Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Aladdin (2019)

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Arabia
A Whole Re-Cycled World

Disney's live-action remake of Aladdin is a tough sell. Oh, don't misunderstand; it's a good movie—one might even say it's the best of Disney's kamikaze efforts to flesh out their revered animated classics—the art they established and are best known for—maybe in their fiscal attempt to find a tent-pole franchise (as if the parent company doesn't have enough of those) to crank out every couple of years, rather than roll the digital dice and counting on their new film to be as hot as Frozen.*

It's just that the 1992 animation version was so highly regarded—after they'd made their company best, Beauty and the Beast—as it was the last of the Menken-Ashman collaborations (the duo that revived the Disney animation brand in the 1980's under the Jeffrey Katzenberg regime) and it had the audacity to cast Robin Williams and the brio to match his improvisational pace with cell-drawings (principally by the gifted Eric Goldberg), and pulled it off with a manic energy that was simply breath-taking. It showed Disney wasn't the stodgy old cartoon company—they still took chances and aimed for the stars, not the fences.
Now, they're just happy to make return-trips. That's okay, if you want to start the development and generating cash, but it doesn't have the risk of charting new territory or any kind of innovation. Or risk.
Grumble aside, this cartoon-made-flesh does as good a job creating a similarly pleasing experience as its ink variety, and generating a similar amount of controversy as the original faced when it opened. Toss the bitching—they're tempests in an oil lamp; the studio has kept out Howard Ashman's original controversial lyrics and bent over backwards to have the "proper" ethnic casting (although the actress playing Princess Jasmine, Naomi Scott, is half-Indian if you want to make your picket sign accurate—she's great in the part, by the way, "despite" that fact) and beefed up the Princess' character and back-story, so the character is even more plucky than she was and less of a character for males to rescue.
Aladdin (played by Mena Massoud) is a parentless "street-rat", surviving on the streets of Agrabah near the Jordan River, by stealing anything he can get his thieving hands on. But, he's not such a bad sort, as he'll lift some food from the market and split it with his monkey Abu (voiced by Frank Welker again), then split it again with street urchins (1992 version) or a family (2019 version). There's a nice compression of the first film as Aladdin has an introductory song ("One Jump Ahead"), then meets Agrabah's Princess Jasmine (Scott), who is wandering the city-streets mingling with the people. Aladdin is immediately smitten and the princess introduces herself to him as "Dalia," the princess' handmaiden, to avoid detection. That song now serves as the song accompanying Aladdin and the princess running from the Royal Guard when she takes some bread to give to hungry kids. 
Aladdin takes "Daliah" to his make-shift home, where they start to get to know each other—other than the fact she's actually the princess—when she makes her excuses to leave because she sees over at the palace that there is a large cortege arriving, bearing another suitor for her. Her father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban) wants to marry her off, but, by decree, only royalty will be considered for the job. So, she begs off to meet the latest creep to try and woo her...leaving Aladdin with half-steeped tea and, to his shock, the princess' bracelet—given to her by her mother—which has been stolen by Abu. Bad monkey. No banana.
Meanwhile, back at the palace, the Royal Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) has other plots-threads to plot. In an attempt to gain more power (he hates being "second best," poor boy), he has been using thieves to try and wrest the Magic Lamp that lies buried in the Cave of Wonders far from Agrabah. He's had little success as the Cave keeps chomping down on his thieves, while telling him that the only one who can enter must be "a diamond in the rough." In other words, bright, but not multi-faceted.
Aladdin, discovering that Abu has "Daliah's" bracelet, makes his own excuse to sneak into the palace to return it to her...and bring her tea. Still thinking she's "Daliah"—the real Daliah (Nasim Pedrad, who's delightful) tries to pretend she's the princess and sort of doesn't—Aladdin promises that he will try and see her again, but that becomes unlikely as he is arrested by the Royal Guard.
He is taken by the Guard to the Cave of Wonders, where Jafar tells him that the woman he met was not the handmaiden, but the actual princess. He instructs him to retrieve the lamp, and Jafar will make him a rich enough man to impress the princess—but don't take anything else...or he will be killed, either by the cave or by Jafar. Abu, however, is too dazzled by the many jewels in the cave (or it merely thinks "Hey, the kid will get killed, not me") so he takes a really big red ruby just as Aladdin grabs the lamp.

The cave, of course, is not happy, so decides to...cave. But, not before Aladdin, in trying to get Jafar his prize, discovers what a heel the Vizier is, and only manages to survive by the interventions of Abu and a Magic Flying Carpet—which (I neglected to mention) Aladdin had rescued in the cave. 
Oh. And Abu steals the lamp back from Jafar. Cut to the jinn, they rub the lamp, genie appears and it's Will Smith and not Robin Williams...

...which, as it turns out, is not a bad thing. Bless Will Smith, who knew...just knew...that everybody was going to compare him to Williams** and he would always come up short. And he took the job, anyway. And, surprise, he makes it his own. He's great in this. Lines are similar, but Smith brings his own charm to it and his own spin and he's a lot of fun. Check out the video below of the first minute of "Prince Ali"—it's a pinch slower (just ever so slightly), but he sells the thing for all it's worth...and (here's a plus), you can understand the lyrics without having to go to the internet. 
Yes, he definitely is contemporary (and I didn't hear you complaining when Williams had his period accurate William F. Buckley imitation come out of the genie), but then, Disney has never been too concerned with any flavor of the times other than the audience's. Smith isn't doing stand-up—he's bringing the most out of the material using his particular gifts and they are considerable. This is not an either/or situation. Both interpretations can exist without replacing one or the other. Both are applaudable; Williams created one of the greatest vocal performances in cartoons (on a par with Mel Blanc) and Smith has done as much with his as is humanly possible.
Now, Robin Williams is the stand-out of the 92 version; everybody else in it is competent  and gets the job done. This version, there's more pressure on the actors because they have no help from animators enhancing their performances. They gotta do all the work themselves, and they live up to it. Massoud's Aladdin is less of a bland Tom Cruise stand-in and he does a lovely job of playing amusingly painful discomfort—and more than one time I thought "was he dubbed by Hayden Christensen?" as he stammered through a line. Vast improvement.
And I found Negahban's performance as Jafar fascinating. He's not the angular Basil Rathbone type as the cartoon, but a seething one with large dead eyes that burn through the screen and an expressiveness that is subtle and slightly quirky. It's a performance that reminded me of the intensity of the young Christopher Lee, who could mime evil with only the slightest hint of acting. When he unloads and takes it to "11" in the final act, it's a lovely bit of CGI-chewing. 
And Scott is a real find, capable of the comedy but with a serene grace that, well, basically explodes when called on to belt out a song—and director Ritchie loves taking advantage of that by giving her...not one...but two moments in the movie where she swings into the camera and pegs the VU-meter, that might cause some to rock back in their theater-seats. I would advise audience members to watch out for their knees whenever she has a solo. Could be painful.
If one wonders why the movie has expanded to two hours from the ninety minutes of the original, chalk it up to the slightly slower pacing of real life from animation...and the dancing. There are a few extended dance sequences that pad the pace a bit.

One other quibble: the whole "Tell Her the Truth" lesson on which the movie is based—that Aladdin should come clean about not being a prince and just be himself to impress the princess. Oh, yes, hear, hear. Honesty is the best policy. But, the devil on my shoulder would like him to cap his confession with a "That's who I am...'Daliah!'" Okay, a bit churlish, I know, discretion being the better part of valor...but at least they have that one thing in common.
But, on the whole, a good show, actually worthy of the effort, and Ritchie shows himself very deft at spectacle, even using more of an eye-popping palette of colors than the desaturated look he favored in his last few films. And he makes the thing move like crazy, approaching the zip of animation, which gives it far more energy and verve than the last few Disney films that tried to move beyond the animation table. It doesn't replace the animated version. But it certainly becomes it.

* Makes me wonder why they don't just make a movie called "Cash-Cow" and admit it.

** Compounded by the fact that Williams is dead, and everybody—now that he's gone—has a case of the "guilt's" because they didn't appreciate him nearly enough when he was alive. Cue the Joni Mitchell song.

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