Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, June 03, 2019


Took the younger kids to see Aladdin today, and here's a capsule review: My five-year-old son was bored stiff.

"Beeee yourself!" Robin Williams buzzes memorably to Aladdin, in the original animated movie about the big blue motor mouth and the street kid who rubs his lamp. Will Smith echoes this advice, if less buzzingly, in Disney's newest animation-to-live-action attempt, but alas, the movie itself cannot follow the sage advice. Time after time it tries to step out toward something original, only to sink helplessly back into the oversized footsteps of the animated movie. It's all so blandly pretty to look at, so very colorful that the eye can focus on nothing and eventually stops trying.

Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Jasmine are likable enough as actors, but whenever a spark of chemistry appears, the script and pacing conspire to quench it before it can flame into anything original. If only they could be themselves, I thought. However, Marwan Kenzari is actually something different as a Jafar who also knows what it is to be a street rat. The one scene in the movie that made me sit up and pay attention is when Jafar entices Aladdin to enter the cave of wonders by using one of his streetwise tricks against him. Alas, this one moment of purely original, pitch perfect drama is all we see of the movie that could have been.

I am of the generation that might be called "Willenials", and remember the heady days of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Gettin' Jiggy With It, to say nothing of the back-to-back blockbuster summers of Independence Day and Men in Black. I watched Bright on Netflix last year because it featured Will Smith. Will Smith is Will Smith, and at his best, he's playing Will Smith, which is what we want to see because we all know and love Will Smith.

Which is pretty much what he's not allowed to do here. Oh, there's some silliness, and there are some flashes, but it's mostly Will Smith pulling his punches, trying not to make the role too much his own in deference to Robin Williams, without treading on Williams's late toes by imitating his most inimitable schtick. This is a tightrope act that will constrain any artist's performance, and it serves this movie ill. When I think of Will Smith as the genie, I want to see a 10,000-year-old Fresh Prince: relaxin', maxin', chillin', all cool. And we get that -- over the closing credits, as Smith cuts loose on a rapped-up version of Friend Like Me, the only moment in the theater when I saw people grooving in their seats. If the producers had had the cojones to put that into the movie proper, we might have had something that made us sit up and pay attention. Instead, we dutifully nodded to the homage to Robin Williams, whether by commission or omission. This is not how great movies are made.

In the tradition of padding live-action remakes with new songs in an attempt to freshen them up, Jasmine is given a ballad titled "Speechless", which is what she intends not to be. Unfortunately for us, the Broadway talent penning this new song is not Lin-Manuel Miranda, who proved his chops most lucratively for Disney with the compulsively singable "How Far I'll Go" in Moana, but Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo behind The Greatest Showman, a rather less musically distinguished outing. And unfortunately for Jasmine, this ditty is wedged into the worst possible moment of the movie, breaking up the dramatic tension and so irritatingly filmed as to lose all visual interest. When is that movie makers will remember that theater is not an art of close-ups, but of large-scale pictures?

This movie is a nostalgia-grab for Disney, and it will of course make a stack of dollars that will reach to the moon and back. Knowing this, perhaps Disney felt no need to bother with the minor issues of pacing, structure, or character development over which a studio less assured of success might labor. Myself, I might go back and watch the animated movie and marvel over how a few hand-drawn lines can convey so much genuine emotion and dramatic impact. And the original has never once bored a five-year-old stiff.

No comments: