Our latest display of corporate wokeness comes to us in the form of Disney’s live-action iteration of Aladdin, in which the Sultan’s beautiful daughter Jasmine now yearns not just to be able to choose her own husband, but to be able to eventually rule the kingdom in her own right. “It’s never been done in a thousand years!” protests her father, the sultan, and thus kicking off one of the film’s new-for-2019 musical numbers.
“I won’t be silenced/you can’t keep me quiet,” Naomi Scott belts in “Speechless,” a song whose existence seems a perfect comment on the limits of corporate wokeness in 2019. Forward-thinking enough to acknowledge the possibility of a lady Sultan, but not quite ready to acknowledge that maybe there shouldn’t be Sultans. In other words, just progressive enough for a #resistance mom to feel okay about buying the toys.
Obviously, I’m not going to be judging a Disney remake of Aladdin directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Will Smith (as a literal magic negro) solely on politics. Rote displays of “enlightened” thinking aside, Aladdin is pretty entertaining. It’s perfectly cast, and not just because of Will Smith fulfilling his ultimate destiny as “rapping genie in a Disney movie.” Aladdin also has absurdly attractive and charismatic leads (Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Jasmine), memorable turns from solid character actors with great faces (Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, Navid Nagahban as the Sultan), and comic relief from veteran comedic actors (Billy Magnussen from Ingrid Goes West as a rival prince, Nasim Pedrad from SNL as Jasmine’s handmaiden, Dalia). It’s also a consistent visual treat (once you get used to some of the weird contemporary touches, like that Aladdin’s red vest is a hoodie now), full of macro headwear, patterned silk, and colorful bazaars — a great sandbox for any production designer.
The story, of a “street rat” thief in a fictional Arab city-state falling in love with the Sultan’s daughter and finding a magic lamp, largely justifies another retelling (the story has been around since at least the 1700s), and Guy Ritchie proves capable as its director. The mix of fantasy, exoticism (with toned-down orientalism), and Middle Eastern city-state political intrigue makes it feel a little like a G-rated Game of Thrones spinoff set in Mereen, albeit with a lot more parkour. Ritchie seems to have studied Jerry Bruckheimer’s doomed 2010 Prince Of Persia movie and thought “well he didn’t do everything wrong.” Will Smith’s turn as the big blue genie is a little more overt in pandering to the kiddies (bright colors, loud noises, manic dancing, rapid-fire bratty snark) but still reasonably tolerable.
Aladdin‘s biggest weakness is that while it feels like an inspired epic, it’s a reluctant musical. It’s as if Guy Ritchie wanted to shoot this pan-Arab adventure romp full of tigers and monkeys and flying carpets but in order to do so had to agree to keep the most memorable songs. It’s hard to argue the decision from a business standpoint: there’s nothing that infuriates the rabble of proto-fascist Disney fanatics like denying their idealized childhood security blankey. But doing a musical well requires a filmmaker who’s at least as invested in the songs as they are in the rest, and Ritchie’s interest, while I can’t really blame him, seems to lie elsewhere. And so Aladdin mostly offers overproduced, slightly anodyne versions of the old songs autotuned within an inch of their lives that aren’t especially well-incorporated into the narrative. Will Smith doesn’t rap as much as you might imagine. Hard to say whether that’s a good thing.
Aladdin is still fun and doesn’t drag even with its relatively uninspired musical numbers. It allowed Disney a do-over with which to excise Aladdin‘s most egregiously Islamophobic elements, like describing the fictional “Agrabah” as “a faraway place where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric but hey it’s home.” They did their best to update the depiction of Jasmine as “a barely-clad, animated sex doll whose fate revolves around men” and got only as far as that most fashionable ideal of corporate wokeness, the “powerful woman,” now capable of wielding power as a future enlightened despot, but not quite ready to question the power structures themselves.
Could we have expected much more? Probably not. Disney works largely on the “stick with what works” model, and the story still turns largely on how Aladdin and Jafar deal with newfound wealth and power, not how Jasmine and the Sultan deal with their inherited positions. “There are more important things in life than money and power” isn’t a terrible message, but it’s notable that it’s still the poor people in the story who have to do most of the changing. Is that progress? Eh, sure, a little, I guess. That it can’t be everything to everyone doesn’t stop Aladdin from trying. It’s a bit much, but hey, it’s Disney.