinator to the mentality of being a director, and by doing so, he’s managed to craft a series that feels organic and vibrant. The stunts are not merely an action set piece, but an organic, natural, flowing piece of the whole that makes the film work.
I bring up John Wick as a way of leading into the inadequacies of Guy Ritchie as director, and as he’s billed here, a co-writer, of the new live action version of Disney’s Aladdin. Always an odd choice to take the helm of this fantastical tale of a street rat-turned-pseudo Prince thanks to the magical genie he helps retrieve from a thousand year sojourn in his lamp, Ritchie’s failures as a director are evident in the rare moments of quiet that litter the film. Thankfully, these moments are few and far between, with a wealth of songs from Alan Menken, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, to break up the monotony.
Admittedly, I’ve avoided Guy Ritchie’s films like the plague. After his early work that helped make his name – Lock, Stock and Snatch –, left me with that certain feeling you get from eating too many lukewarm brown sauce covered potato chips wrapped in yesterdays news, and in turn, I have avoided his work ever since. If I were to go on the ‘talking’ scenes alone in Aladdin, then I’d be justified in having skipped a catalogue of films full of cockney blokes banging on about beating up thugs and bagging sheilas. But, again, these moments of downtime are few and far between in a film that’s full of vibrancy and life.
As the film does, I’ve written this review like you’ve already seen the original animated Aladdin – an unfair assessment. Cliff notes version – Aladdin (Mena Massoud), regular street thief, encounters Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) one day in the markets as she takes a trip to the ‘people’ undercover. They immediately fall for each other, but due to the massive class divide, obviously can’t be with each other. Relatable. Action meets consequence, and before you know it, wannabe Sultan, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), arrests Aladdin and bundles him off to the Cave of Wonders. Inside this cave sits a magic lamp, of which Jafar needs Aladdin to retrieve as payment for his freedom. But, of course, that doesn’t happen, and Aladdin ends up being the one to retrieve the magic lamp and awaken the magical genie, erm, Genie (Will Smith). Gifted with three magic wishes, Aladdin, and his trusty sidekick monkey Abu, aim to work their way back into Princess Jasmine’s arms.
There’s a lot of spinning plates to deal with as Ritchie and co-writer John August try and give breathing room to every and all narrative thread, plus a few additional ones. In a bid to give some side characters a bit more vibrancy, like Nasim Pedrad’s Dalia, they instead overwhelm the plot with tropes and happenstance (this person finds that person attractive so they are now married forever), meaning that come the climax, it’s clear that they need to hit the fast forward button, with a few obvious cuts taking place to ensure that the credits are reached swiftly.
While Ritchie has honourable intentions as a director, they’re only survived by the technical brilliance of his dance choreography team, the always brilliant Menken songs, and the vibrancy and energy that Will Smith brings to the whole endeavour. This isn’t to say that Massoud and Scott aren’t good – they’re great –, it’s just that they’re so often overshadowed by the pure energy of Will Smith. Smith’s Genie appears a good half hour into the film, and it’s clear that for that first half hour, Massoud is struggling to carry the film and fly the banner of being the titular character. Scott is more comfortable, given some truly absurd moments to act against (the less said about the exceptionally out of place, and yet, still welcome, Billy Magnussen, the better), and a superb supporting cast of Kenzari, Navid Negahban’s Sultan, and Nasim Pedrad’s handmaiden Dalia, to work with.
While John Wick’s success comes from Chad Stahelski’s deep knowledge of stunt choreography, and in turn, his understanding of how to organically build this into a narrative, it’s clear that Aladdin’s failures become more evident when a song and dance routine kicks in. These glitz and glamour moments are the reason you need to put money down to see Aladdin on screen, and it’s all thanks to choreographer Leah Hill and her team, all of which help bring the animated films elaborate dance routines to life. It’s not exactly like for like, but the energy and vibrancy that existed in Ron Clements and John Musker’s original is mostly kept intact and honoured in this live action version. Ritchie’s direction in the moments leading up to these musical moments is stilted and awkward, making it painfully clear that this is not only the first time he’s working with the medium of musicals, but also that it’s likely that Ritchie only just watched his first musical in the lead up to directing this film. Yeah, that’s a low blow, but it’s also a low blow from Ritchie to put added pressure on his cast to provide all of the energy and vibrancy themselves. It’s this lack of organic transition from walk and talk to full blown musical that makes Aladdin feel a little stilted at times, yet no less lifeless. In turn, this helps remind that while film is a collaborative medium, the bulk of the collaborative orchestration comes from the director, so when a pole in the tent is a little bent, it’s clear who to point the finger at.
Will Smith is the most alive he’s been on screen in at least a decade. He’s clearly having fun, relishing the ironic freedom he’s given to play the enslaved-to-the-lamp genie. Mena Massoud is good, with splashes of greatness, as Aladdin, with a few dance sequences that confirm exactly why he was cast in the role. Marwan Kenzari is suitably ominous as Jafar, with Kenzari given the goods to chew on all the scenery in all the right ways (even if Jafar’s climactic song is excised completely). But, the real takeaway from the film is Naomi Scott as Jasmine.
2019’s Jasmine is given a lot more agency than the animated Jasmine ever did. Here, she’s presented with a future where, to become a ‘leader’, she has to marry a prince because of the ‘laws’ of the land, at which point that prince will become the sultan and Jasmine will be his loyal wife. Understandably, this is a ludicrous idea, and Jasmine works to challenge the notion that she can’t take over the throne from her father. She’s regularly challenged and told that she needs to be seen, and not heard. Naomi Scott excels as Jasmine, clearly digging into subtext that isn’t obvious on page, and showing that no matter how privileged you may be, the tendrils of oppression will find a way to keep you down. Scott is given a new song to sing – Speechless – that doesn’t entirely meld with the existing Aladdin tracks right away, but will likely become just as memorable after a few listens. Come the climax, it’s clear that this is Jasmine’s story first, and Aladdin’s story second, and this reimagining is all the better for this decision.
With all of this said, and a review pretty much completely written, I find myself in an odd situation when it comes to reviewing Aladdin. I grew up with the original film, having memorised the songs and the narrative beats perfectly, so much so that when the iconic notes start to play in this version, I couldn’t help but let my heart soar a little. I’m inherently cynical about these live action remakes, especially when the original screenwriters are denied a credit and benefits from them, but admittedly, it’s hard not to be swept up in the energy and vibrancy that Menken’s songs, and the narrative brilliance, brings. I’ve wilfully fallen into the trap and found myself enjoying it completely.
Yeah, this isn’t a perfect film, and it certainly feels every minute of its 128 minute run time, but it’s pure nostalgic bliss for me, and that in itself is a rarity. I’m usually fairly critical of the role of nostalgia when consuming pop culture, especially given that it’s utilised as a shorthand for getting viewers on board with what they’re engaging with, forcing them to neglect other shortcomings of their media content of choice, but dammit, I simply don’t care this time. I’m on board with this film completely, warts and all, and couldn’t help but wipe a few tears from my eyes at the end.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Will Smith
Writers: John August, Guy Ritchie