Aladdin 2019

Despite going into Guy Ritchie‘s Aladdin with almost no hope whatsoever, I ended up being won over by the movie. Fans of the original Aladdin won’t be disappointed, and while I’ve grown to be somewhat cynical about Disney remaking its animated classics, this one justifies its existence by making some interesting updates while staying true to its characters.

This past weekend, I attended the Aladdin press conference in Beverly Hills, and amid all of the expected answers about singing and dancing, collaborating on set, and the importance of maintaining cultural authenticity, we learned a few things about the movie and the people who made it. Example: director Guy Ritchie was given the nickname “Cry Ritchie” by stars Will Smith and Naomi Scott on the set because he apparently cried when he saw good takes.

Aladdin images

Aladdin 2019 Press Conference Highlights

For me, the biggest highlight of the entire afternoon was a performance from Alan Menken, the composer who worked on both the original Aladdin and this new live-action version. Menken is a Disney staple, kickstarting his career with The Little Mermaid and hitting milestone after milestone in the years since. He’s won eight Academy Awards so far, and was essentially responsible for the soundtracks of many of our childhoods. The press conference began with Menken performing a medley of his Disney songs for the assembled group of journalists, and while my seat in the room wasn’t ideal for capturing video, someone else got a pretty decent version of it:

The conversation that followed covered some well-trod ground, but there were a few enlightening moments to be found. Those came from Will Smith, who explained – while occasionally referring to himself in the third person, presumably to differentiate between his true self and his celebrity persona – how he went through a creative drought before he got this role:

“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. 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, right? He has these spectacular powers, but he’s shackled. He is a prisoner of his spiritual fate. That’s sort of how I felt with Will Smith. I was sort of shackled by Will Smith. In these last couple of years, I’ve started finding my freedom. I’m getting free of Will Smith, and I’m getting more comfortable being me. So Aladdin was that first step back out.”

Smith also talked about working in the shadow of Robin Williams’ iconic take on the Genie in the first movie, and how he relied on music to find his way in to his version of that character:

“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. 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.

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. Literally thirty minutes in the studio, starting to play with it, finding that 94-96 bmp (beats per minute) range, we were playing around in there. Ultimately I think it was a little bit faster than that, but that 94-96 bmp 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. 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 the Genie was really born in my mind from the music.”

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And speaking of the Genie, Smith revealed something I didn’t know:

“A lot of people don’t even recognize this, but the Genie is 100% CGI. 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…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. 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 [the visual effects people] were going to create it anyway. So for me, there was tons of improv.”

Aladdin

Later, Aladdin actor Mena Massoud talked about the power of representation in this film, and Smith echoed those sentiments a few minutes afterward:

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, and I’m excited for little boys and girls to go see people that look like them on screen.

Smith: I think it is critically important to be able to pull stories and colors and textures and tastes from around the world. 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.

Let’s briefly put aside the fact that Disney is a giant multi-national corporation that’s gulping up rival Hollywood studios and how that business decision will probably have a negative effect on the entertainment industry at large. Looking at this movie on its own terms, Aladdin puts an awful lot of good into the world (Jasmine’s character gets her due in a big way this time out). As much as I tend to roll my eyes at the idea of the studio putting out another live-action remake, I have to admit I found this one to be incredibly effective and a lot of fun.

Aladdin arrives in theaters on May 24, 2019.

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