Believe it or not, Aladdin — the new live-action remake of the 1992 Disney animated classic – is Will Smith’s first-ever movie for the monolithic Mouse House. And it came along for him at an opportune and perhaps even crucial juncture in his career.
Speaking at a press conference for the movie in Beverly Hills this past weekend, Smith explained the personal circumstances that led him to Aladdin: “I guess I sort of hit a ceiling in my life. I had created the things I could create in my career, I was getting to the end of my wisdom with leading my family, and I 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 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,” he continued. “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.”
The story is expanded somewhat from the 1992 film but remains essentially the same: a “diamond in the rough” street urchin (Mena Massoud in the title role) is tasked by the sinister Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) with stealing a magic lamp from a cave so Jafar can use the Genie inside (Smith) for his own power-hungry ends. But the Genie serves Aladdin instead, all while the good-hearted young man finds himself on a romantic collision course with Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the daughter of the sultan who’s ready to ascend to the throne herself after her father steps down (the latter a new wrinkle to the plot).
Not only did Aladdin provide Smith with a chance to ruminate on what he wanted to do with the rest of his career, but it also provided him with an enormous task as an actor and pop culture figure. In taking the role of the Genie, Smith found himself standing in the shadow of the late Robin Williams, whose voicing of the animated version of the character in the original film remains one of the towering performances of its kind in all of animation.
Smith said that it was the film’s music that got him past the trepidation of reworking such an iconic previous interpretation.
“Disney magic is real. This is my first Disney movie, and there’s something that Walt Disney did in the design of these stories and at the core of these stories is something that shocks the inner child within you and forces it to come alive and smile and appreciate the moment,” he remarked. “For me, coming into this, first starting with fear — what Robin Williams did with this character was, he 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, childlike, silly part of me.”
Although Smith appears in the film in human form, he revealed that the Genie in his true form — even though the character bears Smith’s face — was all visual effects: “A lot of people don’t even recognize this, but the Genie is 100% CGI,” he said. “People look at it and think it’s my face blue, and it’s my body. The Genie is 100% CGI. There’s none of me in the Genie. It’s like the work was so good, that they don’t even get credit for it.
“But what happened, that was great for me, I would just be on set, we’d run the scenes and everything, and I could improv on set because I knew it wouldn’t necessarily be in the movie,” he added. “Then we’d do the first round of the CGI work and we could go again and work it. Then Guy watched the whole movie, and I had another chance to go back and we could play with lines and make adjustments because they were going to create it anyway. So for me, there was tons of improv.”
The “Guy” that Smith referred to is director Guy Ritchie, who said that Smith’s enthusiasm on the set every day permeated the cast, crew and entire production. “His positivity sort of flowed all the way down,” Ritchie recalled. “It started from the top and it went down. And then everyone was, there was an incredibly positive spirit throughout the whole process. And actually my job was really to encourage them to be more of themselves. So everyone had a degree of improvisation, which was just natural to them. And I said, my job was just to encourage more of that.”
For Ritchie himself — known largely for violent crime films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, thrillers such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or action spectacles like Sherlock Holmes — directing his first Disney family musical was not as much of a stretch as audiences might imagine.
“You’ll be surprised how familiar I am in this territory,” he explained. “I’ve got five kids and the oldest one is 18, which pretty much means I’ve been up to my 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. My wife is a big Disneyphile, anything to do with Disney princesses is high on her list. So it was really a question of demand by the family. And frankly, I was just ready to do something in this world.”
“Doing something in this world” also meant making a movie that was more inclusive and reflective of the world around it in 2019, which began with casting actors of color and ethnic diversity in roles that all but demanded them at this point.
“I’m especially proud of the representation and the ethnically diverse casting that was put together for this,” said Mena Massoud. “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, and I’m excited for little boys and girls to go see people that look like them on screen.”
For Naomi Scott, that also meant enhancing the character of Jasmine and fully embracing her line from the 1992 movie — “I’m not a prize to be won” — to reflect the changing standards of the present. “I think it’s a wonderful thing when you have a vision for a character or you think oh, I would love to see Disney do this with this character and it aligns with the people involved,” the actress 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. As opposed to, it’s not this thing that’s been shoehorned in. It just makes sense.”
“I think it is critically important to be able to pull stories and colors and textures and tastes from around the world,” said Smith, perhaps circling back to the personal thought process that brought back in front of the camera for this film in the first place. “In this particular time in the world, that kind of inclusion and diversity will be a critical part of turning our connectivity — because we have more connectivity than ever — but transitioning that connectivity into harmony is going to be really critical. I think these kinds of interactions in these types of movies are a powerful global service.”
In other words, it’s a whole new world, and Smith, Ritchie, Massoud, Scott and their fellow filmmakers all want Aladdin to be part of it.
Aladdin is out in theaters this Friday (May 24).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye