All hail the Disney Company, world-dominating kingdom of kitsch. When executives decided to wring even more revenue from their animated musicals by transforming them into live-action features (after stopovers on Broadway), it was with the knowledge that nothing need be left to chance, ever. A movie like the new Aladdin isn’t shot — it’s generated. It’s set inside a matrix where the real and digital worlds are indistinguishable, and where actors (apart from the one marquee name, Will Smith) seem chosen for their resemblance to animated characters. In the old days, when stars — or their stunt doubles — danced along parapets and leaped over precipices, you’d admire their agility; here, you admire the seamless interweaving of real and fake. There’s an unintentionally creepy undercurrent to “A Whole New World,” in which the thief Aladdin (Mena Massoud) takes Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) on a magic carpet ride around the city of Aqaba/Agrabah — which her father, the sultan, has never permitted her to see. This Aladdin’s sole innovation is a feminist Jasmine who refuses to be controlled, but the song is so saccharine and the vistas are so synthetic that it doesn’t feel as if she’s being liberated. It feels as if yet another man is trying to engineer her responses. Aladdin might as well have put a VR headset on her.
The movie engineers our responses, too, and if I were a Disney stockholder, I’d be pleased at how well it hits its marks. With Guy Ritchie at the helm, it hits them hard. There’s a driving, lewd Broadway energy to Ritchie’s work I’d never noticed before that syncs up with this second-rate material and hurls it into the heavens — or the lower circles of hell, depending on your perspective. The movie has no down time, no moments for dreaming that would risk making audiences impatient. Ritchie evidently dreams not of magic carpets but of roller coasters, and he seems to have approached this as a Young Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Lamp. My only real peeve is that he uses too many cuts in the dancing. You have to wait until the credit sequence to see entire, non-CG bodies in fluid motion. Come to think of it, that was my favorite thing in the movie.
Many raspberries were blown at the trailer that introduced Will Smith’s blue genie, but Smith fits Ritchie’s conception fine. He’s madly eager to please. Early on, he attempts Robin Williams–like flights of fancy, but then, as if remembering he’s not Robin Williams, he’ll launch into a Fresh Prince impression — and then swing back to camp while the animators make him big or small or any size at all and juggle multiple props and costumes for him. (Smith doesn’t need to be physically inventive, which is good because he’s not.) He can pass for a singer. He can pass for a hoofer. He didn’t make me think of a summer-stock Robin Williams but a summer-stock Beetlejuice — with pecs. (Michael McDowell’s character in the original Beetlejuice script possessed “vaguely Middle-Eastern features” — “spirit”-like — so we’ve come full circle.)
What principally connects Aladdin’s hero and heroine is their large and very white teeth. Massoud is personable without having much personality, but he’s light on his feet (he’s a convincing pickpocket) and both boyishly cute and matinee-idol handsome. (Disney’s Aladdin owes much to the 1940 The Thief of Baghdad, in which there were two heroes, the springy adolescent Sabu and the manly John Justin.) Naomi Scott — soon to be seen in the Charlie’s Angels update — looks a bit like Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy, which makes you think that she could fight off hordes of assassins even if, in this case, she doesn’t have any to fight off. She gets a new Alan Menken song that goes, “I don’t want to be silent / You can’t keep me quiet” — which convinced me that she had enough spirit to be sultan but needed a new rhyming dictionary. As Jasmine’s lady-in-waiting, Dahlia, the charming Nasim Pedrad (of New Girl and Saturday Night Live) would be funnier if every one of her scenes didn’t scream, “Comic relief!” Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar has a good, nasty scene where he pitches Aladdin off a balcony, but the part is dully written: You have to think back to Conrad Veidt’s Jaffar (two f’s) in The Thief of Baghdad to remember how bloodcurdling this character can be.
I never thought I’d say these words and am horrified doing so, but I miss Gilbert Gottfried’s voice as the evil bird sidekick, Iago. The new Iago, Alan Tudyk, sounds like a bird, whereas Gottfried sounds like a man who rarely changes his underwear. The problem is that Gottfried’s voice beckons to a world that can’t be computer-generated, at least not by the Disney Company.