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WATCHING THE MOVIES: Aladdin

The Genie once again covers for a pretty cookie-cutter plot.

The original animated Aladdin was never one of my favorite Disney animated films. I thought the Genie was hilarious (who doesn’t love Robin Williams), but even as a kid something about the plot kind of left me deflated.

As I grew older, I finally figured out what my issue was: the Liar Revealed trope.

You’ve seen this before: a character pretends to be someone they’re not and the central tension of the story revolves around how far they’ll take the deception and how they’ll be revealed as a fake. When they inevitably are, the All Is Lost Moment of the story occurs: their friends and loved ones feel betrayed and leave them, but then in the climax they return. Our protagonist learns that they didn’t need to lie to achieve their ultimate goal.

The trope is so overdone as to be tired, and Aladdin is one big instance of it. SPOILERS AHEAD if you’ve somehow never heard the story.

The titular no-name street urchin acquires a lamp with a genie who can grant him three wishes. He uses the first one to become a prince so he can woo the princess of his dreams. Then the story’s major tension revolves around how long Aladdin can keep the Prince Ali deception going.

It’s not that the Liar Revealed storyline is bad, it’s just boring. It can be done well. And this movie executes it almost as well as the original.

The live-action Disney remakes are always going to be compared to their respective animated predecessors. Often, the best they can do is not to be better than their cartoon counterparts, but different enough that they’re interesting. That was The Jungle Book‘s trick.

Aladdin doesn’t innovate much on its original story. But when it does it doesn’t make many missteps. Even a new character, Jasmine’s handmaiden, serves as capable comic relief. Sometimes the retold plot from the animated film has certain story beats shuffled, but it isn’t terribly noticeable. The plot, in broad strokes, works.

But Aladdin‘s pacing really jitters. The primary story takes forever to really kick off, but when the film needs to let character choices breathe, it moves too fast.

A good example: one of the Sultan’s guards, a man of duty and the law, sees Jafar use the Genie’s power to take the Sultan’s throne. Inexplicably, he then swears loyalty to Jafar and has his men escort Jasmine away. It takes ten whole minutes, comprised of an I Am Woman Hear Me Roar musical number and a heartfelt plea from the princess, to flip him back to the logical position that I probably shouldn’t betray the Sultan in favor of the guy who just stole his power. This character didn’t need to be a sudden focus and his mini-journey didn’t need to occur.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about what the filmmakers have done with Jasmine. Her transmogrification into a Stock Strong Independent Woman initially doesn’t work, precisely because we don’t see her be strong or independent. We are instead told that she’s read a lot of books and wants to rule the kingdom. And the villain tells her to be seen and not heard because he’s an evil man, you see. It takes a remarkably out-of-place-feeling new song to hype her up enough to make the aforementioned heartfelt plea. And then she really doesn’t do anything to demonstrate her strength or independence afterward, besides becoming Agrabah’s next ruler after the Sultan just lets her.

Well, what about the other characters? Most of the acting is over-the-top bombastic or relatively flat, except Will Smith’s Genie. He’s having a ton of fun and oozing charisma every second he’s on screen. Not a never-ending jokester like Robin Williams, but more just a goofy uber-powerful spirit with a lust for life. Whenever Genie interacts with another character, it somehow improves their acting. He especially has good chemistry with whoever plays Aladdin. And his first dialogue scene with Jasmine’s handmaiden is so funny that it sold me on them as a couple.

There’s a lot of singing and dancing in this movie too – somehow more than I was expecting. Each ditty’s accompanying choreography is visually astounding. It’s the obviously auto-tuned singing that’s a constant distraction. Everyone sounds processed except Jasmine, and her song is probably the worst written one in the film.

This is a gorgeous-looking movie, though. The effects are excellent. Agrabah is a beautiful setting, fully realized and gleaming like a jewel. The CGI monkey Apu is absolutely adorable, the parrot Iago menacing.

I probably sound like I’m nitpicking, but I did like this movie. It’s enjoyable, buoyed of course by the Genie’s charm. It’s not without some flaws, including several that weren’t present in the animated classic. But just like that film, its reliance on the Genie’s charisma and comic talent covers a multitude of sins.

RATING: 6/10

Next weekend, on Sunday, I’ll have a review of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Until then, roll credits!

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