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Daniel Smith/Disney Enterprises

Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Will Smith as Genie
Daniel Smith/Disney Enterprises


Granting our wishes

Song, dance, laughter, romance—Disney’s live-action Aladdin is entertainment for the whole family

Think of them as Marvel movies for the younger set. After Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), and Beauty and the Beast (2017) successively pounced on the box office like Shere Khan on poor little Mowgli, Disney executives are now rolling out remakes of their classic animated films nearly once a quarter, to varying results. Before the next two years are out, audiences will reportedly be treated to a live-action Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, Sword in the Stone, and Pinocchio.

First, though, they have to decide if they’re up for a magic carpet ride with Aladdin. Let’s save the suspense—they should be. Aladdin the remake strikes just the right balance: It honors the original enough to feel pleasantly nostalgic while still offering enough new scenes, characters, and jokes to make this version worth our time.

Perhaps because of Dumbo’s tepid reception among U.S. audiences (see “Dumbo,” April 13, 2019), far more doubtful media reports have been part of the run-up to Aladdin’s release. Unlike Cinderella’s Lily James and Richard Madden and Beauty and the Beast’s Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, the leads here are virtually unknown. The only marquee name—Will Smith—has drawn skepticism from commentators wondering if he has the chops to fill the late Robin Williams’ shoes as Genie.

That’s the wrong way to look at it. True, Smith’s energy doesn’t match Williams’, but then again, probably no actor working today could match the late comedian’s manic ability to fill a screen. The studio wisely held back from spoiling Smith’s funniest and most creative bits by featuring them in the advertisements. The earnest optimism Smith plays so well is enhanced with the addition of a new character—Princess Jasmine’s handmaid, played hilariously by SNL’s Nasim Pedrad.

But if Smith is quieter, the rest of the movie certainly isn’t. Director Guy Ritchie leans into the setting with bouncy Bollywood flair. The extravagant song-and-dance numbers are so fun, you can’t help wishing he had the space and budget to work in a few more. (Hint: Stay in your seat as the credits roll.)

It also must be said that somebody on Disney’s marketing team owes Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott an apology for criminally underselling them in the trailer. Massoud is the perfect embodiment of Aladdin, charming and cheeky. A million little girls will swoon at the chaste chemistry he has with Scott’s Jasmine (who, incidentally, developed her angelic pipes singing in the evangelical church her father pastors). She brings a likable feistiness to a new storyline, plus an addition to the soundtrack, that is appropriately female-empowering without megaphoning a feminist message. For once, it feels like someone took the time to make the girl power feel organic to the plot rather than tacked-on and pandering. 

Perhaps most surprising of all is that a director once known for his raunchy R-rated comedies keeps this film so sweet and innocent. Aladdin’s wholesome humor and message—that to be great, one must be a servant—is far more in line with Cinderella than with the subversive Beauty and the Beast.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few downbeat aspects. Smith’s facial expressions have an uncanny Tom-Hanks-in-The-Polar-Express look whenever he’s in his blue-giant manifestation, and villain Jafar barely registers as a blip on the menace radar.

But these are minor complaints compared with the treasure Aladdin offers. Rather than a whole new world, it feels like a delightfully old one—romantic, exuberant, and entertaining for all ages.

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David Appleby/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Nicholas Hoult as J.R.R. Tolkien
David Appleby/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation


Misreading the author

Tolkien biopic fails to capture the true spirit of the beloved British writer 

If you aren’t passionate about J.R.R. Tolkien and the world he created in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, you might find Tolkien (rated PG-13 for language and war violence) a perfectly pleasant movie.

Set mostly in Edwardian England with brief forays to World War I–era France, the biopic is heavy on pleasingly musty academic atmospheres and lovely pastoral scenes. Picture the misty, cobbled lanes of Oxford leading alternately to overstuffed armchairs in cozy tea rooms and to glades of flowering cow parsley beneath deep forest canopies. 

Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are equally eye-pleasing as Tolkien and his wife-to-be, Edith. From his tweeds to her soft Gibson Girl chignons, they present a sort of platonic ideal of scholarly romance. Their performances, as well as those of Tolkien’s school chums who form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS), a fellowship the boys form to pursue greatness in art and literature, are engaging enough. 

But for Tolkien fans, it’s all likely to feel disappointingly generic. We see none of the fire and even less of the humor of the man who wrote Gandalf’s rebuke of Saruman or Bilbo’s jokes at his relatives’ expense.

The film’s failure to delve into Tolkien’s Christianity and the role it played in his imagination, especially in setting up the moral stakes of Middle Earth, is part and parcel of this lack of specificity. A life as singular as John Ronald Reuel Tolkien’s shouldn’t feel as if it’s been crafted from outtakes of Dead Poets Society.

Worse is when the film rewrites history to accommodate our modern obsession with representation. In 2012 Christopher Tolkien complained that his father’s legacy was being “absorbed by the absurdity of our time.” Perhaps nothing better illustrates this than the filmmakers’ decision to subtly suggest that Tolkien’s close friend, poet Geoffrey Bache Smith, was in love with him.

Anthony Boyle, the actor who plays Smith, defended this unfounded interpretation in a recent interview, saying, “There’s no direct proof that he was in love with him, but if we don’t follow our nose when these clues are given to us then we’re writing these people out of history.” Those “clues” were apparently unearthed by co-screenwriter Stephen Beresford (best known for winning a “Queer Palm” at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival) from Smith’s battlefield letters to Tolkien. Here’s a representative passage:

My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight there will still be left a member of the TCBS to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. … May God bless you my dear John Ronald and may you say things I have tried to say long after I am not there to say them if such be my lot.

What a sad, emotionally impoverished culture we live in to read in a youthful friendship of shared literary ambition only something sexual. Not surprisingly, given the film’s arrogant bending of Tolkien’s life to check identity boxes that no historical evidence supports, the Tolkien family put out a statement saying it “did not approve of, authorise or participate in the making of this film,” and “do not endorse it or its content in any way.”

At the same time, some relatable facts seem to be too complex for this bland hagiography. Like certain hobbits, the prospect of war at first left Tolkien quaking, and he hesitated before volunteering. Writing to his son Michael, he said, “In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in for a young man with too much imagination and little physical courage.”

As a writer, of course, he understood the value of showing weakness or fear in even the most likable characters. It also allowed him to highlight the valor of those lower down the social ladder. As he later wrote, “My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflection of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognised as so far superior to myself.” Unfortunately, Tolkien’s filmmakers don’t appear to have absorbed these lessons: Their protagonist is never shown to be less than valorous.

Thankfully, at least two more Tolkien biopics are reportedly in the works, one of which focuses on his friendship with C.S. Lewis. The most influential fantasy author of the 20th and 21st centuries may yet see his story told right.

—This is an expanded version of the review that appears in the May 25 print issue.

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Imperfectly valuable

‘Embrace imperfections’ is an UglyDolls theme with a possible pro-life message

Long before you ease back in your automatic reclining theater seat to watch the new animated film UglyDolls, you know by the movie’s title what message is coming. It’s a righteous message: Physical traits do not determine a person’s worth. Predictably, the film exalts self-esteem to inappropriate heights. What’s intriguing, though, is a pro-life perspective the film teases: Imagery and situations often seem to equate dolls with babies. I sat forward, ready for UglyDolls to make the case. Would it?

Moxy (voiced by Kelly Clarkson) is a pink, amorphous stuffed doll with three teeth and an unidentifiable flap of something on one side of her head. She and her factory-reject friends live in Uglyville. Most of them long to be adopted (not the film’s word) to children in the “Big World” but aren’t sure such a place exists. 

Moxy and four others climb back through the pipe that originally spit them out into Uglyville. They find the Institute of Perfection, a place of beautiful dolls run by the consummately coiffed, clothed, and conceited Lou (Nick Jonas). A large screen there shows girls cradling dolls as mothers would babies. Lou allows Moxy and her friends to undergo training to make dolls desirable to children, but he can’t hide his scorn for the malformed newcomers.

“You don’t belong in the Big World,” Lou tells Moxy. “You shouldn’t even exist.” (Like babies with Down syndrome?)

The PG-rated film has rich graphics and musical numbers with crafty lyrics but depicts tea-leaf reading and briefly shows a bare backside. Multiple “Oh my doll!” exclamations made me cringe. The message about accepting your imperfections swells to exhortations of “Find your own truth.”

If there’s a pro-life angle, it’s subtler than the one in Storks. Still, whether UglyDolls drops clues or coincidences, it doesn’t take much to connect the—dolls. Anyone watching this film who condones the disposal of flawed or unwanted “dolls” will squirm in his or her theater seat, even an automatic reclining one.

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