The Cast and Crew of ‘Aladdin’ Discuss Bringing the Animated Classic to Life

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Aladdin Press Conference

Composer Alan Menken, production designer Gemma Jackson, actors Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Naomi Scott, Mena Massoud, Will Smith and director Guy Ritchie participate in the U.S. press conference for Aladdin in Los Angeles, CA on May 19, 2019. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

Rub the lamp three times and you just never know what might pop out. The latest Disney animated classic to get a live action remake is Aladdin, with director Guy Ritchie adapting the beloved 1992 animated film. Though Ritchie came to prominence from working on kinetic gangster films with violent characters, the director showed off his soft side with Disney film.

“That’s Cry Ritchie. Cry Ritchie,” jokingly said Will Smith, who takes over the role made iconic by Robin Williams, about his director’s tendency to shed a few tears on set after a good take.

As Ritchie would explain, he approached Aladdin without a sense of cynicism that allowed the filmmaker to be earnest in a way that his previous films haven’t quite allowed. “I suppose it’s the entire process that in the end, it’s what you’re left with in terms of a sensation by the end of the film. So I would say it’s how you leave the cinema. So it’s hard to be specific about exactly what it is that you’re supposed to derive from it other than a sensation which can only really be encapsulated by a very positive version of being un-cynical. That we want people to leave with a sense of positivity and hopefully a sense of freshness and all that sort of stuff,” the director said.

One of the aspects of Aladdin that provides the film with the sense of freshness its director desires is the young cast of rising stars led by Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, respectively.

“You know, I’m especially proud of the representation and the ethnically diverse casting that was put together for this,” said 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. So I’m excited for little boys and girls to go see people that look like them on screen. That’s what I’m proud of.”

“First of all, 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. It aligns with Guy and our producers. For me, I really think it was a natural progression,” Scott said of taking on this revamped version of an iconic Disney princess.

Scott continued, “Guy said something  which I thought was really great. He was talking about equality of challenge as well. 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 as opposed to it’s not this thing that’s been shoe-horned 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.”

Veteran actor Navid Negahban plays Princess Jasmine’s father the Sultan, and the actor had nothing but kind words about the actress playing his regal daughter. “I have to say something about Naomi. There is a princess inside her. I’ll never forget, we were on the set and we were working. Some of the aides, they were a little bit stressed and they were yelling in the background actors. And this girl took the mic, went over on the balcony, and said, ‘We can be nicer to each other, can’t we?’ So the princess is inside her. I never forget that day,” Negahban fondly recalled of his costar. “It’s just finding your inner magic, believing in yourself, who you are, and what you are is special. There is nobody else like you. And I think the film represents that. Mena, he discovered Aladdin inside him and it was beautiful, the whole journey was an amazing experience.”

Also in the cast of Aladdin is Nasim Pedrad as Dalia, a new character for the live action remake who is Jasmine’s handmaiden. “I’m a 90s kid. So for me, Aladdin was like golden age Disney. And to echo what Mena said, I’m so proud to be part of the most diversely cast Disney movie of all time. That film resonated with me as a child because it was the first time I saw a Middle Eastern protagonist in a major motion picture,” said Pedrad. “So to get to be a part of that and play a little fun role in being Jasmine’s friend and handmaiden and especially under the guidance of Guy who is so collaborative and fun and every day, you’re like oh my gosh, like he puts the scene up on its feet, and it turns into a whole fun new thing that you wouldn’t have necessarily even seen on the page. It was just such a blast. And we got to spend time together. A lot of my scenes were with Naomi. We got to spend time together before we started filming. And there was such an instant camaraderie and friendship that I think hopefully translates into the dynamic of the characters.”

Underscoring Pedrad’s point, Naomi Scott made sure to add a lot of praise upon her costar, “She won’t say, but she kills it in this movie. I think also she does so much improv because she’s such an amazing writer as well. She was just coming out with like I was just laughing the whole time. I couldn’t keep it together. But I think she brought more to the character than I think anyone could have even imagined for this role. And like literally she just annihilates it.”

Aladdin is the first film Will Smith has starred in since 2017’s Bright, and the superstar was somewhat reluctant to step back into the spotlight. “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 just a collapse of my life and creations. So I took a couple of years off essentially to study. To study and journey spiritually. And Aladdin was really my first sort of coming back in and seeing if my heart was even still in this kind of performing,” said Smith of his self-imposed hiatus.  “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.”

Another aspect of performing that Will Smith had reacquaint himself with was singing, especially considering what a vital role that music plays within Aladdin. “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,” Smith said of getting back into the musical groove. “Then I started playing with the hip hop flavor and then the Genie was really born in my mind from the music. And I understood once I played with ‘Friend Like Me.’”

“It was great,” said legendary composer Alan Menken about Smith’s additions to his famed compositions that have earned him an astonishing eight Academy Awards. “I say this a lot. I liken myself to an architect. I design a house that others are going to live in. And Will, you threw a hell of a party in that house. Yeah, I just loved it. Once he did that, I just go, just back off and let him do what he does because it’s so good.”

As many of the songs in Aladdin are going to be familiar for lovers of the original film, it does feature a brand new song performed by Naomi Scott. “Oh gosh, where do I start? So ‘Speechless,’ written by this guy over here, Alan Menken, [Benj] Pasek, and [Justin] Paul,” said Scott of her breakout song. “Incredible writers. So 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 also 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, your voice matters. And speaking out against injustice matters. Not just standing by and being a spectator.”

To build the world of Aladdin, an eye for detail is required and that role was filled by production designer Gemma Jackson. “The most fun part of researching I think was just throwing everything up in the air and letting it settle and thinking about the parts of world that we wanted to explore for our kingdom and our land and letting it all kind of gradually come together. And as the different demands of the film grew, then different parts of that set grew. Creating a world for this fantastic bunch of mad people I think was the best part of my job,” Jackson said of her work on Aladdin.

Though unexpected, Guy Ritchie was extensively familiar with the world of Aladdin and other Disney classics. “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 Ritchie’s cast was enthusiastic about heaping praise on their director for creating an open and collaborative set.

“I think the beautiful thing that Guy does on set is that he creates a sense of family and community and everybody feels free to create and bring their take on it. And then he kind of molds it from there. But he allows us to play. And I think that’s something that no one else could have done as well as Guy,” said Mena Massoud of his director.

“Yeah, that’s a really beautiful approach that he has,” said Will Smith. “It’s like the first five or six takes, he doesn’t say anything. He just watches. And he just lets you do it and you do it and he sees what everybody’s choices are naturally and he watches and everybody gets excited and we’re playing and we feel like we’re making it. And then he comes in and just gently starts to guide everybody back towards what he wants. He’s wildly collaborative and open. It’s a rare combination to be that open and that definitive at the same time. It’s a very difficult thing to do and he has mastered that very well.”

Even Alan Menken had to join in on the praise of Guy Ritchie. “A perfect example might be like ‘One Jump Ahead,’ right? ‘One Jump Ahead’ is one of those songs in the animated movie which is almost choreographed,” the famed composer said. “It’s very sweet, very clever, very stagey. And Guy I know wanted to get to the truth underneath it to go who is Aladdin in this, more than just a guy performing, as Guy said, jazz hands. And so we tore that song apart. We tried it this way, we tried it that way to get the swagger into it. And he challenged me and the whole music team to go to a different place. We went to some pretty extreme places. And then what we came back to, it feels like ‘One Jump Ahead’ to me but it feels very real. So whatever happened in that process worked.”

Judging by the enthusiasm and wide smiles on the press conference stage, everyone involved was happy with how their take on Aladdin came out. “I was saying Disney Magic is real,” said Will Smith.

The actor elaborated, “This is 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 moment. So for me coming into this, first starting with fear, 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 childlike silly part of me. And like Guy was saying. This was the most joyful experience of my career.”

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