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A whole old world

Disney's latest pointless remake? 'Aladdin'

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Director Guy Ritchie ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Sherlock Holmes") tackles his first musical in Walt Disney Pictures' remake of the animated classic "Aladdin," and it shows. Working from the 1992 film, which in turn took its cues from the Arabic folktale in "One Thousand and One Nights," Ritchie and co-screenwriter John August don't stray far from their source material. But "Aladdin" took heat back in 1992 for its white-guy appropriation and insensitivities, and Disney doesn't do much to allay similar concerns in an even more politically correct environment.

After the musical prologue "Arabian Nights," the movie introduces us to the titular "riff-raff ... street rat" pickpocket (Egyptian-born Canadian actor Mena Massoud) darting about the fictional sultanate of Agrabah. Upon meeting an incognito Princess Jasmine (Indian-English actor Naomi Scott), Aladdin launches into "One Jump Ahead," the chase number meant to cement Aladdin's rakish charm and, at least in 1992, the film's post-Vaudevillian Looney Tunes energy. But the scene exposes the new "Aladdin" at its worst: a callow Massoud, an awkwardly updated musical arrangement and trick sets that render a one-time animated highlight into a charmless live-action spectacle.

Soon we meet Will Smith's Genie in the lamp, a character that kicks the movie's garish CGI into overdrive. Competing with memories of the late Robin Williams' arguable career peak, Smith gets buried under unnecessarily overzealous motion-capture technology for all of his scenes in blue-skinned, muscular form. It's only when Smith is allowed to cut loose in predominately human form -- especially when dancing -- that the charisma for which Disney presumably paid handsomely works in earnest. Mostly, this means the scenes with Smith actually on camera in human guise after the wish-granting Genie transforms Aladdin into "Prince Ali" and poses as his attendant.

The big production number "Prince Ali" turns out to be the movie's most fully realized bit of showmanship (the perfunctory but nice-enough remake of love duet "A Whole New World" takes the silver ribbon). "Prince Ali" becomes an adrenalized Disneyland Main Street parade, including a robust rendering of the 1992 song penned by Alan Menken (music) and the late, great Howard Ashman (lyrics). Still, in live-action, all this feels even more like appropriated costume-party exoticism filtered through the Mouse House machine.

Outside of Smith, who successfully falls back on his well-honed comedic style, the cast proves uniformly bland, we're talking Disney Channel bland. The problem extends from Massoud and Scott to Marwan Kenzari's evil Grand Vizier Jafar (who compares unfavorably to Jonathan Freeman's deliciously theatrical 1992 version) and Navid Negahban's Sultan. The exception that proves the rule, Iranian-American actor Nasim Pedrad ("Saturday Night Live") enlivens her every scene as Jasmine's amusingly lovesick handmaiden Dalia.

Obviously, the movie's diversity is a baby step in the right direction. But it's probably a bad sign that -- midway through the picture's 128 minutes -- I longed for the simpler pleasures of not only the 1992 film but the current Broadway show. Heck, I'd even take a low-rent theme-park version if it spared me this film's descent into the uncanny valley.

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