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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Aladdin

“John Wick 3” and “The Dead Don’t Die” are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

It’s interesting how time and maturity shape how we see the world and the things we focus on. I was a huge fan of Disney’s animated “Aladdin” as a teenager in 1992, seeing it twice in the theatres and a few times after that on home video. As a young man, the swashbuckling “Arabian Nights” tale appealed to me more than “Beauty and the Beast” from the prior year, and it didn’t hurt that childhood icon Robin Williams completely cracked me up as the voice of the genie.

A song from the first act of that movie, which is also in this 2019 live action remake, is called “One Jump Ahead,” where Aladdin explains how he’s a thief who only steals what he can’t afford—which is everything. My 1992 self, with no practical sense of work, earning, gain, and loss, didn’t register any problems with this character being a thief at all. My 2019 self couldn’t help but think that he should learn a trade and stop being a leech.

Lucky for him, Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a charmer with an easy smile who is surprisingly well-groomed for street rat with fleas. The sequence in which he sings the song while saving himself and Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) from the sultan’s guard after a bit of stealing is a showstopper that puts Aladdin’s physicality and parkour skills on display. His loyal monkey companion and equally sneaky thief Abu also gets in on the action.

Speaking of loyal animal companions, the devious Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), who has aspirations to usurp the throne of the Sultan (Navid Negahban), has a pet parrot named Iago. I understand that this live action version wants to be truer to real life (as much as it can be), so the parrot talks like a parrot. But every time the parrot had a line, I wanted it to be spoken by Gilbert Gottfried, whose voicing of Iago in the 1992 movie was a big part of what made that movie so funny. This parrot isn’t funny at all.

Genie (Will Smith), however, is funny. While Smith doesn’t bring the same manic energy as Robin Williams, it’s fair to say that very few performers can match Williams in that regard. We also get some humor from the princess’s hand maiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), and a romance subplot between Genie and Dalia is a welcome addition to those already familiar with the story.

The sets and costumes are colorful and elaborate, as to be expected from any movie with Disney money behind it. While I still like “Rocketman” the best so far this year in the costume department, set decorator Tina Jones and her department are a strong contender come awards time for their work on “Aladdin.”

Then there are the songs. “Aladdin” is a musical after all, and it still contains some of my favorite songs of all time—my two favorites being the opening “Arabian Nights” number that sets the stage for the story, and no surprise, “A Whole New World,” which is a bona fide classic. There is also a new song called “Speechless” written for this movie by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul in collaboration with original “Aladdin” composer Alan Menken. It’s a solo for Jasmine, and is another welcome addition. Not only does it externalize the thoughts and feelings of the character, it also gives Naomi Scott a chance to showcase her vocal talent.

The singing in this movie is primarily done by Smith and Massoud. They are talented singers in their own right and do competent work. Scott, however, takes it to the next level with virtuoso vocals. This is most obvious during the duet section of “A Whole New World.” We listen to Massoud gracefully stroll through the lyrics. Then Scott comes in belting out her part and leaves him in the dust with her very well-trained voice. He’s good, she’s great, and this update of “Aladdin” does the story and its characters justice. Buy it.

Also New This Week

John Wick 3: Parabellum

The things I primarily liked about “John Wick 3” are the things that I suspect most people watching it won’t care about. Now that John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is excommunicated from the criminal underworld by Winston (Ian McShane) after his action at the end of “John Wick 2,” he’s a man on the run. His goal is to get to The Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui) and get the $14 million bounty on his head removed. He accomplishes this by seeking help from past allies The Director (Anjelica Huston) and Sofia (Halle Berry). Meanwhile, a very stern woman called The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) leads an investigation into Winston, The Director, and Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) as to how and why the situation with John Wick happened—and to dole out punishment for any infractions.

The world of the “John Wick” movies is fascinating to me. Some people have names, and some are known only by titles. There are safe haven hotels around the world that are similar to The Continental in New York. These are places where members of the criminal underworld can display special tokens to gain entry and sanctuary. These hotels have rules that are strictly enforced. Anyone breaks a rule, there is an administration department that puts the word out worldwide so everyone privy to the inner workings of this world knows what’s going on. As with most industries, there’s jargon in their communication with each other, like with being under or over “the table.” The movie provides just enough information so you can follow, but slightly less than a full explanation. The result being that you’re in suspense and want to know more.

But that’s just me. Most people go to these movies for the action. “John Wick 3” has a wide variety, including hand to hand combat, knife combat, a chase scene with horses and motorcycles, and an extensive mid-movie shootout scene with groin chomping attack dogs. Some of these scenes go for too long, especially the mid-movie shootout. There’s only so much that can be done with people getting shot and mauled. The hand to hand and knife fight scenes are more entertaining, since the choreography allows for more variety in the moves performed. Credit to director Chad Stahelski, who keeps the camera moving along with the action so we can clearly see the ballet of bullets and blood unfold.

Wick’s arch nemesis is Zero (Mark Dacascos), whom The Adjudicator recruits to help do her dirty work. He and his crew of killers aren’t just out to get John Wick, they’re also fans who admire the legend that is John Wick. When most people meet their idols, they want to shake their hand and get a picture or an autograph. These guys want to kill the man they admire. Strange world indeed. Rent it.

The Dead Don’t Die

I guess everything else has been done with zombies except make a dry, laid back zombie movie, so writer-director Jim Jarmusch stepped in with “The Dead Don’t Die” to do just that. He shouldn’t have.

Though I suspect a good zombie movie could be made with that tone, this isn’t it. In order to work, there would have to be some sardonic underpinnings. There really aren’t any here. The only humor we get is of the “wink at the camera” variety where we’re reminded that we’re in a movie. It elicits some grins and a chuckle or two, but that’s about it.

“The Dead Don’t Die” has too many characters with too little to do, and social commentary that is way, way too on the nose and heavy handed to be effective. It’s one thing to subtly show people your point of view and let them decide. It’s quite another to forcefully jam it down their throats and try to make them swallow it. The funny thing is that I agree with the sentiment laid out at the end of this movie, but I still choked on it because it was so damn preachy. It’s essentially the same social commentary as George A. Romero’s 1978 “Dawn of the Dead” but with zero tact or subtlety, and tacked on to a boring movie to boot. Skip it.

More New Releases: “Armstrong,” documentary about the first man on the moon, narrated by Harrison Ford.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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