Walt Disney Studios’ latest entry in their line of live-action remakes of animated classics is “Aladdin“, the tale of a down-on-his-luck street rat who finds a genie and uses his three wishes to save the city of Agrabah from the grip of the evil vizier, Jafar.
By Joe Spencer
The film, originally released in 1992, is one of the crown jewels of the Disney Renaissance – which saw the revitalization of the animation division of the studio – and is widely remembered for both its exciting story and the amazing soundtrack written by Disney Legend Alan Menken.
This past Sunday, members of the press were invited to see some of the cast and crew of the live-action version of “Aladdin” talk about their experiences in recreating such a treasured film.
The conference began with a surprise performance by Menken himself, playing a medley of his most beloved Disney songs. Included in this medley was “Speechless”, a new song written specifically for the film by Menken and the songwriting duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“La La Land”, “The Greatest Showman”).
Naomi Scott, who plays Jasmine in the film, said that she was blown away by the new song, especially “the words and lyrics and how timely it was.” She went on to say how she loved the message of the tune.
“The idea of not going speechless, that everyone has a voice,” said Scott. “Doesn’t matter who you are, doesn’t matter what you look like, doesn’t matter what your gender, your voice matters […] It’s the world’s song, whatever it will be, it will be. I’m just very blessed to be the person to embody it in the movie.”
Representation was another focus during the discussion of the film. Mena Massoud, who plays the titular Aladdin, said that the crew was most proud of the ethnically diverse casting that Disney and director Guy Ritchie had focused on.
“It’s not often you can go to the movie theater and see all people of color represented like this,” said Massoud. He reflected on the need for this kind of diversity during his own childhood, saying “It’s certainly something I was missing […] I’m excited for little boys and girls to go see people who look like them on screen.”
The updated film has a few new story elements in it, none bigger than the addition of Princess Jasmine’s handmaiden, Dalia, played by “Saturday Night Live” alum Nasim Pedrad. Pedrad gushed at the joy she felt in creating something new and seeing it intersect with something so beloved.
“I’m a 90’s kid, so for me, ‘Aladdin’ was golden age Disney,” said Pedrad. “The film really resonated with me as a child [because] it was the first time I had seen a Middle Eastern protagonist in a major motion picture.”
Will Smith, who takes up the mantle of Genie in the film, was excited to be a part of such a fantastical production. “Disney magic is real,” said Smith. “This is my first Disney movie, and there’s something […] at the core of these stories that shocks the inner child within you, and forces it to come alive.”
Smith also admitted that he was initially nervous to take on such an iconic role.
“What Robin Williams did as with this character […] didn’t leave a lot of room to add to the Genie, so I started off fearful,” admitted Smith. “When I got with the music, [however], it just started waking up that fun, childlike, silly part of me, and this became the most joyful experience of my career.”
Smith also admitted that he was drawn to the role of Genie out of a sense of camaraderie.
“I relate to Genie in that he has shackles. He has these spectacular powers, but he’s shackled. He’s a prisoner of his spiritual fate. That’s how I felt with ‘Will Smith’. I was shackled by ‘Will Smith’,” he said. “In these last couple of years, I just started finding my freedom, getting free of ‘Will Smith’ and getting comfortable being me.”
Director Guy Ritchie, who is mostly known for directing action and crime films, was asked what drew him to this musical family picture.
“I’ve got 5 kids, and the oldest one is 18, which means I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Disney productions for 19 years,” said Ritchie. “It was about time I made a film that we could all watch together. I was ready to do something in this world.”
You can catch Walt Disney Studios’ “Aladdin” in theaters nationwide now. Check out the official trailer below, and read our review of the film here.