‘Aladdin’ is low on magic

Mena Massoud and Will Smith in Aladdin

“Arabs are the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood. They’re portrayed basically as subhumans.” – Dr. Jack G. Shaheen

During the cinematic reckoning I underwent in my undergraduate years, one of the films that impacted me the most was the documentary Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People, which starts out with those lines. In the years since its release, the list of movies that have had Arab/Middle Eastern/Desi characters depicted as negative stereotypes, brownfaced/whitewashed out, made background in their own stories, or any combination of the above could fill a new documentary. Prince of Persia, Rendition, Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Devil’s Double, Argo, Iron Man, Vampire Academy, The Last Airbender, God’s Not Dead, The Dictator, American Assassin, The Hurt Locker, Sausage Party, Postal, The Kingdom, Gods of Egypt, Body of Lies, The Social Network, Zero Dark Thirty, The Mummy, American Sniper, 7 Days in Entebbe, The Dark Knight Rises, Star Trek Into Darkness, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, The Simpsons Movie (the character in which did get a whole documentary devoted to him) – and that’s just off the top of head (to say nothing of the “contributions” made by other media like television, video games, and comics).

Aladdin 2019 – the 1992 animated film itself featured prominently in the documentary, saying that it “recycled every old degrading stereotype from Hollywood’s silent black-and-white past” – is certainly a step up and heads things in the right direction. Alas, that’s pretty much all it does. 

Centuries ago in the Arabian city of Agrabah, Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street thief who falls for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) when she disguises herself as a commoner, but soon discovers who she really is. Eventually, he’s intercepted by, Jafar (Marwan Kenzar), an evil sorcerer and vizier to Jasmine’s father the Sultan (Navid Negahban), and tasked with retrieving a magic lamp from the selective Cave of Wonders (Frank Welker once again, also returning as Abu the monkey and Rajah the tiger). Of course, he ends up with the lamp and unleashing the Genie (Will Smith), which gets him three wishes.

There’s a greater effort in curbing the offending bits. The “where they cut off your ear” lyric is long gone and being made with flesh and blood actors means the view that the bad characters are drawn as racist caricatures doesn’t apply. However, in virtually every other regard, this is an inferior copy of the 1992 film. It does a decent enough job of recreating some of that movie’s signature moments, but none are done better than they were the first time.

Also, it comes off as cheap in places. The exterior of the Cave is completely static and its insides pale greatly to the animated counterpart. More of this corner-cutting comes up, particularly regarding Jafar. There’s no old man disguise, no “Prince Ali” reprise, the climax lacks the giant snake and hourglass trap, and Iago (Alan Tudyk) is just a regular parrot that says only two or three words at a time. Oddly, this seems to extend to the actor himself. He is quietly menacing, but holding back really doesn’t suit this part. 

Where the budget did go appears in the costumes, which are impressively lavish. The song-and-dance numbers showing them off prove that the cast can move and sing well, particularly Scott. There are a couple of new songs for Jasmine, but they are very much not in the style of rest and stick out. One exception, though. Playing over the end credits is a version of “Friend Like Me” with new lyrics that Smith raps. This I actually think should have been used in the film proper instead of retreading the original. Smith is much more comfortable in this mode and it really shows.

Which brings us to the Genie. No, Smith is not as good as Robin Williams was and won’t make you forget about that version. Yes, the attempts to mimic that style only bring more attention to this. However, he does do well when he’s allowed to be laid back (mostly when in human form) and be something more like Hitch. In territory that could have gone very wrong, he ultimately manages to acquit himself.

Not so much for Billy Magnussen, in a performance that calls to mind Just Go with It when Nick Swardson is doing his “Dolph Lundgren” (it’s really not what it sounds like; if you’ve seen that movie, you know what I mean). Much has been said about how unneeded this reverse token role is and, well, they aren’t wrong. His part could have been cut completely and nothing of any real value would be lost. This character could possibly have been redeemed if they said he was from Arendelle, but no such luck.

A Nostalgia Critic episode waiting to happen, Aladdin 2019 does well for representation, but very little else. If Return of Jafar is indeed to follow, then they need to do what that movie infamously did not: put some budgeting muscle behind it.

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