Bottling Magic

Aladdin stars Will Smith, Naomi Scott, Mena Massoud and director/co-writer Guy Ritchie tell Letterboxd about the whole new world of the live-action adaptation.

I was sort of shackled by Will Smith. And in these last couple of years, I’ve just started finding my freedom.” —⁠Will Smith

We’re now well into the era of the Disney live-action remake, but something feels a little bit different about the new Aladdin.

The original was released just one year after 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, the subject of its own live-action remake in 2017. Although Disney fantasies tend to exist in their own space and time, modern filmmakers strive to put a contemporary stamp on their versions. In Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 remake of Cinderella, for example, this amounted to populating the background with more diverse families than in the original, and making the stepmother somewhat less evil (she’s grieving, folks).

But Guy Ritchie had a tougher job with the new Aladdin. The 1992 version felt so fresh when it came out, due to both its surfeit of pop culture references, and Robin Williams’s never-ending stream of impersonations in his inspired, riffy performance as The Genie, that it’s a film very much still in the public consciousness. That makes a live-action remake a trickier proposition, not to mention a challenge—even to a star of Will Smith’s stature—to make The Genie his own.

The new Aladdin downplays the pop culture aspects of the earlier film, but still gives Smith room to infuse The Genie with much of his own personality.

As Smith told us at a press event in Beverly Hills recently, the key to finding his way into the character came in the film’s music:

Will Smith: It definitely started with fear. What Robin Williams did with his character was, he just didn’t leave a lot of room to add to The Genie. So I started off fearful. But then when I got with the music, it just started waking up that fun, child-like, silly part of me.

The song that got me over the hump of “Yes, I can play Genie”, was Friend Like Me. I went into the studio the first day and I really wanted to play with it to see if I could add something to it. And literally 30 minutes in the studio, and starting to play with it and finding that in that 94, 96 BPM range, we were playing around in there, thinking ultimately it was a little bit faster than that. But that 94, 96 BPM range is right old school hip hop.

So I grabbed The Honey Drippers’ Impeach The President, which is a really classic old school hip hop break-beat. And I had them throw that break-beat under there. And I messed with that and I messed with Eric B. and Rakim’s I Know You Got Soul under Friend Like Me. And I was like “Oh my God. I’m home, I’m home!”. I started playing with the hip hop flavor and then The Genie was really born in my mind from the music.

Of all the animated remakes, Aladdin probably hews closest to the plot of its inspiration, with the bonus of Princess Jasmine’s arc being beefed up a bit. She’s now somewhat more in control of her own destiny, as evidenced by a new solo number, Speechless.

Actress Naomi Scott describes performing the new song, which was written for the film by Disney legend Alan Menken, along with La La Land and The Greatest Showman songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul:

Naomi Scott: The fact that they wrote a song and I get to sing it, first of all, I was like, wow. That’s already surreal. But then when I heard it and just the words and the lyrics and how timely it was, the message behind the song and the idea of not going speechless, that everyone has a voice, doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter what you look like, doesn’t matter what your gender is, your voice matters. And speaking out against injustice matters. Not just standing by and being a spectator. That day was very emotional because I wanted it to feel raw. And I wanted it to feel like what she’s going through in that moment. We did some of it live as well which was a different type of challenge.

On Princess Jasmine’s 2019 character update:

NS: I really think it was a natural progression. Guy said something which I thought was really great. He was talking about equality of challenge. The idea that Jasmine needed even more of a challenge in this movie as well. As I said, it’s a natural progression. The fact that she wants to become the leader. I kind of just want people to walk out and go, oh yeah, that makes sense, right? She should be the leader. It’s not this thing that’s been shoehorned in. It just makes sense. And she’s a human. For me as an actor, my main thing is, how do I humanize her, how do I give her depth? So those things just came naturally.

Guy Ritchie: If there was anything that looked like there could be some evolution in this narrative, it was that there needed to be a voice given to Jasmine. I mean, Aladdin has been given enough challenges to get on with. Genie had his hands full. The most conspicuous character thereafter was Jasmine, who was arguably a tad bit passive in the original. And it just felt like there was an obvious space there that we could have worked on. And as Naomi said, it was about equality of challenge. Because there’s no point banging on about something unless you can back it up.

To me, it’s not really about gender as much as it is about an individual standing up for themselves at a pertinent time. And they can illustrate that point, they can articulate that point. And they have the breadth and personality to do that. And I think it really works actually, that part in the film, because it is backed up. So that just felt like it was the most obvious place that this narrative could evolve, was to give Princess Jasmine a voice and that she could back that voice up.

Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud on set with director Guy Ritchie.
Naomi Scott and Mena Massoud on set with director Guy Ritchie.

On bringing his own directorial flavor to the project:

GR: You’ll be surprised how familiar I am in this territory considering I’ve got five kids and the oldest one is 18, which pretty much means I’ve been up to me eyeballs in Disney productions for 19 years. And also, by sort of family demand, it was about time I made a movie that we could all watch together. So Aladdin ticked the box in the sense that it was a street hustler and I was familiar with that territory. And frankly, I was just ready to do something in this world. Of course, it’s very hard to be objective about your own work, but inevitably what happens is that you leave an imprint upon it. But you know some clever director once said that the lion’s share of directing is casting. And I think that’s true. And I think once we got our little team together, it didn’t take us long before we all dialled into that same frequency. But then it just all worked from there.

On the diverse backgrounds of the film’s cast (Massoud is Egyptian-Canadian, Scott is English-Indian):

Mena Massoud: I’m especially proud of the representation and the ethnically diverse casting that was put together for this. It’s not often you can go to a movie theater and see all people of color represented like this. It’s certainly something that I was missing in my childhood. So I’m proud of the cast and the casting that Guy and Disney put together. I’m excited for little boys and girls to go see people that look like them on screen, man. That’s what I’m proud of.

On Will Smith’s decision to get back to work:

WS: I took a couple of years off. And I guess I had sort of hit a ceiling in my life. I had created the things that I could create in my career. I was getting to the end of my wisdom with leading my family and I kind of got to a point where I had a bit of a collapse of my life and creations. So I took a couple of years off essentially to study; to study and journey spiritually.

Aladdin was really my first sort of coming back in and seeing if my heart was even still in this kind of performing, and what I discovered is everything starts with: what am I saying to the world? How does this piece contribute to the human family? Can I go around the world with the ideas that the movie represents and can I teach and preach these ideas in good conscience?

Aladdin checks all of those boxes. I love the idea of Genie, and one of the things that I related to in Genie is that the Genie has shackles. The Genie has these spectacular powers, but he’s shackled. Like, he is a prisoner of his spiritual fate. And that is sort of how I felt with Will Smith. I was sort of shackled by Will Smith. And in these last couple of years, I’ve just started finding my freedom, getting free of Will Smith and I’m getting more comfortable being me. So Aladdin was that first step back out.

On the power of Disney:

WS: This is my first Disney movie. There’s something that Walt Disney did in the design of these stories that at the core shocks the inner child within you and forces it to come alive and smile and appreciate the moment. This was the most joyful experience of my career.

Aladdin’ is in cinemas across the globe now. Comments have been edited for clarity and length.


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