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‘Aladdin’ remake has its share of diamonds in the rough

We’re in the midst of a massive Disney project that’s turning animated classics into live-action remakes. It started quietly and relatively slowly with reworkings of Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast between 2010 and 2017.

But now, we’re in the midst of a near avalanche, with five live-action versions arriving in 2019 alone. Tim Burton’s Dumbo opened two months ago, Aladdin is out now, and The Lion King opens two months from now in July. Another Maleficent movie and Lady and the Tramp arrive in the fall.

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One of the knocks against many of these remakes is that they have no reason for being, other than as money-grabs. The animated version of Beauty and the Beast was in no need of an update, for instance, so why bother with a slavish imitation of a near-perfect original? A billion dollars at the box office, that’s why. And to be fair, that film was pretty good too.

So, how’s this new version of Aladdin? I’d say better than expected, especially considering its source material. I realize the original Aladdin won two Oscars and was a big hit at the box office, but it’s a decidedly lesser film than the two masterpieces which immediately preceded the original, in The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

My memory of the original is that, despite its somewhat exotic setting, it starred two of the blandest leads imaginable, Aladdin and Jasmine. To counter that blandness, Disney created a hyperactive Genie (played by the even more hyperactive Robin Williams). Williams’ presence threw off the balance of the film, but at least he kept things lively.

This Aladdin remake corrects that imbalance a bit by giving both Aladdin and especially Jasmine more character. The two young actors (Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott) bring a full-bodied presence to their roles that was missing in the animated version. And they more than do justice to the original’s big hit song, “A Whole New World.”

More significantly, Jasmine’s given a whole new ambition, to become Sultan herself someday, and that means she gets a brand new song called “Speechless.”

“I won’t be silenced, you can’t keep me quiet, won’t tremble when you try it, all I know is I won’t go speechless,” she sings.

The song is awkwardly squeezed into the middle of a dramatic and climactic scene, but Scott’s vocal delivery of this girl-power ballad wins enough to make it work. And it’s the best “new” thing in the movie.

As for Will Smith as the Genie, he’s definitely no Robin Williams, but that turns out to be fine. Instead of a manic Genie, he’s a genial Genie, one that fits nicely within the Will Smith persona.

For a good stretch of time, Smith seems to be channeling his Hitch character, as he guides Aladdin through the vagaries of the dating scene. It’s not high comedy, but at least the two characters have some rapport.

In another plot change from the original, Jasmine is given a handmaiden named Dalia, played by SNL’s Nasim Pedrad. This not only gives Scott’s Jasmine someone to play off of, but also gives Smith’s Genie someone to court, which he most fervently does. Cue more mild comedy.

Although many of these changes from the original work well enough, others drag the film down. Unnecessarily long and elaborate action scenes, especially the final chase scene, serve no real purpose.

It’s as if Disney feels it needs a superhero movie flourish to justify a live-action remake. It doesn’t. And clocking in at well over two hours, it’s a full 38 minutes longer than the original, and feels it.

Fans of the original are no doubt going to miss Robin Williams, and I definitely missed Gilbert Gottfried as Iago, but just as Aladdin himself is described as “a diamond in the rough,” there are “diamonds in the rough” to be found in this remake, if you’re willing to look.

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