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Arabian Nights

Aladdin is not my favorite cartoon, but it ranks pretty high. So, naturally, the whole action movie thing made me pretty nervous, especially after Beauty and the Beast proved to be such a useless disappointment. Let me be clear, I’m usually not one to whine when they change something from the original when they remake: […]

Aladdin is not my favorite cartoon, but it ranks pretty high. So, naturally, the whole action movie thing made me pretty nervous, especially after Beauty and the Beast proved to be such a useless disappointment.

Let me be clear, I’m usually not one to whine when they change something from the original when they remake: my problem is, on the other hand, if you don’t add anything of yours or if you add things without making any sense, because then I wonder why are you bothering to remake something at all. So, I managed to see as few footage as possible, I tried not to get into the whole discussion about casting choices, scenery changes and so on. All I did was listening to the Soundtrack few days before going to see it and two things were immediately obvious: something new and interesting was going on with Jasmine and Will Smith was really into the whole genie thing.

So, last week I grabbed some family and friends, and we went to see the original version here in Milan. And I was surprised and charmed and carried away just as much as I have been when I saw the cartoon as a child. Sure the movie has faults, but lots of things are spot on and so right that I’m frankly conflicted whether I like this more than the original. Like for real.

So, without any further ado, let me get to it. You’ve been waiting for this review long enough.

Who's your genie, now?
Who’s your genie, now?

First of all, someone really got Will Smith convinced. And it’s not like he didn’t have big shoes to fill: Robin Williams‘ iconic performance was a beautiful sarabande of impressions, inside jokes, 4th wall breakers.
I once saw an interview with Will Smith, right after Wild Wild West, and he was saying that he would have loved for posterity to look back at his career and say “hey, this guy did a lot of different stuff!”. For an actor like that, Robin Williams surely must be an inspiration, no pressure there, for sure.
But I have to say I really loved how he took the burden of giving the genie a new voice and body. He doesn’t try to mimic the original but he’s not a rapping genie either (though I wouldn’t have minded to see that). He’s funny and deep and the additions to his character are simply perfect, from the romantic interest to the way he goes back to being a lot of a trickster.

“There’s a lot of grey areas in your wish” is much more than a pun, at the end of the day.

The rendition of the two beloved songs (Friend like me and Prince Alì) do credit to Robin Williams’ memory and I loved how they have the genie sing a new and improved performance of Arabian Nights, at the beginning. If you know the original by heart as I do, you’ll notice how they took the chance to fix a couple of things they screwed up in the original version: “it’s barbaric” becomes “it’s chaotic” and the “Sunday Salaam” becomes a much more appropriate “Friday Salaam”. Go, Disney, you can make it.

Oh, the music that plays as you move through a maze
In the haze of your pure delight
You are caught in a dance, you are lost in the trance
Of another Arabian night.

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“More often than not, are hotter than hot, in a lot of good ways”.

On the other hand, not everyone is convinced and Mena Massoud could have used a little pep talk, because his Aladdin is below average. It doesn’t help that he has to run and sing, which made sense in the cartoon but even a crazy director as Guy Ritchie is having trouble to make sense of in a live action movie. True, the character was tuned down: he’s not the dashing loudmouth poser he was in the cartoon, he has lots of embarrassing moments (“Stop talking”), no sword fight and even the Grand Visir is better than him at sleight-of-hand. True to be told, he seems to be much better in the brilliant bits than, overall, at playing his part of hero in his own rags-to-riches tale.

What really really works, on the other hand, is Naomi Scott as Jasmine. The original character was a bit of an Ariel copycat: she wanted to be free, to get out of the palace, for the sake of freedom. Which is good and fine if it’s 1992 and you’re sixteen. The new character goes a lot deeper and makes much more sense: her wish to go out is a wish to rule as Sultan, to break the boundaries of tradition, but they managed to write her new version without breaking completely away from the original, with care and love. I’m completely in love with her new song “Speechless” and I only just recently realized how the title comes from a sexist line delivered by Jafar in the cartoon (“speechless… a fine quality in a wife”). The second sequence in the movie is a fine piece of directing too, even if initially you might wonder what the fuck is going on. Give it time. It makes beautiful, perfect sense. And Naomi’s performance in delivering the lines of the song is simple and passionate and amazing.

I would have loved to say that Marwan Kenzari works as well as the new Jafar, but unfortunately I really can’t. The posters already gave away this feeling that he took the role just to pay for some really huge loan and, although he doesn’t fare bad in the first half of the movie, he really isn’t convincing when it’s important. He’s nor menacing nor fascinating (although technically better looking than Aladdin, let’s face it), and he comes across as blandly exasperated more than angry or crazy with power. Which is a shame, because his backstory really works well and the constant comparisons between him and Aladdin were really something interesting. At the end of the day, the smart one seems to be Iago.

There’s a road that may lead you to good or to greed
Through the power your wishing commands
Let the darkness unfold or find fortunes untold
Well, your destiny lies in your hands.

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That house won’t pay itself, you fools.

Talking about the parrot, I have bad news for all who loved the red fat sidekick of the cartoon. In the movie, they had to cut back a little on the humanization of all animals and what’s interesting is that, as a result, it’s much more of a fairy-tale in which every major character has his familiar spirit: Abu, Raja and Iago are all helpers to their masters (no more magic vial, just another sleight of hand) and the parrot is a beautiful voice in the background of some key moments, like the “stop blabbering and rub the fucking lamp” one. And I have to admit that the chase on the flying carpet, in which Aladdin and Jasmine are pursued by a giant flying chicken, is much more satisfactory than it looked on paper.
They also did a beautiful job in tuning the carpet’s animation and the way they fly on it, as if they’re holding its reins, is a stroke of genius.

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Hold your breath, it gets better.

Another thing I must admit I liked, was Nasim Pedrad as Dalia, the princess’ maid. Her new character is a fine addition: she’s witty and adds some more color, by reflection, to Jasmine herself.
Even the guards are not the parodies they were in the cartoons: Numan Acar as chief guard Hakim is a key character and you would have never guessed.

In short, this Aladdin is a movie in which you don’t have to excuse anything because it’s Disney or because it’s the remake of a cartoon.
It’s a damn fine movie, I’m in love with it, and you should all go and see it.

Now, try your best to stay calm
Brush up your Friday salaam
Then come and meet his spectacular coterie.

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