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In tabloid parlance, “sugar babies” are sweet young things who sleep with wrinkly old things who buy them shiny new things. A bonk buys a bauble. The sugar babies say they’re delighted with the state of their affairs, and yet I feel sorry for them. Imagine how sorry I’d feel if I’d known them for years and knew of the dignified lives they’d abandoned, and you’ll understand how sorry I feel for the three Hollywood sugar babies who gave us the live-action remake of Aladdin. Director Guy Ritchie, writer John August, Will Smith: I remember when you guys had self-respect.
Ritchie made Snatch. August wrote Go. Smith is maybe the most charming leading man of his generation. Now they’ve all perpetrated a textureless, humorless, anodyne cinematic gift-shop souvenir. Their Aladdin makes High School Musical look cutting edge. Disney’s first Aladdin, from 1992, was not only cutting edge, but essentially conjured up a whole new world of animated blockbusters that adults would watch willingly. After The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991) resurrected Broadway showstoppers, Aladdin appended to its Alan Menken tunes a fast-moving plot, top-notch comedy, and even some scares. It grossed $217 million domestically — a completely unheard-of sum for an animated feature at the time.
Some of the live-action remakes Disney has cranked out in recent years stick closely to their animated predecessors while adding star power (Beauty and the Beast), but most (e.g. Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book) at least try for a fresh spin on their source material. Ritchie’s Aladdin is a whole old world, almost a scene-for-scene remake, except this time with three comprehensively dull actors playing Aladdin, Jasmine, and Jafar.
As the street rat-turned-prince Ali, Mena Massoud is so aggressively bland he could be a missing member of NSYNC, except he can hardly sing. Naomi Scott, as Jasmine, is unspeakably beautiful, but she doesn’t make the audience love her; she just passively expects us to. Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is too cute to be scary. All of them are out-acted by the magic rug, though none is quite as annoying as Smith, the only star in the show.
Smith does not grasp that he is not Robin Williams and we don’t want him to be Robin Williams. The original was the first movie that figured out how to build around Williams’s frenetic stand-up act, and did it ingeniously. I’m not just saying that because I love Williams’s legendary WFB spoof — “There are a few provisos, a couple of quid pro quos.” Williams was funny and freewheeling. Smith isn’t a stand-up and doesn’t earn laughs, yet the CGI wizards keep altering his look as if he were Williams doing rapid-fire impressions. Nor is he a singer. To observe what he’s doing here is a toothache. Do it a different way, Will. You’re an actor, for heaven’s sake, and a good one.
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