Friday, May 24, 2019

Old New World: ALADDIN

Disney’s project is to make its product synonymous with childhood and then sell yours back to you in perpetuity. (That they've only escalated their world domination plans over the years makes it less easy to root for them.) So here’s Aladdin, their latest live-action remake of a beloved animated musical. I’m as suspicious of this trend as the next critic, but I simply can’t deny that when they work they work. Here under the watch of Guy Ritchie, the man whose early work with British bruiser gangster pictures has flowered into my kind of breathless, eccentric Hollywood brand-extension products (the Downey Jr Sherlocks; the sleek, cool Man from UNCLE; the crackerjack crackpot King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), good old Aladdin becomes a widescreen charmer. Ritchie simply filigreed the edges as the film is otherwise safe, harkening back to a sort of old school backlot spectacle of dancers and color and costumes and Star Power, both of the Grand Movie Star and New Star is Born variety. It has Will Smith bringing back generous dollops of Fresh Prince charm, a more than welcome return, for the role of the motor-mouthed wisecracking Genie. It casts relative unknowns Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott — with smiling eyes, pleasant voices, and attractive romantic spark — as Aladdin and Jasmine. It wears a toothy grin and a snappy step, a light-stepping high-budget galumph, with flowing costumes and ornate interiors, applying modern effects (building Genie magic or sorcerer evil) and extended sets with digital matte paintings. The adaptation just paints on top of a sturdy structure — Menken’s original songs and score; the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-finds-Genie-who-can-help-him-get-the-girl-and-clash-with-the-Sultan’s-conniving-vizier plotting — making a few new characters, adding a bit here and there to the princess role, and finding a fine thematic echo between the nefarious Jafar and the title hero. It’s not a radical reimagining (like Jolie’s Maleficent) or a sturdy retelling (like Branagh’s Cinderella) or a clumsy expansion (like Burton’s Dumbo) or a proficient retread (like Condon's Beauty and the Beast). It’s simply a fun time transposing a good story into another style. Of course it can’t match the original for zippy visual invention and iconically clean hand-drawn animated lines — not to mention Robin Williams’ voice performance that bends the film to it and overshadows everything around it. But what it does have is plenty enjoyable comfortable charm and nostalgia warmly bubbling up from multiple sources. 

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