ALADDIN is the latest Disney classic to get a live-action remake. When the film opens on Friday, May 24, ’90s kids who grew up with the original animated film, the SEGA Genesis game and the animated series (and the rest of us) get a chance to re-enter that whole new world with an enthusiastic cast and crew of adults who aren’t afraid to tap into their own childlike joy.
On May 19, 2019, the film’s director Guy Ritchie, Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken, production designer Gemma Jackson and several cast members gathered at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., for the ALADDIN press conference. They talked about their journeys and experiences making this highly anticipated film. Let’s hop on a magic carpet to the press conference!
When we arrived, the ballroom was set up as you’d expect with a stage ready for a panel discussion. The turquoise seating was accented with lovely gold and orchid-colored throw pillows plus a starry backdrop emblazoned with the new gold Aladdin logo framed it nicely. But the exciting elephant in the room was a big black grand piano located just in front of the well-appointed stage.
Before the press conference officially started, Alan Menken himself (who won 2 of his 8 Oscars for his work on the music for Disney’s original Aladdin animated film back in 1993) was welcomed to the stage just for us! He sat down at the piano and delighted us with a 9-minute medley of his most famous movie songs. Snippets of most of the tunes from Aladdin (“Arabian Nights,” “Friend Like Me,” “One Jump Ahead,” “Prince Ali”, and Jasmine’s new song for the live action film, “Speechless, ” co-written with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) were expertly interspersed with pieces of the iconic songs of films including the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Tangled, and coming back full circle to end with “A Whole New World” from Aladdin.
It was a such a treat and an inspiring way to set the tone for the panel discussion to come.
One of the main things that struck me once the panel discussion got started was how much the cast admired each other and each other’s work. They were constantly praising each other’s talent, kindness, and collaborative spirit, and more than one panel member said it was the most fun and/or joyful experience they had ever had. That last point is most likely a testament to the leadership of the film’s director, Guy Ritchie (an extremely collaborative director, who the cast nicknamed “Cry Ritchie” because he would get emotional when their performances were particularly moving), but he will tell you it all started with Will Smith.
GUY RITCHIE: What became fun is that everyone came to the spirit [of the film] in no small way, because when Will came, he was number one on the call sheet. His positivity sort of flowed all the way down. It started from the top, and it went down. And then 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…So working with them is a tremendous pleasure for me…And from the actor’s point of view, they were all having a tremendous amount of fun. And no one is cynical in that sense. I’ll give most of the credit to you there, Will. Will is not cynical. By the time you’ve been doing what we’ve been doing for 30 years, it’s very easy to become jaded and cynical. And actually no one on the set was cynical. So I mean, Will said it. But for me, it was the most fun, creative process I’ve ever been through.
In a recent conversation I had with him about the animated film, Richard Woloski from Skywalking Through Neverland said it best: “It wasn’t so much that Robin Williams played the Genie, but that the Genie was Robin Williams.” Try to imagine what it would be like to be Will Smith, tackling the job of playing the Genie. I think I’d rather take my chances in the Cave of Wonders.
WILL SMITH: 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.
To find his way to his own version of the Genie, Smith and the music producers brought some classic old-school hip hop break beats into the studio to play around with under “Friend Like Me.” Will says once he found the right tempo and flavor, he’d found his Genie. And Alan Menken sang his praises.
WILL SMITH: And I was like oh my God. I’m home, I’m home. And 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.”
ALAN MENKEN: It was great. Absolutely. 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. And 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.
Moderator Dani Fernandez asked Mena Massoud, the new Aladdin, what he was excited for people to see in the film. He didn’t hesitate to highlight the importance of telling this Middle Eastern-inspired story with the proper representation.
MENA MASSOUD: You know, 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. So I’m excited for little boys and girls to go see people that look like them on screen, man. That’s what I’m proud of.
With this reimagining of the story we know and love, Guy Ritchie and his collaborators realized that the time for the princess’ story to evolve was now. And Naomi Scott felt the same way.
NAOMI SCOTT: 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. 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.
GUY RITCHIE: What was conspicuous, if there was anything that looked like there could be some evolution in this narrative, it was that there needed to be a voice given to Jasmine. I mean, Aladdin has been given enough challenges to get on with. Genie had his hands full. And the most conspicuous character thereafter was Jasmine, who was arguably a tad bit passive in the original. And it just felt like there was an obvious space there that we could have worked on. And as Naomi just said, really to me, it was about equality of challenge. Because there’s no point banging on about something unless you can back it up. So not only did Alan come up with what I think is the best song in the film (“Speechless”), but to illustrate that particular point.
That evolution included creating the character of Dalia, Jasmine’s handmaiden and best friend, played with humor and tenderness by Saturday Night Live alum Nasim Pedrad. Not only does it double(!) the number of female characters in the film (bringing the grand total to just 2), but it gives us the opportunity to witness a full, loving friendship between these two women, as well as a fun new character with her own wishes, opinions and life.
NASIM PEDRAD: It was so fun, because I think all the joy of creating something from scratch, but then watching that intersect with this story we all know and love. Which I had so much respect for coming into it. 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 I think. And it really, 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. So to get to be a part of that and play a little fun role in being Jasmine’s friend and handmaiden… It was just such a blast. 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.
Gemma Jackson, the production designer not only for ALADDIN but also for Game of Thrones (which had its series finale just a few hours after this press conference was finished; it was a big day for Gemma!) joined the cast to answer questions about how she created the rich, detailed sets and scenery for this gorgeous film.
The fictitious port city of Agrabah, where much of the film’s action takes place, is described as a “multicultural gateway to the Eastern world.” Jackson and her team were able to pull from many cultures in the Middle East, Asia, and South Asia to create the vibrant environment in which the actors could do their best work.
WILL SMITH: The ultimate compliment from the actor’s point of view is “we were transported to the time and place.” And that’s what happened when we walked on that set, when you walked through. It was in the textures of the walls and all of that. And the stairs were real. You could go up and go out onto the rooftop. It was a powerful way to transport the actors into the emotions and the smells of the time and place.
GEMMA JACKSON: Thank you, Will. I have to say, I enjoyed every single moment of it. I’ve never had such fun as I had building that world actually.
It’s clear that the cast and crew had great fun creating this reimagined version of a beloved classic. Their childlike joy at the press conference was positively contagious. Make sure to check it out for yourself when ALADDIN soars into theaters on Friday, May 24!