What makes a film critic proof?
You hear this term bandied around a lot, especially in the last decade or so as mega blockbusters have eclipsed their mid-budget counterparts at cinemas worldwide. Describing a film as “critic proof” offers a number of implications, but the main one is that the film will succeed irrespective of quality. I don’t entirely agree with that assertion – witness Justice League’s limping performance at the box office for a demonstration that quality still matters a little – but there’s certainly truth behind it.
Disney, in particular, builds their modern business model on producing films – events, really – of such magnitude and cultural prominence that audiences feel obligated to see them. Certainly that’s the case in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Avengers: Endgame set to dethrone Avatar any day now, but I think the most transparent example of the Mouse House’s flattening of movies into products is their relentless march to remake every animated film you fondly remember from your childhood in live action. (Or, in the case of Favreau’s Jungle Book and Lion King, “live” action.)
The early reception to Aladdin has tested the premise that quality is irrelevant in these remakes, however. The film’s first trailer earned a chorus of mockery directed at the appearance of the new Genie – Will Smith stepping into the role made iconic by Robin Williams 17 years earlier – and the recent release of the “Prince Ali” musical number in its entirety was similarly hounded. (This tweet, pondering how director Guy Ritchie could be married to Madonna without learning how to stage a musical, went semi-viral, even if its logic doesn’t hold much water.) There’s been an element of schadenfreude to the internet’s anticipation of the Aladdin remake, as though social media was collectively willing it to be a disaster.
Thankfully, Aladdin is no disaster. It has its problems, certainly, and I’m looking forward to detailing those shortly … but I’d lying if I said I didn’t have an enjoyable time at the movies watching it. While a skerrick of nostalgia might play a part in that reaction – I don’t think I’ve seen the original Aladdin since it was in theatres! – the true strength of the film comes from a classical critic proof quality: pure star power.
I want to single out two stars in particular: the new Aladdin, Mena Massoud, and the new Jasmine, Naomi Scott. I wasn’t familiar with either beforehand (yes, I’d seen and liked Scott in Power Rangers, but didn’t make the connection until someone else pointed it out to me), but now I’ll be playing close attention to any upcoming projects they’re in. It’s not necessarily that either is a spectacular actor, but they each have that ineffable quality that just shines off the screen. They’re both gorgeous, charismatic and share a warm chemistry that creates real stakes, sustaining an overlong two-plus hour runtime. She can sing! He …can sort of sing? But together they weave magic.
What about the magical genie himself, though? Smith is no Williams here – but no-one was ever going to be. But it’s the first time since maybe the Men in Black films that he’s able to capture the charisma that made him a star, and has somehow sustained a healthy career through a whole host of bad choices. He’s consistently fun, which is precisely what the role requires.
It’s not all good news. Smith opens the film with a performance of “Arabian Nights” that’s underwhelming, borderline terrible. He’s much better in subsequent musical numbers, thankfully – though the strike rate of the songs is about 50.0 throughout – but it’s hard to escape that the opening ten minutes or so of the film are real rough. There’s a choice later on to speed up the footage – presumably because they wanted to change the song tempo from what was filmed? – and it just absolutely does not work even a little bit.
The CGI is similarly streaky. Smith’s bulked-up blue genie works when he’s allowed to be properly cartoonish, especially in the over-the-top extravaganza that is “Friend Like Me.” When he’s just chilling, however, he falls into the Uncanny Valley. There are plenty of moments like this, where Guy Ritchie (and the collective Disney machine behind him) can’t quite walk the line between realistic and cartoonish.
There are other issues. The actor playing Jafar, Marwan Kenzari, has neither the menace or camp to make the role work. An attempt to update the gender politics for 2019 is well-intended, but the centrepiece – Scott’s performance of a new song, “Speechless” – doesn’t quite hit the mark. The song is well-performed and well-executed in the moment, don’t get me wrong, but it sounds altogether too modern and lacks the narrative scaffolding to hit the emotional apex it’s aiming for. “Let It Go”, this ain’t.
If you were expecting a captivating disaster from Aladdin, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you were hoping for something as good as the animated original… the surprise will be a little less pleasant, I’m afraid. But, honestly – you already knew whether or not you were going to see it before even reading this review, didn’t you?