Aladdin is Not Quite a Whole New World, Thankfully

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I was six years old when the animated Aladdin appeared in theaters, another superlative addition to the Disney Renaissance, which began with the first film I ever saw on the silver screen, The Little Mermaid, and continued on through Beauty and the Beast. Though the adaptation of the French fairy tale is now widely recognized as the zenith of the studio’s traditionally animated musicals, at the time my boyhood sensibilities favored the more phallocentric film, with its princely protagonist and emphasis on action and adventure. The Genesis platformer which followed the film’s plot became my most played game for the only system my parents ever purchased for me, despite its Dark Souls-like difficulty (because of which I never beat it, resulting in me spending a significant portion of my puerile years in the 16-bit simulacrum of Agrabah).

But as an adult, the magic of Aladdin – either the ‘92 cartoon or this live-action remake – comes not from its much-needed infusion of masculine energy amidst a plethora of princesses, nor from the cheap thrills of parkouring past shining, slashing scimitars, nor even its unapologetically flamboyant spectacle. The real magic of Aladdin comes from its excellent employment of anachronisms. Appropriately, there’s nothing more authentic to the original telling of the tale than the existence of out-of-place elements. It was first published as part of a French translation of the Thousand and One Nights, ostensibly set in Imperial China, but depicting a medieval Middle-Eastern society, and more likely based on then contemporary treasure-hunting than any ancient Arabic accounts.

The animated film followed in this tradition, primarily through the humorous references made by Robin Williams’ Genie, but in more subtle ways as well. In an era before anti-Islamic sentiments were inflamed by the September 11th attacks, the Iraqi insurgency, and ISIS, Disney for a time successfully romanticized the Islamic Golden Age in the eyes of American audiences by presenting it as modern and libertine. Jasmine especially is a paragon of second wave feminism, empowered by her provocative apparel, a far cry from the prudish and puritanical attire associated more often with region (such as the burqa or hijab).  Moreover, Jasmine is empowered to pursue wedlock as a primarily romantic matter, as opposed to an affair of state for the purpose of political alliance. Despite her father’s wishes, she’s given a choice in the matter of her marriage that more resembles modern American than medieval Middle-Eastern matrimony.

The live-action remake is a bit retrograde in this respect. Naomi Scott’s more wholesome wardrobe is less challenging of the illiberal attitudes towards women’s sexuality endemic to the era in which the story is set. This is true not only of her garb, but the new Jasmine’s behavior as well. In the animated movie, Jasmine uses her feminine wiles to feign ardor for Jafar. This stratagem played smartly into the rules of magic established earlier in the film, in which the Genie explains to Aladdin that magic cannot cause a person to fall in love, but to which Jaraf in his hubris pays no heed. The 2019 version appears hesitant to have any suggestion of suggestiveness on Jasmine’s part. Instead, in the same scene she merely persuades Hakim, the head of the palace guards, to turn on Jafar. Instead of reinforcing the rules of magic within the fiction, this calls them into question: what did Jafar’s wish to become sultan of Agrabah net him? It appears he wasted his wish on an elaborate hat and little else. But worse than the narrative incoherence is the implicit vilification of women’s sexual agency.

Another unnecessary change which worked to rob Jasmine of her womanhood was conferring on her the title “Sultan.” That she becomes the monarch of Agrabah in this version is an entirely acceptable alteration. It makes a certain sense that she’d be better prepared by her upbringing for the day-to-day dominion of the city than a common thief, regardless of the diamond beneath his rough. But there’s a feminine equivalent of “sultan” in the title “sultana,” which is what she ought to have been called. Gendered language clarifies meaning; neutered nomenclature obfuscates it.

Otherwise, the anachronisms all add to the film’s fun. This is obvious in the Vaudeville-meets-Vegas theatricality of the dance numbers, from “You Ain’t Never had a Friend Like Me” to “Prince Ali.” But modernity also shines through in the very contemporary courtship of the “prince” and princess. Mena Massoud is at his most serviceable when he’s channeling the comedic cringe of Superbad in his awkward attempts to talk to a girl he knows likes him at yet around whom he nevertheless exudes nervousness. This inability to interact successfully with the opposite sex is particularly resonant amid the Sex Recession, as The Atlantic has dubbed the dearth of intimacy among younger Millennials and Generation Z. Having come of age right before society stopped using phones to make phone calls, I possess the capacity to start up and carry on conversations with women and strangers, a skill I’m thankful my younger competitors sorely lack. Which is not to say I don’t have pity for the fools, a sympathy which makes Aladdin all the more affable given his shared circumstances.

While I don’t relate to our riff-raff in the rough on that account, there is a point of similarity which the remake emphasizes over the original: the fabrication of his glamour as “Prince Ali.” Like Aladdin, I’m always apprehensive that potential paramours will look past my hat and habiliments and see me for who I am: not the cool and convivial Cowboy, but just mild-mannered Matthew. After all, it was The Cowboy that once upon a time dated a Disney (Parks) Princess (who played Jasmine, no less!) But unlike Aladdin, I never dropped the disguise, nor got my happily ever after. Real life is no fairy tale.

Still, either The Cowboy or Matthew has more presence than Massoud as Aladdin. Apart from the aforementioned ability to come off as awkward, his acting itself proves a poor performance, and there’s no power to his vocals during the many musical numbers. One imagines he was cast simply for his acrobatics, as he does manage impressive stunt work. His duds, like Jasmine’s, verge too far afield of the animated originals. Instead of only a vest for a vestment, Massoud dons a shirt, obviously unwilling to take the role seriously and get in sufficient shape to show off his physique. I might not have the hair, but at least I’m not afraid to show off my abs and pecs on screen.

Aside from being a bit too old for the role, the problems with Naomi Scott’s Jasmine lie more with how the character was written than her portrayal, as enumerated above. But boy does she have a set of pipes on her. Had she not pursued acting, she could have been equally successful as a singer. Her two new solos, while wholly forgettable and discordant with the rest of the soundtrack, are nonetheless excellent testaments to her talent.

I was among those who were incredulous when the initial images of Will Smith’s Genie dropped, and even with the first trailer I was still assuming the film would fail in no small part due to the artistic direction that director Guy Ritchie had taken with him. But by the end of the movie I’d come around entirely, and while Smith never surpasses Robin Williams, none of the problems with Aladdin can be attributed to him or his character, and indeed much that works is due to Smith carrying some scenes single-handedly.

The most objectionable casting comes down instead to Marwan Kenzari as Jafar. He simply lacks the vizier’s villainous visage. Gone is the dour and elongated sinister scowl. This affects the story directly: his lothesome look is important in informing and reinforcing Jasmine’s rejection of his advances. But Kenzari’s miscasting aside, the script itself wonderfully fleshes out the character. By making him a former urchin and thief, he becomes a dark doppelgänger to Aladdin, a vision of what the hero could become should he succumb to the temptation of the lamp’s power, a la Gollum and Frodo with the One Ring.

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So much of Disney’s live-action fare of late has been irreverent repudiations of their earlier opuses and the even older tales from which they derive. The ghost of Rudyard Kipling is surely suing the spectral pants off the spirit of Walt Disney for how the latter’s studio inverted the message of The Jungle Book, and Tchaikovsky would be unable to recognize any part of The Four Realms as relating to The Nutcracker. Aladdin might not be, like the live-action Beauty and the Beast, “the best telling of a tale as old as time.” But it’s sufficient that it doesn’t stray too far from the animated original and that the alterations and additions are not all Disney touting its bona fides as woke. It’s not a whole new world, thankfully; the old world was just fine, and just enough of it still shines through.

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