Will Smith’s weird-looking Genie is not what is wrong with the new live-action Aladdin movie. At all. Instead, the entire aesthetic of every single one of these new live-action Disney movies is inherently flawed. The real reason why everyone is so freaked out by the new Genie is that Disney is actually trying to be too faithful to all of these ’90s animated movies it’s adapting. If the aesthetic choices scan as lame, it’s because they’re not taking any creative risks, which, as it turns out, is very risky.
On Sunday, a new trailer for the live-action Aladdin aired during the Grammys. I’ll spare the reader jokes about the term “live action,” since a huge portion of the film will be enhanced by computer-generated effects and perhaps, actual dark magic. The point is, while many are still excited about the film, nearly everyone hates the new Will Smith version of the Genie. Criticism of the new design centered mostly on references to the Blue Man Group and the Scorpion King. But why?
Viscerally, its easy to understand why everyone hates this. Your gut reaction tells you this is just wrong because it just looks creepy. But, when you use your brain and think about how this happened, you’ll realize something more interesting: This design was clearly created to make people happy. It just failed. In almost every single way, this is exactly what Disney did with the designs for the live-action Beauty and the Beast, they tried to make the cartoon come to life. In attempting to remain faithful-ish to the look of animated Robin Williams, Disney simply failed to grasp an essential truth about adaptation. That being, it’s fine to change things and interpret something differently.
Case in point, the Genie in the popular Broadway version of Disney’s Aladdin was not a dude covered in blue paint. When Major Attaway played the part, the design was brilliantly elegant and creative. Ditto for Disney’s stage performance of The Lion King. It’s not like people are in fucking catsuits in that thing, because, on a basic level of taste, we all understand that would be ridiculous.
Different media demand different aesthetic standards, which is something these live-action Disney movies don’t really seem to understand. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Emma Watson live-action Beauty and the Beast, but did it really create a piece of cinematic art that somehow surpassed or complemented the 1991 movie? No. It’s just a nifty movie that looks like a cartoon come to life. Or to put it more cynically, a different permutation of the same Disney brand, complete with the same color scheme. It’s not bad per se, it’s just not artistically that interesting. Or at the very least, not as interesting as the 1991 movie.
The forthcoming live-action Aladdin is the same. It probably won’t be bad, at all. In fact, despite the goofiness of Will Smith’s Genie, it will probably be good, in the same way, the live-action Beauty and the Beast was…fine. It will be a serviceable adaptation of a cartoon-come-to-life. So will the live-action Lion King. This is the spectacle part of the cinema experience without any of the art. A live-action Disney movie is, on paper, exactly like the 1998 Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot remake of Pyscho. In other words, totally unnecessary, and seemingly only created to make money off of an existing — and beloved — piece of intellectual property.
So, if you’re mad about Will Smith’s creepy blue Genie, you should think about what’s really going on here. Disney is trying to make sure the Genie looks sufficiently similar to how he looked in the cartoon, and also that their HUGE movie star who embodies the character (Will Smith) is also recognizable. The result? Something that looks exactly like both those things. And if you hate it, I’d advise you not to hate the Genie. Hate the game!
Aladdin is out in theaters everywhere on May 24.