Aladdin 2019, Hello Bollywood

Am I the last one to jump on this bandwagon? Yep. Am I going to use my usual excuse of literally not seeing the movie until last week again? Absolutely. After the whole fiasco with the live action Lion King, 2019, I had my doubts about watching another live action Disney. Hearing rumors of Will Smith being digitally painted blue didn’t help either.

But … I was pleasantly surprised. They took the original story from the 1992 Disney Aladdin, and breathed some new life into it, all without falling into the pitfall we call the uncanny valley. If they had decided to make Abu the monkey talk, then we would have had real problems.

What they did right

Any story that transports the viewer into a new time and place will have an inherent sense of wonder about it, and Aladdin is full of wonder. They created a gorgeous palace and city that felt full of history and culture. The costuming stayed true to the feel of the original animation, but was brought to life in a way that was both beautiful, colorful, and detailed.

Any story set in a foreign land that’s loosely based on a real one needs to be sensitive to offensive stereotypes and unfair comparisons. The very first Aladdin had a handful of these missteps that were corrected in a way that didn’t feel gimmicky. For instance, they swapped out the whole Aladdin runs through a harem bit. The harem is now clearly a school for girls.

Lastly, they framed the story in a new way that added a nice little twist at the end that I thought was charming. One of the biggest questions that the first movie struggled to resolved was ‘What happens to a genie when he is no longer a genie?” In the 1992 movie, Genie stayed magical and didn’t turn into a human. This didn’t seem right. So, the 2019 turned Genie human instead. Works for me.

What they got wrong

I know that CGI is a super fun toy and it lets movie makers create whatever they can dream up (and afford). But – for a critical audience, the best CGI is when you can’t tell there’s been any at all. Poor Abu got CGI slaughtered a few times. Nothing serious, just you could tell where real monkey ended and robomonkey began.

The use of fast and slow motion. This was a directorial choice. Guy Ritchie thought the chase through the market scene that happens when Aladdin runs parkour through Agrabah singing “One Jump” would be cooler if they altered the filming speeds. Dramatic moments were subtly slowed down and action sequences sped up. For me, it made it more silly than necessary.

Ugh, let’s talk about the awkwardness, shall we? Aladdin’s character is known as being a smooth talking, smooth moving street kid. The second he has to pretend he is a prince, all that smoothness flip flops into some amazingly awkwardness that had me hiding under a blanket. It was like 1997 all over again. I get why the awkwardness was important, Aladdin’s big message is that you have to be true to yourself. Whenever he wasn’t true to himself, he turned into a big lump of social disaster. A little awkward is great, funny even, but when it gets to cringe level, tone it down.

And Cue Bollywood!

As promised, let’s talk about how a film that’s meant to have very Arabic origins ended up just like a Bollywood style film. For reference, here’s some of the keystone needs of a Bollywood film:

“Standard features of Bollywood films continued to be formulaic story lines, expertly choreographed fight scenes, spectacular song-and-dance routines, emotion-charged melodrama, and larger-than-life heroes.”

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bollywood-film-industry-India

Of the five criteria, Aladdin 2019 solidly hits at least three. The first and most obvious are the spectacular song-and-dance routines. The two that stand out are the parade welcoming Prince Ali Ababwa into Agrabah and then the wedding dance at the end of the movie. Both rely on large casts, bright costumes, tightly choreographed dances, and a catchy song.

The next of the three is the emotionally charged melodrama. Yep, we got that. Aladdin is playing a high stakes game with a princess, a sultan, and a nasty advisor. Melodrama is baked right in. Did I mention the tiger?

The last of the three is the formulaic story line. There are three wishes, we know what needs to happen, who needs to do what, and why it’s important. There’s an obvious enemy in Jafar. There’s an emotional problem where Aladdin needs to be true to himself. And there’s the secondary story line where the supporting cast may or may not fall in love. (No spoilers!)

All in all

I said it before, I’ll say it again. I thought it was a great movie. Fun to watch with the kids. Visually impressive. Good music. Entertaining story. It’s a great family movie night pick, or even a sing-a-long. My kids liked it, which is saying a lot.

I give the 2019 Aladdin 4 out of 5 stars, solidly good.


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Does The Lion King 2019 flirt with the Uncanny Valley?

Let me start out by saying that as a teen, I was obsessed with the 1994 Lion King. Everything thing about it was amazing. In fact, one of the very first CDs I ever bought was the Lion King soundtrack. It’s one of those movies I watched enough times that I can still quote the whole thing.

That said, I was not thrilled that they chose to do a live action version. The 1994 Lion King became a huge part of 90s pop culture. There is so much to live up to that if they fell short anywhere, they would disappoint millions. Including me. I’m a pretty tough customer.

Simba and Zazu (voiced by none other than the ever-amusing John Oliver)

Why we might have an uncanny valley problem

The uncanny valley is a phenomenon found when we try to recreate realistic humans artificially. We usually see this in CGI movies and robots. The idea is that the closer you get to recreating a lifelike human, the creepier it is until you nail it perfectly.

I’ve blogged about this before when I talked about the train wreck that is the live action Grinch movie (which is a super amusing post, if I say so myself) and again when I discuss the concept of the uncanny valley over on my writing blog. That post is far more academic and has graphs. Fascinating stuff.

With animals, the creepiness factor is different, but there is still a general unease when something is off. Finding Nemo cartoonized the characters to be cute and expressive and it totally worked. This new Lion King made the animals photo perfect. In fact, they used live action shots with real animals as much as possible, only adding in the mouth movements when they needed to talk.

For me, this flirted with the uncanny valley. Real animals don’t talk and it’s weird to see them do so in a way that’s super realistic.

Don’t get me wrong, the execution is flawless. The 2019 movie is still a beautiful story of loss and redemption. The music is still the breathtaking tracks from the original movie and has only been adapted slightly to fit this film. And because I loved the first one so much, I started disliking the new one because of the differences and limitations of using live action with CGI.

The Lion King is an emotional story. The characters need to be able to express those feelings. In a cartoon, the animator can exaggerate the facial expressions so that it’s clear what the characters are feeling. In live action using animals we lose all of that and have to infer what they might be feeling using context and body language only. This took away from the experience.

Scrawny Scar and his band of hyenas, ready to drop a hit single

Other significant changes

There were also a few updates to make the movie more politically correct, like removing the Nazi-like imagery from Scar’s big musical number “Be Prepared” and actually having Rafiki speak in Xhosa instead of whatever nonsense words he uses in the 1994 version. I agree with these changes as it shows sensitivity to today’s audience.

But there were also a few script adaptations where key scenes were either shortened, lengthened, or removed. That insightful part where Rafiki smacks Simba in the head and then says he shouldn’t worry about it because it’s in the past – gone. The funny bit where Timon is confused about how Nala wants to eat Pumba while still being friends with Simba – gone.

That lovely five-second bit where Simba flops down and sends a swirl of seeds into the air which Rafiki then finds? They turned that into a three-minute montage where we follow a tuft of lion hair that at one point gets eaten by a giraffe, gets pooped out, and then is transported by dung beetle. Really guys?

Also, the casting. While they kept James Earl Jones as Mufasa, which was an essential choice, they didn’t keep my personal favorite casting, Jeremy Irons as Scar. I get that this might have been a move to make the cast more appropriate for a story set in Africa – but Jeremy Irons performance was amazing and I missed it.

Mufasa! Oooh, that gives me chills. Say it again.

Summing up

I wanted to love the new Lion King like I loved the old one. The story was there, the magnitude of the African landscape was stunning, the voice performances were on point. But, it didn’t hold up to the original. Instead of enjoying it, I kept trying to figure out what they changed and why it felt different. For new audiences, like my kids, this will be their Lion King and they might come to love it like I loved the original.

What are your thoughts? Have you seen it?


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