Movie review: ‘Aladdin’

Movie review: ‘Aladdin’

“Aladdin” (2019), the latest in the recent line of live-action remakes of classic animated Disney  films, retells the story from the 1992 animated feature of the same name of a “diamond-in-the-rough” thief and street urchin.

Living in the fictional Arabian port city of Agrabah, Aladdin (Mena Massoud) goes up against Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, for control of a magic lamp and its powerful Genie (Will Smith). Meanwhile, he falls in love and uses his wishes to win the heart of the Sultan’s (Navid Negahban) daughter, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). However, the princess, the only child of the Sultan, is more interested in finding her voice and succeeding her father on her own merits than she is in finding a prince to marry.

Throw in wisecracking handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) and old favorites like Abu the kleptomaniac monkey, the Magic Carpet, Jasmine’s tiger Rajah and Jafar’s talking parrot Iago (Alan Tudyk), and “Aladdin” checks all the nostalgia boxes for a Disney remake.

This “Aladdin” retains the memorable musical set pieces from the original: “Friend Like Me,” “Prince Ali” and the Oscar-winning “A Whole New World,” albeit with a couple of Bollywood and old-school Will Smith hip-hop flourishes.

The film also includes a new song, “Speechless,” sung by Princess Jasmine and composed in the same vein as “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” with lyrics like “I won’t be silenced / You can’t keep me quiet / Won’t tremble when you try it / All I know is I won’t go speechless.”

Both the 1992 original and the remake are loosely based on “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp,” an 18th-century French-language addition to The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights), a much older 14th-century Arabic-language collection of Middle Eastern folk tales. The tale has a dubious history and may actually be the product of 18th-century Orientalism.

The first translator of the tales, archeologist Antoine Galland, appears to have been the first person to transcribe the story, which he claimed was based on a story he heard from a Maronite monk in Aleppo, Syria. While other works included in Arabian Nights are authentically translated from original sources, “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” may likely be a creation of Galland, drawing on his knowledge of the Middle East.

Adaptational changes and cultural concessions

In this latest adaptation of the Aladdin story, Disney is about as faithful to the source material as it has been to the European folk tales that have inspired other Disney films. As in those other films, Disney softens the depiction of the historical setting in which the story takes place to make the film appropriate for children. The result is an idealized Arabic culture with whatever modern, Western aspects suit the story.

For example, a brief scene early in the film shows girls in school being taught by a woman; such opportunities were likely not available to girls in the film’s 9th-century setting. Through the story of Princess Jasmine, the film also features Western feminist ideals alien to the culture and time period of the story.

In addition, the thief Aladdin never worries about having his hand cut off, the punishment recommended by the Qur’an in 5:38, “[As for] the thief, the male and the female, amputate their hands in recompense for what they committed as a deterrent [punishment] from Allah.”

Despite these changes and modern Western concessions, however, Disney took a great deal of care to be culturally sensitive in the production of the film, hiring cultural consultants and ensuring that the main actors’ ethnicity lined up with that of the characters.

This is not the first time Disney has had to deal with the issue of cultural sensitivity regarding this property. The first film’s opening song, “Arabian Nights,” had its lyrics changed in releases of the film on VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray and streaming services after being deemed offensive.

It’s important to note that while the new “Aladdin” is a family film geared predominantly towards children, it is produced and made by adults and, as such, is open to cultural criticism. The question, then, is how much that matters to Disney. As a company, Disney must balance its creative efforts with its fiduciary responsibilities, maximizing profits and avoiding controversy.

Achieving this goal becomes increasingly complicated as Disney’s share of the global entertainment market continues to expand, and cultural expectations domestically and abroad continue to polarize. As a result, it is hard to know if additions and changes to the story are artistic, ideological or financial choices.

This ambiguity highlights the precarious cultural minefield a remake of Aladdin presents to filmmakers like Guy Ritchie, who presumably want to continue making films. Apart from the original’s financial success, the question arises: why risk controversy by remaking “Aladdin” when it would be just as easy to leave it in the Disney “vault” with other controversial properties like “Song of the South”?

Capitalizing on nostalgia

It could be that Disney is simply methodically going through all their most successful animated films and remaking them as live-action features. While these remakes are generally not as good as the original films, they have proven lucrative for Disney, prompting Disney to ramp up the pace of production.

Starting with “Maleficent” in 2014, Disney has released one of these live-action remakes every year: Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” in 2015; Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” in 2016; Bill Condon’s “Beauty and the Beast” in 2017; and “Christopher Robin,” Marc Forster’s re-imagining of “Winnie the Pooh,” in 2018.

This year, however, releases have hit even more breakneck pace, with “Aladdin” joining Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” in March, Jeff Nathanson’s highly-anticipated “The Lion King” coming out in July, and a remake of “Lady and the Tramp” following in November.

With this development, a question emerges: will audiences still have an appetite for this glut of nostalgia, or is this hard sprint a sign that Disney knows the finish line is right around the corner — a kind of “make hay while the sun is shining” attitude as dusk approaches on the current nostalgia fever? That might be the best possible construction to put on it.

Another possibility is that Disney is simply seeking to dominate the film industry by acquiring and capitalizing on its competitors’ products. Notable examples include Disney’s purchases of Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009 and Lucasfilm for $4.06 billion in 2012, as well as their recent 2019 acquisition of 21st Century Fox for $71.3 billion. 2019 will also see the launch of Disney’s own Netflix-style premium streaming service, Disney+.

Positive examples and Seventh-Commandment issues

After watching “Aladdin,” Christian families, especially families with small children, will want to review and talk about the Seventh Commandment: “You shall not steal.” In the film, theft is both glamorized with flash and dazzle and downplayed with a lack of consequences. In the end, Aladdin comes out on top, and his initial life of crime is excused because of his poverty.

It is worth noting that in the Large Catechism, Martin Luther is just as critical of the rich and powerful thief who steals in a way that only appears right as he is of the small-time crook. An example of such a rich and powerful criminal in the movie is the villainous Grand Vizier Jafar, who schemes to gain power through unprovoked warfare against the neighboring kingdom of Princess Jasmine’s grandfather.

At one point in the movie, Jafar, who once was a street urchin like Aladdin, says to Aladdin, “Steal an apple, you’re a thief. Steal a kingdom, you’re a statesman.” By adding a backstory for Jafar, this adaptation makes him into a cautionary character, warning Aladdin of what might happen if he becomes drunk on the power of the magic lamp.

In the end, Aladdin provides a positive example of following the Fifth and Seventh Commandments when he uses his last wish to free the Genie from his imprisonment in the lamp, showing he truly wants to help and support the Genie in every physical need and allow him to have a life of his own. Aladdin is also supportive of Princess Jasmine becoming the Sultan.

An entertaining but lackluster remake

While “Aladdin” is one of the better recent Disney live-action remakes, it is still silver next to gold when compared to the 1992 animated film.

Known for his quirky-yet-gritty films focused on street hustlers and petty criminals, Guy Ritchie might seem a logical fit for director of a live-action “Aladdin” remake. But apart from a couple of visual flourishes here and there, his personal style and creative approach are hardly noticeable.

Playing it safe, Ritchie delivers a rather predictable film. The world he presents is too clean and shiny to feel truly inhabited by the characters. Forgiving fans will find much to enjoy, but the sticklers in the crowd will be less accepting.

Despite its weaknesses, the movie is not without its charm and fun moments. While fans of the original may find the remake haunted by the ghost of Robin Williams, Will Smith does an admirable job filling the role of the Genie and may even be the best part of the film.

In short, “Aladdin” is the latest true-to-form installment in the live-action Disney trend, delivering an experience that may pleasantly surprise audiences going in with low expectations while leaving others in the desert.

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