Monopolies are evil, but what makes The Walt Disney Company’s unsated consumption of the entertainment industry uniquely depressing is the sterile adequacy of its product. The mouse house is defined by quality control. It’s not a value system that’s conducive to creativity, but it has its place in an undiscerning family market and makes for undeniably good business. This isn’t to say that genuine artistry hasn’t snuck by boardroom production notes before. But each of Disney’s new releases, from Earth’s mightiest heroes to a galaxy far, far away, is underlined by a promise to the audience of an apple-polished experience carrying nothing too unorthodox: a perfectly safe option to make a child quieter.
The would-be crowd-pleaser “Aladdin” is a rare failure of that promise. Disney’s prolific scheme to manufacture live-action remakes of its animated canon has suffered an unprecedented mechanical failure. This is a garish, broken embarrassment. If anyone isn’t convinced it’ll be the most incredulous tentpole of the summer by the midway point, surely they’ll come around by the time DJ Khaled shouts his own name to announce the end credits track.
For those unfamiliar with Disney’s 1992 original, the remake repeats the same rags-to-riches folk tale. In the bustling Arabian kingdom of Agrabah, the good-spirited street urchin Aladdin (Mena Massoud, emanating major not-a-movie-star energy) falls for Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) during one of her secret getaways from her stuffy palace. The nefarious Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) coerces Aladdin into retrieving a magical lamp containing a genie (Will Smith), intending to use the imprisoned deity to seize the throne. Instead, Aladdin becomes Genie’s master and wishes to become a prince so as to woo the royal Jasmine.
All this aside, the film provides no reason for a person who hasn’t seen the original to buy a ticket. The remake assumes its audience possesses not only a passing familiarity with the original but an adoration of it. Listlessly relitigating its predecessor’s story beat for beat, the new film attempts to be fresh by haphazardly adorning the lean narrative with extraneous fluff. The results are ill-proportioned and inconsistent, marred by clumsy bursts of activity and a romance so tedious it stops the movie like quicksand.
The most egregious updates are those made to Jasmine’s character, already one of the most woeful nonentities of the Disney princess faction. The remake attempts to supersede the blank personality of her animated counterpart with a phony woke sensibility that feels tossed-off at best.
This time around, Jasmine believes herself to be the rightful heir to the throne, despite the law’s requirement for a male leader; her ascent to shatter the glass ceiling ends up endorsing hereditary monarchy. The princess also comes paired at the hip with a new character, handmaid Dahlia (Nasim Pedrad). Once an all-star on “Saturday Night Live,” Pedrad slays what few one-liners she’s handed. But while the film positions Dahlia and Jasmine as a pair of buddies parallel to Aladdin and Genie, their friendship doesn’t get a fraction of the latitude afforded to the men, with conversations that don’t amount to much more than boy talk.
The film follows these mirrored pairs to their absurd albeit logical end, tying the knot between Dahlia and Genie along with the two main lovers. Yet, however delusional it may be to cram a blue digital blob into a romantic subplot, it at least fails because it is a choice. There are no good decisions made in “Aladdin.” There are also very few decisions made in “Aladdin.” Every attempt at veering from the original’s blueprint crashes and burns, but they’re so few and far between that their horrendousness is practically welcome.
Will Smith — poor soul — steps into shoes he cannot hope to fill, exchanging Robin Williams’ manic gauntlet of celebrity impressions for beatboxing and cornball goofs. His performance essentially revives his turn as a smooth-talking professional wingman in “Hitch,” now infused with a sitcom gregariousness. It’s a dad-tier act that tries very hard, yet it’s easy to forgive because he’s the only contributor attempting to offer any flavor or wit.
If only more of the ineptitudes could be traced to something other than a failure to remind viewers of another, better movie. Jasmine and Aladdin’s first encounter is accompanied by a sloppy riff of “A Whole New World” on the soundtrack. It’s a contemptuous moment that trips over itself to elicit Pavlovian salivation from the viewers. The film can’t even pay off that tease once the actual song rolls around, with a magic carpet ride too dimly lit to witness any of the unbelievable sights or indescribable feeling. The only thing that can be discerned is that the two leads are bad kissers. It’s not a surprise for a live-action remake to be more hideous, cynical and tedious than its original — but it takes an extreme degree of miscalculation for human beings to be less sexy than cartoons.
“Aladdin” is now playing at Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.