Pragmatically, Disney's new version of Aladdin only had one bar it absolutely had to clear, and it clears it. While this is anywhere from the sixth to the eleventh entry in this unkillable cycle of live-action remake nostalgia jobs, depending on how you count them,* it's only the second one based on one of the 1990s "Disney Renaissance" films that are in large part the reason anybody living in the 21st Century has Disney nostalgia to begin with. And the other one of those '90s remakes, 2017's Beauty and the Beast, is outrageous garbage. So that's basically the target Aladdin had to hit. Not even "don't be garbage". Just, "don't be outrageous garbage."

Sure enough, "garbage, but not outrageously so" is exactly the sweet spot that this Aladdin falls into. Unlike in Beauty and the Beast, the reels and reels of extraneous plot matter unnecessarily brought in to bloat the film's running time up to current popcorn movie standards (the 1992 Aladdin runs exactly 90 minutes, the 2019 Aladdin makes it all the way to 129) feel like they're actually expanding on the characters and dramatic situations as they exist in the script, not simply adding mindless detours down blind alleys. Also, the super fake-looking sets in Aladdin look super fake in the genial manner of an old-school matinee adventure movie, whereas the super fake-looking sets in BatB felt more like being drowned in glitter and cake batter.

It's still pretty tedious stuff, though. The spine is the same as the 1992 film: in Agrabah, a fairy tale version of Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate, a young man named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) lives as a pickpocket with his monkey Abu (his chirps are voiced by Frank Welker, returning from the original). Also in Agrabah, Jasmine (Naomi Scott), sole child of the old Sultan (Navid Negahban), is chafing under the sexist laws stripping her of all agency to control her own fate - in one of the handful of tweaks designed (without much success or inspiration) to deepen her character, she wants to become Sultan in her own right, rather than being married off to some dipshit foreign prince who'll get the title - and so she decides one day to sneak out of the palace to poke around the marketplace. Here, she and Aladdin meet cute, he gets picked up by the guards under command of the corrupt grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), and he's offered a chance to buy his life by going into a magical Cave of Wonders, there to retrieve a magic lamp. Inside the lamp is a genie (Will Smith) with a penchant for anachronistic wordplay.

As in '92, that gets us to the one-third mark, more or less, and also close to the point where Aladdin actually starts to be good: for also as in '92, Aladdin and Jasmine are pretty drippy non-entitities, and it takes the Genie to inject some pep into the proceedings. Unlike the original film, this first third isn't just a bit bland, though; it's actively horrible. For reasons that I could never make out while I was watching it, the new script, credited to John August and director Guy Ritchie, turns the exposition into an incoherent whirlwind. Who Jafar is, what he wants, why he needs Aladdin; I'm not actually convinced the film explains any of that if you don't have the knowledge of the original film in hand. During the very hectic, jumpy opening musical number "Arabian Nights" (with lyrics substantially altered from the Howard Ashman original by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul), we see about three seconds of the Cave of Wonders mentioning something about the diamond in the rough, and that's it for the original film's scene-setting. Jafar himself simply shows up as though we already know full good and well that he's the bad guy - which we do, because this Aladdin is obviously predicated in its entirety on our already knowing and loving the 1992 Aladdin. Jacking off the audience's nostalgia is something like 90% of the Walt Disney Company's cinematic output right now, and these live-action remakes are the most overt incarnation of that. But generally they at least pretend like the movie is supposed to work in reference to itself. My hand to God, I don't see how you could possibly parse the opening act of Aladdin if you were truly coming to it cold. That especially applies to Jafar, who simply happens at the film; but it's also true of Jasmine, whose personality is delayed for several scenes after we first meet her in the marketplace. It's murky, rushed, cluttered storytelling, somehow taking much longer than in the animated original despite feeling like we're only seeing about one-sixth of the actual storytelling content.

It's hard to follow, and it's supremely boring on top of it. One of the things that Aladdin '19 demonstrates, as if it wasn't already patently obvious, is that Aladdin '92 is a primarily stylistic triumph. It's one of Disney's most "cartoony" features, enjoying the huge range of possibilities of movement available to squishy, misshapen humanoid characters subject to no law of physics, especially the Genie, an act of free-floating caricature inspired by Robin Williams's ad-libbing. It does much of its storytelling through color, and most of its comedy through visual pantomime. The live-action film can do none of this, of course: its humans are humans, its monkey and parrot photorealistic CGI (and this has profoundly negative effects on that poor parrot, who just becomes gross and inexplicable), its Genie a mildly disconcerting digital blue paint job and extremely disconcerting ripped digital abs glued to Will Smith. He's not rattling off gags even vaguely as fast as Williams - his performance is, to be blunt, soporific and unimaginative, doing nothing to combat the impression Smith has been giving off for years that he wishes he'd stayed retired after his 2008 break from acting - and so there's nothing for the visuals to snap along to, but I don't think the filmmakers would have wanted to do that even if they could. The dreary, wheezing "Friend Like Me" number proves how little inspiration they have for what interesting things can be done with the character, and the shackles of realism mean that the wild exaggerations that Eric Goldberg and his assistant animators whipped up for the original character were off the table from the start.

The point being, we have here a narrative designed around that level of cartoon flourish. Take out the flourish, and with it goes all of the narrative fuel. Absolutely nothing comes along to replace it: Ritche seems to have taken the job solely to stage the early footrace through Agrabah that he lards up with slow-motion (including some oddly subtle slow-motion, like it's just enough to make you feel like something has gone terribly wrong with the characters), and he mostly lets the dialogue scenes drag themselves along. The acting is sepulchral: Scott is the best in show by virtue of being merely unimaginative, but compared to Smith's drowsiness, Massoud's lack of range, or Kenzari doing I don't even know what dreadful lilting, singsongy thing, she looks like a master. The comedy drags, the music clomps (especially the new number Jasmine, with lyrics by Pasek & Paul with Alan Menken gamely writing a flat, poppy new melody; its shabbiness as songwriting is matched only by its completely inappropriate slotting in the narrative), the action is gaudy, the new material with Jasmine's handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), who flirts with the Genie, is at least bizarre enough to be distracting, and by that standard qualifies, I guess, as a strength. It is a film almost wholly devoid of any pleasures that aren't secondhand, and the firsthand pleasures of the original film are just so much better than this film's limp homages that I cannot fathom why anybody would bother with this. I mean, yes, Disney's asinine vault system, but come now, it's not that hard to use a public library.




*The unambiguous six being Malficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Dumbo (2019), and our present subject, with the edge cases being Alice in Wonderland (2010), Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016), Pete's Dragon (2016), Christopher Robin (2018), and Mary Poppins Returns (2018). Meanwhile, the Glenn Close-starring 101 Dalmatians and 102 Dalmatians just sit there being lonely and forgotten, which is probably to their benefit.