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Review: Little magic in 'Aladdin' remake

Will Smith's giant blue Genie can't fill the shoes of Robin Williams in live action remake of 1992 favorite

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Will Smith in "Aladdin."

As the "Aladdin" Genie who resides inside of a lamp waiting to grant its owner three wishes, Will Smith is manic and eager to please, if not entirely sure how to get the job done.

A song, a dance, a joke? Like a birthday clown, you half-expect him to start whipping out balloon animals — anything to bring some smiles to faces. 

Disney's "Aladdin" remake is much the same way. It's meant to bring smiles to faces, but isn't quite sure how to do it. Is it through nostalgia for the original 1992 cartoon, or is it by building, pardon the pun, "A Whole New World?" "Aladdin" never feels truly committed to either mindset, and is content just going through the motions.

Mena Massoud is Aladdin in Disney’s live-action "Aladdin."

Whatever your stance, Guy Ritchie is an odd choice to direct this children's fantasy come to life. Ritchie's films tend to have a gritty, streetwise sensibility — he's no softie — and the material here calls for a gentle, more delicate touch. Not that his "Aladdin" is a back alley brawler, but Ritchie's approach lacks the warmth needed to make the film charming. 

Mena Massoud plays Aladdin, the street thief who's trying to win the affections of Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the Princess in disguise as a handmaid when they first cross paths in the streets of Agrabah. Jasmine's father, the Sultan (Navid Negahban), is eager to marry her off to a capable suitor, but she wants a say in her own destiny.

Aladdin, meanwhile, is tricked by the nefarious Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) into stealing a genie's lamp. But when Aladdin keeps the lamp for himself and discovers its powers, out comes the Genie, ready to grant Aladdin his three wishes. 

The Genie's appearance comes after a lengthy dry spell — Smith doesn't appear as the Genie until about 40 minutes into the film — and he brings a much-needed spark to the proceedings. But that spark quickly goes haywire. 

Smith, in tribute to Robin Williams' performance in the original, brings a bouncing-off-the-walls energy to his Genie, but bouncing-off-the-walls isn't Smith's game. His distractingly buffed-up CGI Genie is more annoying than he is endearing. "Back up boy, I need some room to work. I'm about to fabulize you," he says to Aladdin, like a carnival barker by way of "Queer Eye's" Jonathan Van Ness, before making him over into a prince. 

In his royal guise, Aladdin is able to woo Jasmine anew, and the Genie — taking the human form of Will Smith — takes an interest in Jasmine's handmaiden, Dalia (former "SNL" star Nasim Pedrad). It's these scenes where Smith is at his best, turning on his "Hitch" charisma, which his Genie could use more of.  

Aladdin and Jasmine have decent enough chemistry, even if their magic carpet rendition of "A Whole New World" doesn't take flight. (None of the film's half-dozen or so songs leap from the screen.) Late in the film, as Jafar takes control of the Genie and attempts to gain all-consuming power over the world, Ritchie turns the finale into a tornado of special effects that zap any remaining fun from the proceedings. 

So why are we here? More than anything, "Aladdin" feels unneeded. Like this year's live action "Dumbo," it wasn't begging to be remade, and the decision to trot it back out is driven by profit rather than necessity. The few light laughs aren't enough to justify awakening the Genie. But he's out, and it's too late now to stuff him back in the lamp. 



Rated PG: for some action/peril

Running time: 128 minutes