When Will Smith first appears in “Aladdin,” he is his normal self ― or, at least, as normal as Will Smith can be while wearing a turban and plaid tunic and sporting a goatee with a bushy little knot dangling off his chin.
The next time we see him, once the movie has gone back in time and kicked into high gear, he is anything but normal. He pops out of a magical lamp as the hulking Genie, blue from head to toe in a torrent of CGI, replete with detailed six-pack, thick biceps and the same beard. Apparently the Cave of Wonders, where Aladdin (Mena Massoud) finds him, has a state-of-the-art gym and half-decent salon? Pay no mind to the fact that the Genie had been been trapped in that lamp for thousands of years.
Even if you’re already gawked at the “Aladdin” trailers, seeing Smith in full-body blue is a disorienting experience ― the uncanny valley, blockbuster edition.
He has the same toothy smile and hearty inflections we’ve known for three decades. If you passed him on the street, you’d say, “Why is Will Smith painted blue?” And then you’d think, “Why is he bald except for one tightly woven ponytail held together by a gold clamp? And why is a blue person so damn jacked?” Then you’d remember he’s playing the Genie, who is not really a person at all but rather a supernatural spirit with roots in the mythological Arabic creatures known as djinns, and the whole thing gets even more bewildering.
Blessedly, Smith does not stay blue for all of “Aladdin.” Once the Genie and Aladdin leave the cave, he sometimes disguises himself by looking like a regular guy, albeit with the same perfectly coifed ponytail and goatee. It’s in this shape-shifting human form that Smith shout-sings “Prince Ali,” a gaudy razzle-dazzle number that proves just how little director Guy Ritchie learned about staging musical sequences while married to Madonna.
But when Smith is blue, he is so blue. Bluer than blue. I half expected him to lean forward and say, Miranda Priestly style, “It’s actually cerulean.”
Instead, we learn the Genie’s natural color is navy but living inside that lamp for so long paled him. As a humanoid with an A-list celebrity’s physiognomy, this blue and heavily biceped version of Smith does many unruly things, including but not limited to yoga poses, beatboxing, hula-hooping and sipping three-olive martinis. During the song “Friend Like Me,” the Genie multiplies into a slew of doppelgängers; they keep coming and coming. At one point, I counted at least 24 Genies in a single frame. The image is now seared into my brain, a hallucination from hell.
What did Smith do to deserve getting tangled up in blue? He dared to maintain his movie stardom in 2019, that’s what. He is no longer the pace-setting box-office draw he was from roughly 1995 (“Bad Boys”) through 2012 (“Men in Black 3″), but he’s trying his hardest to keep up with Hollywood’s franchise inundation. There was 2016′s limp “Suicide Squad,” and now we have “Aladdin” and a long-gestating “Bad Boys” threequel. We had to know he’d eventually go the way of many contemporary actors: cloaked in a superhero getup or else digitized into oblivion.
But Smith’s physique isn’t obscured like most motion-capture performances. You can look at the alienesque tavern matron Maz Kanata in “Star Wars” and have no idea know it’s Lupita Nyong’o. The same goes for Zoe Saldana in “Avatar,” Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Hobbit” and Andy Serkis in “Lord of the Rings.” In “Aladdin,” we get something more disarming than a proper transformation: blueface. There are no creative liberties applied to Smith’s appearance, other than pumping up his muscles and keeping his hips at a constant wiggle. In a word, it’s bizarre.
What made the animated Genie in the 1992 “Aladdin” so beguiling was his comically large eyes and protruding belly, complemented by Robin Williams’ kaleidoscopic vocal riffs. Smith, by comparison, has far too civilized a presence to justify the wonky aesthetics he’s been saddled with here, and he can’t stretch his timbre enough to capture even half of Williams’ mania. The CGI tries to do the work for him, and Smith winds up looking lost, at times unsure where to direct his eyes or how feverishly to project his energy. It’s a mind-boggling way to use one of Hollywood’s most charming warhorses.
I asked Disney to let me speak to Smith or a visual effects editor who could detail the Genie’s creation, but that was a no-go. All I have left ― spoiler alert for those who somehow have never seen the original “Aladdin” ― is the image of our title hero liberating the Genie at the film’s end. The Genie morphs back into regular ol’ Will Smith, as if he is being freed from the shackles of bluedom, off to make “Bright 2” opposite Joel Edgerton, who will spend the movie covered in ― what else? ― grayish blue goblin makeup.
“Aladdin” opens Friday, May 24.