Three Disney live-action remakes in a year (four if you count a Maleficent sequel) is insane. It goes beyond saturating the market into knocking movies over in turn like nine-figure budgeted dominoes. But when they’re as much of a blast as Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, you won’t hear a complaint from me. With the energy and visual appeal of Bollywood, this remake is, relatively minor flaws aside, a great two hours at the movie theater.
In the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) grapples with political reality. Street rat Aladdin (Mena Massoud) lives theft-to-theft. And Grand Vizier Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) puts into motion a plan to further his grand designs of warmongering ambition, a plan that ensnares Aladdin, whose purity is put to the test when a 10,000-year-old Genie (Will Smith) has three wishes to grant.
Having recently rewatched the animated 1992 original, I find this remake narratively and visually distinct enough never to feel like a rehash. New handmaiden character. Fairy tale politics. More layers of clothing for Aladdin. (Or just, you know, layers at all.) The standout characters prove to be Jasmine and wicked Jafar. The villain is played naturalistically, and Kenzari demonstrates a strong threatening screen presence even, and maybe especially, when perfectly calm. As Jasmine, Naomi Scott simply gives a movie star performance, charismatic and commanding.
When disguised in the bazaar, Jasmine gets in trouble with the law for giving bread to starving children without thinking of the money to pay for it. One thread in recent depictions of female heroes on screen is that there is a positive power in naïveté. It’s in Wonder Woman convinced in her thinking that World War I is caused only by a mad god’s manipulations and not the evil that men do. It’s in Ilsa Faust having the crazy idea that agents of allied nations are supposed to help each other out. And it’s in Jasmine putting her subjects first and envisioning a gender-blind monarchy. These are powerful character choices because they give glimpses of a more idealistic world. In this industry of escapism, this is a very cinematic thing to do. A whole new world indeed.
And as a fleet-footed musical, what fine escapism Aladdin is. Aside from a couple weird Guy Ritchie-an speed-ramping moments, “One Jump Ahead” really pops on screen. (Though Ritchie can’t help one gratuitous switcheroo flashback sequence like in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) The soaring “Arabian Nights” is used not just to introduce Agrabah, but the main cast of characters. The new song “Speechless”, while not for lack of trying, is transparently not of a piece with the original batch of songs. But I’m always here for new songs in these classic musicals, and this one does its job efficiently and emotionally as a power anthem for Jasmine.
Similar to how “Be Our Guest” is my least favorite sequence in the Beauty and the Beast remake, “Friend Like Me” is my least favorite here. Maybe it’s because both numbers trade in show-off-y visual jazz that renders (no pun intended) the line between animation and CGI spectacle almost non-existent. Throwing digital confetti all over the place is self-defeating when the whole remit of the movie is to play more realistic.
Hence both Beauty and Aladdin running the same play from the remake playbook of turning each Princess’ father character (Kevin Kline’s Maurice for Belle, Navid Negahban’s Sultan for Jasmine) from a cartoon buffoon to a dignified person. Another entry from that realism playbook: The “Prince Ali” song not continuing until the Sultan taps along to it is reminiscent of the punters struggling with asynchronous clapping in Beauty’s “Gaston” number. “A Whole New World” is sonically aces, but visually, that drive for realism feeds into a bit of a conservative imagination. No magic carpet trip to China here.
But while that sequence’s visuals aren’t the most adventurous, one of the chief pleasures of this film is the bright visual scheme – Bollywood-inspired costume and production design is a fresh take for a Disney project, and they’re a pleasure to behold. CGI blue Genie still looks… off, but not in a way that’s particularly bothersome. Any minor awkward choices are overwhelming by all the breezily entertaining ones, and that does characterize this movie. With engaging characters and music, strong production design, and the warmth of a fairy tale, Aladdin proves that cash grabs are not mutually exclusive with genuine quality. A strong 7/10.
With vintage brand recognition and the mandate to close summer movie season with the light touch of a romp, comes The Man from U.N.C.L.E., based on the 1960s TV show of the same name. It’s director Guy Ritchie’s latest stab at starting a buddy-action franchise (2009’s Sherlock Holmes), so expect plenty of style-as-substance fun. But in a year stuffed with spy films, can this one stand out?
As far as plot matters in this type of film, here it is. In 1963, the CIA’s Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) extracts mechanic and daughter of a former Nazi Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin, despite the best efforts of KGB killing machine Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). After the dust settles, the gravity of an international threat looming from Victoria Vinciguerra’s (Elizabeth Debicki) plan to use Gaby’s father to build a nuclear warhead convinces the CIA and KGB to partner Solo and Kuryakin to neutralize this existential threat. But each agent is tasked by his respective government to betray his partner. Much distrust, and arguing about fashion choices, ensues between the two agents.
In this film, the buck kind of stops at the quality of the three leads, and their chemistry as a unit – luckily, this most important aspect of the film works a charm. In the Napoleon role, Cavill curates a heightened charm that fits into the overall splashy tone. Cavill is having a hell of a lot of fun, quite a contrast to the more stoic qualities Hollywood has brought out of him in the past (Immortals, Man of Steel). Bristling against Napoleon’s roguish charm is Armie Hammer’s flustered hardass Illya.
Illya is from a certain point of view portrayed as a stock character, all wounded Russian pride, and indeed at times it feels like he’s the butt of a screenplay-long joke. But hey, it’s a joke that works, and Hammer is game to have fun playing a straight man. It’s as if the screenplay leans into the cliché of Illya’s character by giving him psychotic episodes whenever his pride is punctured, and after it’s clumsily set up, these episodes shockingly work too, when used as a demonstrable ratcheting up of dramatic tension while Illya is undercover.
Five films into her stunning nine scheduled for release this year, Alicia Vikander is proving that she can do pretty much anything… including blending into the 1960s as if she belongs! Her Gaby is a mechanic, a fun but underutilized trait, and more or less an equal partner in the story. Unfortunately she’s a bit shoved to one side toward the end even as a reveal brings her onto a more level playing field with the male leads. So that’s another way Gaby fits into the 1960s: she’s a competent woman who’s sidelined…
The script is written by director Ritchie along with Lionel Wigram, a producer given his first screenplay credit. Ritchie would tinker with the script even while the pages were being shot, and encouraged ad-libs from his actors. This is a technique that fits the laid-back aesthetic of the film and one that does benefit the core trio of actors, but the consequence is that what plotty stuff does get translated on screen remains dense and non-involving. Now granted, at least some of the exposition is punched up by Ritchie’s trademark aerobic editing, courtesy of six-time Ritchie collaborative editor James Herbert (even though the briefing on Napoleon gave me severe déjà vu of their previous film, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows). And the entire film is enlivened by Daniel Pemberton’s brash swinging music, which at times blurs the line between soundtrack and score – when you’re not sure whether the composer’s hand is in play or whether the instrumental track is ripped right from the 60s, he’s doing a bang-up job. There are times when the music is so forthright that it straddles the ridiculous, but I wouldn’t sacrifice the score for dignity at this point.
In short, the stylistic flourish of The Man of U.N.C.L.E. is there, with cast chemistry, savvy editing and a delightful score being the best elements on show. My favorite scene is a deftly crosscut sequence at a racetrack that uses editing and the plot device of Illya’s psychosis as fuel for its engine. Another really cool editing moment: the live-action segment behind the opening credits is cut exactly like a 1960s spy TV show (presumably like the show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – I’ve not seen any episodes, though I understand the splitscreen technique used here is from the show). There is a lot of “callback” editing on show (cutting back in time to show a detail you missed when it actually happened), which comes across as self-satisfied in its own cleverness, but that’s not such a bad thing here.
Well, it’s sure a good thing that Ritchie is able to oversee editing, because he can’t direct action in this movie. There are numerous action beats swallowed into a bit of a vortex, but it’s not a complete picture of failure – the vehicular action is good, and Ritchie is assisted by the aforementioned splitscreen and other editing tricks that cover for him. More explicit in the film’s story, however, is the villain problem.
We are told multiple times that Victoria Vinciguerra is a force to be reckoned with, but when she shows up it would be a real stretch to say she lives up to the build-up, and she’s really abruptly dispatched. Show, don’t tell. Or at least tell, as well as show! There’s a wider problem with the layering of the villains, because beyond Victoria there are three other layers of “big bads” to peel through, and one in particular is also super-aggrandized before his swift fall. So we have this film that on a certain level doesn’t want you to care so much about its story because it lives and dies by other things (which is absolutely appropriate for a splashy franchise debut; don’t have a super-strong villain out the gate; style > substance; *nods in agreement*)… then persists in building up its lame-duck villains as if they’re more than they really are!
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. personifies 60s cool, with three dynamite super-likable leads, a great rollicking score, some smoothly effective editing, and did I mention those leads? I stand by the problems I have with the film, but I also acknowledge these are no dealbreakers. It’s fun! There is just something missing here, in addition to the problems I can articulate, that prevent me from giving this romp any more than: A strong 6/10.
P.S.: It’s ironic when Illya uses the nickname “cowboy” for his partner Napoleon, since Armie Hammer played The Lone Ranger in 2013!