What kinds of roles do actors of Middle Eastern descent play? Either they’re terrorists or they’re virtuous souls who suffer from terrorism, violence, prejudice, etc. (A lucky few get to portray trashy oil billionaires, which at least can be fun.) That gets old after a while, and I mean for me as a viewer. I can’t imagine how embodying the stereotypes must wear on the actors themselves. When a project can give these actors something else to do, they’ll eagerly jump at it. (See: the 2014 Farsi-language vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.) This is the main reason for Disney’s Aladdin remake to exist, and I’ve decided I’m fine with that.
Mena Massoud plays the titular hero, a street thief who meets Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) while she’s breaking her confinement in her palace to see how the people in her ancient Arab kingdom live. Aladdin’s thieving abilities, used only to keep himself and his monkey alive, catch the attention of the villainous grand vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who strongarms him into breaking into a treasure cave to retrieve an oil lamp. Aladdin winds up stuck in the cave with the lamp, so it’s lucky for him that the vessel happens to house a singing and dancing genie (Will Smith) who can grant him three of whatever he might wish.
A discerning space alien could tell that this is a Disney movie — everything looks overstuffed, and the poverty we see on this kingdom’s streets is heavily scrubbed. Despite this, the Middle Eastern decor is a good thing, with the bright colors differentiating this from the live-action remakes of Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella. It forces director Guy Ritchie out of his comfort zone (the Tarantinoid flourishes of his British crime thrillers or the steampunk look of his Sherlock Holmes movies), and it seems to be good for him.
Still, Ritchie isn’t a natural fit for the material. He’s much more at ease staging chase sequences than musical numbers. He tries to do both at the same time in Aladdin’s first number (“One Jump Ahead”), and it’s a mistake. His staging consistently comes up short against the original movie’s: “A Whole New World” doesn’t have the whooshing uplift of the original, nor does “Friend Like Me” have anything like the wit of the corresponding number in the 1992 animated film. Jasmine’s number “Speechless” (an entirely new song written for this film) expresses her defiance against all the men who are trying to put her in her place, and it misses the girl-power mark that it’s aiming for. Ritchie does get one dance number right; it’s the one over the closing credits where his camera stays mostly stationary and pans from side to side, letting the dancers (including most of the cast members) own the spotlight. It’s the only place where his restraint serves him and the film.
For understandable reasons, Smith is a controversial pick to play the genie. The original role was one of the defining parts of Robin Williams’ career, and there’s no comedian around today who can duplicate his rapid-fire delivery and ability to switch characters on a dime. Smith wisely doesn’t try, instead adopting the part to his own more relaxed rhythms. Some rap verses are added to the songs for him, but he mostly sings without embarrassing himself, and turns in a performance that works on its own terms and makes the character his own. That’s better than we can say about anything he’s done in the last 10 years.
Along with him, Saturday Night Live alum Nasim Pedrad contributes further comic relief as Jasmine’s handmaiden and the Egyptian-Canadian actor Massoud almost manages to make Aladdin interesting, which is a marked improvement on the original’s rendition of him. He moves nimbly (especially in sequence where he sneaks past the palace guards) and sings in the sort of fine-boned tenor that the music requires. The remake adds a scene in which Aladdin makes his entrance as “Prince Ali” and makes a disastrous first impression on Jasmine, and Massoud bumbles through it like an expert. For a number of reasons, Arabs have been maligned by Hollywood perhaps more than any other ethnic group, which is saying something. Between the stardom of Rami Malek and this project that casts Turks, Iranians, Africans, Indians, and Arabs in a whole spectrum of roles, perhaps this is the start of the long road of penance that our entertainment industry. Let’s hope so.
Starring Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, and Will Smith. Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by John August and Guy Ritchie. Rated PG.