While quality cannot be measured by minutes, the new live-action version of Disney’s “Aladdin” runs 37 minutes longer than the animated 1992 film famous for Robin Williams’ inspired vocal riffs and the song “A Whole New World.”
And those 37 additional minutes are not high-quality minutes.
The studio has reaped the financial rewards of its aggressive recycling program ever since “101 Dalmatians” late last century. Disney’s re-production schedule cranked up in earnest in 2010 with “Alice in Wonderland,” and continued most recently with the weirdo “Dumbo” redux two months ago.
As stand-alones, some of these work better than others. Director Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” came off as a real movie unto itself, as did Kenneth Branagh’s sincere, well-acted “Cinderella” (I was in the minority on that one). “Aladdin,” though, feels pointless. It’s cinematic karaoke. It’s an ice show without the ice.
It’s also and foremost an example of directorial miscasting, for this is a Guy Ritchie musical — a frantic, “Kismet”-adjacent musical — made with the lightness of touch and blithe cinematic charm you’d expect from the man behind “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and the steampunk “Sherlock Holmes” pictures.
What’s new and different about it? A few things. Disney threw a wide net internationally in what appears to be an honest effort at multiethnic casting. All the same (and perhaps partly because of this), the studio has also run into protests from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy organization. “The Aladdin myth,” reads the executive director’s statement, “is rooted by racism, Orientalism and Islamophobia. To release it during the Trump era of rapidly rising anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and racist animus only serves to normalize stereotyping and to marginalize minority communities.”
Briefly, since you’ve probably seen the radically better animated version, the one full of Anglos doing most of the voice work: In the mythical kingdom of Agrabah, street thief Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and his digital monkey Abu encounter Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) in the market one day. The snivelmeister Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), put-upon and insanely ambitious No. 2 to the Sultan (Navid Negahban), covets the golden lamp hidden in the Cave of Wonders, a few caves down from the Cavern of Unnecessary Remakes. The lamp ends up in Aladdin’s hands, and out comes good ol’ Will Smith in blue pigment and a ready smile.
The ’92 movie’s songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (the latter died during production) were augmented by Tim Rice lyrics. For the live-action edition, three new lyricists went to work with composer Menken. The new material folds well enough into the existing material. Tragically little of this matters, because the musical numbers are staged and edited as if director Ritchie had never even seen a musical.
The script, co-written by Ritchie and John August, gives Jasmine a more progressive and active role in her fate as well as her political future. In his human-scale form, the genie gets a romance of his own going, sort of, with Jasmine’s handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad of “Saturday Night Live”). But as with the ’92 version, the new “Aladdin” must lug a heavy load of routine evildoing, especially in its final half-hour, as Jafar’s unholy lust for power gets the best of him.
Audiences, particularly younger ones, likely will focus their love, hate or indifference on the matter of how much they like Will Smith in quick-change genie mode. He’s OK. He goes his own way in what, essentially, has been re-framed as a disposable action movie, interrupted by songs.