Movie Review: ‘Aladdin’ Grants Our Wish for an Illuminating Disney Remake

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CREDIT: Daniel Smith/Disney

Starring: Mena Massoud, Will Smith, Naomi Scott, Marwin Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Numan Acar, Billy Magnussen

Director: Guy Ritchie

Running Time: 128 Minutes

Rating: PG for Vividly Fantastical Wish Fulfillment

Release Date: May 24, 2019

One of the best possible values of Disney’s recent spate of remakes is something typically associated with theatrical revivals, i.e., the space to illuminate and expand upon the messages of the original. With that in mind, Guy Ritchie’s rendition of Aladdin is one of the best entries in this trend because of how much it emphasizes what worked about the original and how successful it is with its new elements. Both versions are clear, thorough, and simple about explaining their character motivations, which sounds like it should be a basic tenet of storytelling, and it is (except when you want to be ambiguous), but sometimes filmmakers get distracted by the bells and whistles.

While the details are fun and fancy, the main ideas are what keep Aladdin flying along. We know that Aladdin and Jasmine are smitten each other, we know that Genie wants his freedom, we know that Jafar is power-hungry, and we know that the Sultan wants what is best for his kingdom and his daughter. The circumstances that frustrate or reward these desires are understandable and internally consistent, which adds up to a formula for a satisfying story.

So Ritchie and his co-screenwriter John August know what clicks about the meat of what they’ve got here – how about the fresh flavors they add? Casting is key here, and that is a success across the board. Mena Massoud (Aladdin), Naomi Scott (Jasmine), and Marwin Kenzari (Jafar) are mainly playing variations of what came before, while Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much sterner than, though just as lovable as, Douglas Seale’s goofball version. Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnussen provide a good chunk of the comic relief as a couple of new characters, a saucy handmaiden to Jasmine who can totally get it and a very sweet, but way-of-his-depth, Scandinavian-ish suitor, respectively.

Of course, the question everyone is parroting is: does Genie Will Smith grant audiences their wishes? There were plenty of concerns after trailer footage suggested that a blue Fresh Prince was maybe a little too creepy for comfort. Frankly, though, I have spent this whole time believing that any weirdness is this movie’s biggest asset. And ultimately anyway, I believe that the CGI threads the needle between off-putting and palatable. (Although I’m not sure how necessary his jacked torso is.) Smith is reverent to Robin Williams’ iconic performance, but his Genie is just as unique. He’s operating at the height of Big Willie style, the sort of confidante who knows just how to swag out confidence and perception to everyone’s advantage. We have had a friend like him before, but we could always use another.

Aladdin is Recommended If You Like: Aladdin (1992), Big Willie Style, Willennium, Sitcom episodes with Nasim Pedrad guest appearances

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Magic Carpets

This Is a Movie Review: ’12 Strong’ Declassifies Post-9/11 Afghanistan But Doesn’t Have the Wherewithal to Ask the Tough Questions

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CREDIT: David James/HS Film, LLC/Warner Bros.

This post was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Navid Negahban, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Geoff Stults, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Elsa Pataky

Director: Nicolai Fuglsig

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R for Typical War Violence and Expletives, Though Far From the Genre’s Most Explicit

Release Date: January 19, 2018

12 Strong dramatizes a U.S. military operation immediately following the September 11 attacks, in which Task Force Dagger struck back against the Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan. A mission that could have lasted years is instead completed in a matter of weeks. Thus, the film ends on a moment of triumph. But that is a note that rings hollow, as nearly two decades in, the war on terror is still going on, with no clear end in sight.

To be fair, the dispersed, insidious, leaderless nature of terrorism makes it profoundly difficult to stamp out entirely, and it is accordingly just as difficult to convey the entire meaning of this conflict in a single work of art. 12 Strong does not purport to capture that entirety, nor should we fault it for failing to do so. But it does deserve to be taken to task for bringing up some existential conundrums and declining to thoroughly investigate them. An Afghani ally tells the men of Task Force Dagger, “You will be cowards if you leave, and you will be our enemies if you stay.” And that is really the crux of this issue. But instead of grabbling with that dilemma, 12 Strong leaves it hanging.

At its heart, though, 12 Strong just wants to be a celebration of heroism. And on that score, it is more committed, but not especially capable. It was filmed in New Mexico, and you can feel just how much it is not actually on a real Afghani battlefield. A cheap, careless aesthetic is not exactly the best way to honor these guys. I am sure budgetary constraints made things difficult, but that could have been counteracted with the same ingenuity that Task Force Dagger displayed, but alas, the final product is a bunch of grey dullness with occasional flashes of personality (that personality coming from the fact that these soldiers were forced to ride horses, which most of them are not trained to do, thus resulting in a few solid laughs).

12 Strong is Recommended If You Like: Saving Private Ryan but with straight-to-video production values

Grade: 2 out of 5 Horse Soldiers