The ‘Aladdin’ Problem
My First Wish is for This to Stop
Alright, we’ve heard all the trash talk. We’ve seen all the memes. We know that Will Smith’s Genie in 2019s Aladdin live-action remake looks bad. It’s the uncanny valley effect at its finest. His human face doesn’t implant itself onto a CGI body smoothly at all, and the dissociation is compounded upon motion when you realize the movements between his face and the rest of his body do not sync up. It’s bad.
Yet, there’s a more pressing, underlying issue behind Aladdin and the slate of future Disney live-action remakes, which is it’s not going to add anything new. It’s just going to be exactly like the animated original, but with better visuals. Of course, that’s all a remake inherently is; a retread of the same story beats and tropes, updated for a modern audience. In that aspect, it’s almost guaranteed that Aladdin will come out to be a fine film, but a film should never settle for just being “fine.” A film should set out to differentiate itself from what came before. Last year’s Christopher Robin and 2016s The Jungle Book both provided moviegoers with a hit in their nostalgia centers by offering updated visuals of beloved characters, while reinventing what was already there in order to create a more engaging story. A glimpse into the titular human character of Christopher Robin’s life as an adult, or giving Mowgli more agency can create an entirely new world to build around, and the successes that both films found proves that adding something new to the mix actually works.
However, announcements that changes are being made to the original can often lead to public outcry, as is the case for this year’s Dumbo and 2020s Mulan remake. Dumbo has added an entire human cast unique to the live-action film, relegating the original anthropomorphic animal characters to the background—which is leading many to believe that the original story of Dumbo finding his own place in the world after the separation from his mother will be replaced. Mulan, on the other hand, has replaced two central characters from the animated movie: Li Shang, arguably one of the first examples of LGBTQ representation in animation, and Shan Yu, the central antagonist. Instead, audiences will be introduced two entirely new male love interests and two new antagonists, who are a powerful witch and a vengeful Hun warrior. Also, they got rid of the songs! How is it Mulan if there isn’t a training sequence with “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” playing over it? These changes are currently operating under the excuse that they will make the remake closer to the original Chinese folklore legend, but fans aren’t having it.
So, how are filmmakers supposed to know when to change things? If they don’t change things, it’s criticized as too similar to the original. If they change the wrong things, they’re deviating too much from the source material. It seems like a lose-lose situation. The solution? Well, keep the essentials that people love and associate with the property, and improve on the non-essentials. There isn’t a coincidence that “The Bare Necessities,” a song so tightly intertwined with The Jungle Book, made its appearance in the live-action remake. Meanwhile, the wolfpack that protagonist Mowgli was raised by, mere throwaway characters in the animated feature, were elevated to speaking roles.
At this point in time, Aladdin and The Lion King remakes (that are expected to premiere later this year) seem to be following in the footsteps of 2017s Beauty and the Beast; a remake touted for its visuals, but criticized for its extreme similarity to the original. And while that’s not anything to get up in arms about, one can only hope that the other announced remakes (consisting of Lilo & Stitch, The Little Mermaid, and others) will at least attempt to be anything like the game-changing Jungle Book.
-Derek Luat Tran