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'Aladdin' review: Will Smith stars in a charmless remake

Smith, who lurches and stalls while trying to shift different gears as the Genie, is no substitute for the role originated by the late Robin Williams.

Aladdin (played by Mena Massoud) meets the larger-than-life

Aladdin (played by Mena Massoud) meets the larger-than-life blue Genie (Will Smith) in a scene from "Aladdin." Photo Credit: Disney / Daniel Smith

PLOT In a faraway land, a young thief becomes master of a powerful genie.

CAST Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott

RATED PG (some scary scenes, mild violence)

LENGTH 2:08

BOTTOM LINE A charmless remake of the animated tale from 1992.

In 1992, before Hollywood studios were attuned to such things, Disney’s animated “Aladdin” featured a narrator who sang about his Middle Eastern homeland, “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” Arab groups complained and Disney altered some lines in the song, but not that one. With its new, live-action “Aladdin,” Disney finally relents: The offending word “barbaric” is now “chaotic.”

And that, by and large, is the only thing in this “Aladdin” that can be called an improvement.

“Aladdin” is the latest in Disney’s string of financially successful but artistically unnecessary live-action remakes of animated classics. Past titles, such as “The Jungle Book” and “Pete’s Dragon” (both released in 2016) at least tried to reshape the material by striking a new tone or mood, but “Aladdin” does little but replace the original film’s slender charms with loud, hollow spectacle. Its main selling point is the presence of a blue-skinned Will Smith, who replaces, but is no substitute for, the late Robin Williams as the Genie.

Williams’ motor-mouthed Genie gave the Disney formula a shot of Looney Tunes insanity, but Smith, by contrast, doesn’t really “do” zany. During the Genie’s introductory song, “Friend Like Me,” Smith tries to shift gears like Williams — different accents, different personae — but he lurches and stalls. When the improv fails, he falls back on his affable Fresh Prince persona: a little rap, a lot of smile. Also working against Smith is that he’s often computer-generated, and rather poorly; his movements are stiff, his eyes dead. Smith is best when he’s allowed to simply act, as when his Genie takes human form to savor the simple pleasures of life.

Smith doesn’t sink this movie single-handedly. Mena Massoud’s Aladdin is a dreamy, puppyish bore who delivers every line like a sigh. Naomi Scott, as Princess Jasmine, is a newly empowered woman — she wants to rule as sultan and sings a hear-me-roar song called “Speechless” (from “La La Land” composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) — but she doesn’t actually do much besides fall in love. Even the villain Jafar, originally a formidable spell-caster, has been reduced to an annoying pipsqueak by the actor Marwan Kenzari.

Director Guy Ritchie, known for cheeky crime-comedies including “Snatch” (2000), seems out of his element. He rushes the action, clutters the screen with effects (between Aladdin’s monkey, Jafar’s parrot and the Genie, this is practically another work of animation) and goes for an overall level of visual overload that barely allows the movie to breathe. You’d be better off re-watching the original “Aladdin,” barbarism and all.

FOUR MORE

Why does the Genie of “Aladdin,” played by Will Smith, have sky-blue skin? It’s because he’s been trapped in the lamp for so long. “My natural color is more navy,” he says. Ba-DUMP! Here are four other movies with characters who worked blue:

X-MEN (2000) Rebecca Romijn-Stamos was the first to portray Mystique, the cool blue hottie of this mutant-superhero series. Jennifer Lawrence took over the character in 2011’s “X-Men: First Class.”

AVATAR (2009) Ten-foot-two, skin of blue — that’s Neytiri, the tribal alien played by Zoe Saldana in James Cameron’s sci-fi epic. Cameron has said her image came to him in a dream.

THE SMURFS (2011) The little blue forest-gnomes of Belgian origin made their film debut in this live-action-animation hybrid. Fun fact: Jonathan Winters provided the voice of Papa Smurf.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) Yondu, the blue-faced space-pirate played by Michael Rooker, served as something of a villain in this film but, in the sequel, becomes a hero. — RAFER GUZMAN

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