Disney’s 1992 animated musical Aladdin is a lynchpin of the studio’s so-called ‘Renaissance Era’, so it is hardly surprising that it is the latest in the line of Disney’s recent ‘Remake/Reimagine’ era.
Loosely based, of course, on the tale from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, Aladdin is the exciting tale of charming street urchin Aladdin, the courageous and self-determined Princess Jasmine and the Genie who may be the key to their future.
It was producer Jonathan Eirich who initially entertained the idea of bringing Aladdin back again as a live-action movie; and to his delight, Disney was keen to revive it as well. Yet the question they kept coming back to was, why?
“It is so beautifully structured, and the music is so incredible that we realised there isn’t anything we would ever want to fundamentally change here,” says Eirich. “The challenge then became: how do we make it as fresh as possible to ensure we are still giving audiences something new, while delivering on what they love?”
Eventually, screenwriter John August delivered a screenplay that was a more modern retelling of the story; and when Guy Ritchie added his signature touch to the script and signed on to direct, things began to fall into place.
“I saw this as a sort of clash between two worlds. It’s a story about a street kid dealing with his insecurities in a Disney environment,” says Ritchie, a director better known, of course, for gritty, fast-paced action movies. “The Disney environment gave me a new space in which to discover and experience a world familiar to me that I already feel confident in. I like embarking on new, creative challenges, and this certainly was one.”
In casting Aladdin and Jasmine, the film-makers wanted faces that represent the diversity of the Middle East. For Aladdin, they were looking for someone charming and self-deprecating who audiences could root for; and Mena Massoud, an Egyptian-born actor raised in Toronto was cast. “Guy wanted to shoot the film in a very real, gritty, fantastical kind of way while still focusing on the friendships and growth of the main characters,” says Massoud. “He has a very specific vision in his head of what he wants to do and how he wants to get to it, but he lets the actors play with it as well. I really appreciated the fact that he trusted us to bring his vision to life, which is such an amazing responsibility to be given.”
Guy wanted to shoot the film in a very real, gritty, fantastical way while still focusing on the friendships
With Jasmine, the Sultan’s beautiful and headstrong daughter, the film-makers were hoping to create a more contemporary interpretation of who a modern princess could be, and Naomi Scott a singer and actress of South Asian descent who grew up in London, landed the role.
“I see Jasmine as resilient and independent. She’s a leader who wants to feel connected to the people of her kingdom and do right by them,” is Scott’s take on Jasmine. “She’s not just fighting for her own choices; she’s fighting for the choices of others and she’s fighting to make other people’s lives better. She’s more ambitious and is looking out for the kingdom as a whole and for everyone’s well-being.”
Needless to say, finding the right actor to play the Genie, the shape-shifting blue entity confined to an oil lamp, was crucial, and the bar had been set high with the late, great Robin Williams, whose work in the film was universally acclaimed. How to fill in his not-inconsiderable shoes? The film-makers turned to Will Smith, who was immediately drawn to the idea of reinventing the character and making it his own.
“Robin Williams did an absolutely brilliant job on the film, and it’s such a memorable performance, and for me, when I’m looking at a role – especially one that has nostalgic value to it – I ask myself, ‘Is there any meat left on the bone? What is it that I could add to the role?’” muses Smith.
“One of the major aspects was going from animation to live action and the idea of being able to pay homage to the original character and to honour Robin, while at the same time giving a new voice to modernise the Genie… there was the potential to create something that did both of those things.”
Disney’s Aladdin would, of course, not be the same without its seminal music – in fact, the film includes new recordings of the original songs composer Alan Menken wrote with lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice together with new music written with songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul to take you back into a whole new world…
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