In this live-action adaptation of the Disney animated classic Aladdin from director Guy Ritchie, a lovable street rat (Mena Massoud) who has made the streets of Agrabah his home would gladly leave his life of thievery behind, while Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) longs to experience life outside of the palace and among the people. When the two cross paths and learn that they each long to break free from what is expected of them, they find themselves caught up in an evil scheme that leads them directly to a magic oil lamp and the larger than life Genie (Will Smith) inside of it, who has the power to grant wishes and the hope that those wishes will be used wisely.
While at a conference at the film’s Los Angeles press junket, co-stars Will Smith, Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott, along with filmmaker Guy Ritchie, talked about what they’re most excited about with this release, the vibe of the shoot, finding a way to connect with the Genie, how they were able to incorporate improvisation into the role, the incredible song-and-dance performances, enhancing the female empowerment of Princess Jasmine, adding a new song, whether Smith kept one of this character’s turbans, and what wish he’d like to make.
Collider: What are you most excited about, for people to see with Aladdin?
GUY RITCHIE: I suppose it’s the entire process. In the end, it’s what you’re left with, in terms of a sensation, by the end of the film. I would say that it’s how you leave the cinema. It’s hard to be specific about what it is that you’re supposed to derive from it, other than a sensation that can only really be encapsulated by a very positive version of being uncynical. We want people to leave with a sense of positivity and, hopefully, a sense of freshness. Really, it’s a question of how we’d like people to leave the cinema.
MENA MASSOUD: I’m especially proud of the representation and the ethnically diverse casting that was put together for this. It’s not often that you can go to the 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 (director) Guy [Ritchie] and Disney put together. I’m excited for little boys and girls to see people who look like them on screen.
What was the vibe like, during this shoot?
RITCHIE: What was fun was that everyone had an incredibly positive spirit, throughout the whole process. My job was really to just encourage them to be more themselves. Everyone had a degree of improvisation, which was just natural to them. They were all just like kids. No one was cynical, in that sense. Will [Smith] is not cynical. After you’ve been doing this for 30 years, it’s easy to become jaded and cynical, but no one on the set was cynical. For me, it was the most fun creative process that I’ve been through.
WILL SMITH: Disney magic is real. This was my first Disney movie, and there’s something that Walt Disney did, in the design of these stories, that 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 moments. For me, I first started with fear. What Robin Williams did with this character, 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, childlike, silly part of me. This was the most joyful experience of my career.
Will, there are so many musical numbers in this, along with the acting and the dancing. Was there any musical number that resonated with you the most?
SMITH: The song that got me over the hump of, “Yes, I can play the Genie,” was “Friend Like Me.” I went into the studio, that first day, and I really wanted to play with it, to see if I could add something to it. After 30 minutes in the studio and playing with it in that 94 to 96 bpm range, even though it ultimately was a little bit faster than that, was old school hip-hop. I took The Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President,” with its really classic, old school hip-hop break beat and threw that break beat under there, and I also messed with Eric B. and Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul,” underneath “Friend Like Me.” And then, I was like, “Oh, my god, I’m home.” I started playing with the hip-hop flavor, and then the Genie was born, in my mind, from the music. I understood him, once I played with “Friend Like Me.”
Mena, what was it like to do the choreography in this?
MASSOUD: Jamal Sims, the choreographer, and (assistant choreographer) Nicky Andersen were spectacular. Jamal is one of the best in the business. I grew up watching Step Up, which to me, was the dance film of my generation, and Jamal choreographs that film, so it was amazing getting to work with him. Me and Naomi, funnily enough, wanted to focus more on the connection. Getting the choreography down is one thing, but we wanted to focus on connecting. In that one part of “Friend Like Me,” I had to learn the choreography, but then pretend like the Genie was manipulating me, so we tried doing it with mime. And then, Guy had this brilliant idea to actually attach these long puppeteering arms onto me to physically manipulate me, so we had a lot of fun with that. It was definitely a fun part of the whole process.
RITCHIE: And Jamal actually is the prince, when the Genie concocts him on the rocks and he goes, “I just wanna go home, man!” If anyone represented the spirit of this film, it was Jamal. Jamal came into this project, 100%, and every time you would see him, he was so excited about what he was about to do. The English weather didn’t drag him down. He just remained so positive, throughout. Jamal came up with this dance sequence, at the end, and he didn’t have long to do that dance sequence.
MASSOUD: And Nicky Andersen, his assistant choreographer, he found on YouTube. He’s like 19 years old, and he’s the most incredible dancer that I’ve ever seen. So, a shout out to both of those guys. I worked closely with Nicky, and Jamal oversaw everything. They’re both incredibly talented people.
NAOMI SCOTT: All of the dancers were just amazing.
SMITH: The choreography was the vortex of everything. If you were doing a dance sequence, the choreography was the vortex of wardrobe, set design, and all of the actors. We had decided which things our characters would and wouldn’t do, and then that had to get worked into the dancing of it. Everything fell on Jamal to make it all come together, in a dance sequence, and he captured all of that stuff. He turned it into something that looks hot in a dance move.
Will, did you improvise live, in any of your songs?
SMITH: A lot of people don’t even recognize this, but the Genie is 100% CGI. People look at it and they think it’s my face and my body, but blue. There is none of me in the Genie. The work was so good that they don’t even get credit for that. But that was great for me because I would just be on set and we would run the scene, and I could improv on set because I knew it wouldn’t be necessarily in the movie. Then, we would do the first round of the CGI work, and then we could go again and work with it. Then, Guy watched the whole movie, and I had another chance to go back and play with lines and make adjustments because they were going to create it, anyway. So, for me, there was tons of improv. Guy was open to anybody throwing something in. It become a fun thing on set to try to find that number one answer.
With two very different movies coming out this year – Aladdin and Gemini Man – what do you look for, these days, when it comes to your career?
SMITH: I took a couple of years off. I hit a ceiling in my life. I had created the things I could create, in my career, and 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 coming back in and seeing if my heart was even still in this kind of performing. What I discovered is that 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 into the conscious?” Aladdin checked all of those boxes. I love the idea of the Genie. One of the things that I related to in the Genie is that the Genie has shackles. The Genie has these spectacular powers, but he’s shackled. He is a prisoner of his spiritual fate, and that’s how I felt with Will Smith. I was shackled by Will Smith. And then, these last couple of years, I’ve started finding my freedom. I’m getting free of Will Smith, and I’m getting more comfortable with being me. So, Aladdin was that first step back out. In terms of Gemini Man, just the ideas of that, there are some deep concepts under that. It’s just about my beliefs. I’m going out into the world, and I’m a big voice that people look at and listen to, and I just wanna make sure I’m saying things that improve and contribute to people’s lives and joy and evolution.
How important was it to tell this tale, not only bringing to life the animated feature, but also in keeping the culture authentic?
SMITH: I think it is critically important to be able to pull stories, colors, textures, and tastes, from around the world. In this particular time in the world, that kind of inclusion and diversity will play a critical part in turning our connectivity. We have more connectivity than ever, but transitioning that connectivity into harmony is really critical. These kinds of interactions in these types of movies are a powerful global service, so it’s critically important to me. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East, so this story is critically important, in that way.
Guy, you’re not exactly the obvious choice to direct this. What do you feel you brought to this production that no one else could have?
RITCHIE: I don’t know how to answer that, but you’d be surprised how familiar I am with this territory, considering that I have five kids, and the oldest one is 18. That pretty much means that I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Disney productions for 19 years. Also, there were family demands that it was about time I made a movie that we could all watch together. Aladdin ticked the box that it was a street hustler, and I’m familiar with that territory. And my wife is a big Disney-phile, and 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. And then, it’s very hard to be objective about your own work, but inevitably what happens is that you leave an imprint upon it.