And the first Aladdin proved to be much more than a kids’ movie. Disney’s flight through a fictional Middle Eastern realm, woven with wanderlust and magic and loosely inspired by the Arabian folktales in One Thousand and One Nights, ascended to the top of the 1992 box office. On the heels of 1989’s The Little Mermaid and 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin helped cement Disney’s animation reign. With a story that captivated audiences and soaring, showstopping songs such as “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me,” it became one of the Mouse House’s most beloved films. When Disney began ramping up production of live-action remakes of its animated fairy tales — such as 2015’s Cinderella and 2017’s blockbuster Beauty and the Beast — Aladdin was greenlit with Ritchie at the helm.
But before he could tell the story, Ritchie had his own three wishes to fulfill.
From the get-go, Ritchie faced one big — and blue — issue. Along with the titular hero, the story is centered on a genie, a wondrous blue immortal trapped in a lamp, who grants three wishes to whoever releases him from his vessel. In the animated version, Robin Williams breathed life into the fast-talking wish-maker, turning him into the heartwarming and critically lauded comedic core of the film. Williams’ untimely death in 2014 made reimagining Genie on screen a significant burden, and one that Ritchie knew he had to crack.
“The great thing about the role of the Genie is that it’s essentially a hyperbole for who that individual actor is, so it’s a wonderful platform and tapestry for an actor to fill his boots on,” Ritchie says. So in stepped one of the funniest forces in entertainment: Will Smith.
“Whenever you’re doing things that are iconic, it’s always terrifying,” Smith tells EW with his trademark booming laugh. “The question is always: Where was there meat left on the bone? Robin didn’t leave a lot of meat on the bone with the character.”
But if Williams “infused the character with a timeless version of himself,” Smith says, then the 50-year-old actor was going to do the same. “I started to feel confident that I could deliver something that was an homage to Robin Williams but was musically different,” he says. “Just the flavor of the character would be different enough and unique enough that it would be in a different lane, versus trying to compete.” The superstar — who recorded his own version of “Friend Like Me” on the first day he met with the music team — says he tapped into his roster of roles from the 1990s (including Independence Day, Bad Boys, and a certain Bel-Air prince from West Philadelphia) to shape his Genie, weaving enough of a flair for fashion into the character to earn the praise of one Disney executive, who described Smith’s Genie as part Fresh Prince, part Hitch.
The final version of Will Smith’s Genie in his blue floating lamp form isn’t quite finished — the film is due in theaters on May 24, 2019 — but Ritchie gives EW a tease of what he’ll look like. “I wanted a muscular 1970s dad,” the director says. “He was big enough to feel like a force — not so muscular that he looked like he was counting his calories, but formidable enough to look like you knew when he was in the room.” When Aladdin first stumbles across the lamp in the Cave of Wonders, a big cerulean cloud whooshes out of the spout, forming into Smith’s goateed Genie, complete with a topknot. After a quick musical introduction, Smith’s swagger shines through as he asks a dumbstruck Aladdin, “You really don’t know who I am? Genie…wishes…lamp? None of that ringing a bell? Wow, that’s a first.” Ritchie explains that Smith’s Genie is more self-aware. “I like the fact that our Genie has an ego and is a little bit vain and he cares about how he’s presented because he’s been doing this for a very long time.” After all, the Fresh Prince knows how to make an entrance.
“I think it’ll stand out as unique even in the Disney world,” Smith says. “There hasn’t been a lot of that hip-hop flavor in Disney history.”
Time was running out for Ritchie as the start of production loomed and the internet caught wind of the challenge to find his two leads: the affable, quick-thinking, optimistic dreamer Aladdin and the indomitable, independent, benevolent Princess Jasmine. Ritchie confirms that the search was long, but after hundreds of auditions over six months, the roles went to 27-year-old Canadian actor Mena Massoud, who stars on Amazon Prime Video’s Jack Ryan series, and British actress Naomi Scott, 25, known for Power Rangers and the upcoming Charlie’s Angels reboot.
Massoud jetted off to the England set to learn how to properly sing and dance, as well as perform stunts for the film such as riding a camel and scuba diving (when Aladdin gets thrown off a cliff). “The singing and dancing I had to really train and put in time for, as I’m predominantly an actor first,” Massoud says. Ritchie calls him “quite a funny lad” and says the actor quickly bonded with Smith off screen, as the duo captured the brotherly back-and forth that Aladdin and Genie share. “What was nice about Will was that the more I got to know him and the more I spent time with him, the stronger naturally our relationships became with our characters,” Massoud explains.
Scott, whose mother is of Indian descent and whose father is British, had found herself instantly drawn as a child to 1992’s dark-eyed, dark-haired, olive-skinned Jasmine. “Having a Disney princess that looked something like me, I think was really powerful,” says Scott. Stepping into the role more than 25 years later, she says she was excited to spin her own twist on a Disney princess: “Jasmine’s main objective at the beginning is to really protect her people and to do right by them. She definitely isn’t a finished article at the beginning of the movie, but she has this beautiful arc and progression, and she goes from asking for what she wants to just taking it, and displaying that she is a leader.” Scott’s Jasmine builds on the DNA of the animated iteration, who has long been celebrated for having a feminist point of view as she fought against being married off to just any prince, per the rules of Agrabah. The film has been revamped to reflect present-day ideals that make her “a more rounded character and maybe not being such a stereotype of the time,” Ritchie says. Jasmine also gets a solo song, one of the new numbers that composer Alan Menken has written (with lyrics from La La Land songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) to accompany his original tunes.
And this time, Jasmine actually has a female counterpart to bounce her ideas and dreams off of, not just her pet tiger Rajah (who will still be in the movie). Saturday Night Live alum Nasim Pedrad plays the newly created role of Dalia, Jasmine’s handmaiden and best friend, who helps Jasmine navigate the suitors attempting to win her hand (like actor Billy Magnussen in another new role, Prince Anders of Skånland). “Jasmine is so resilient and independent in this version, she’s focused on things other than which boy she’s going to end up with,” Pedrad says. “She really wants to be a leader, and Dalia really supports that but at the same time wants to make sure she doesn’t get in trouble.”
As Ritchie and his team considered Morocco for location shooting, they realized it might actually hinder them from creating the fictional Agrabah. “I think I was freer to pull things from where I wanted them, I didn’t just have to be Moroccan,” production designer Gemma Jackson tells EW. Jackson and her team instead built a set — about the size of two football fields — in southeast England, transforming the rain-soaked Surrey vista into a vibrant, dusty, and millennia-old bustling port city.
Finding Agrabah was the first hurdle; filling it was the second. Both Disney and Ritchie had to tackle how to update Aladdin and its cast to avoid the cultural inaccuracies and insensitivities that the 1992 animated version fell into, such as depicting the street-market sellers of Agrabah as greedy and grotesque or describing Arabia (in song lyrics) as a place “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” (the song “Arabian Nights” was edited in later releases to remove this line). Massoud says the film’s ensemble does represent the diversity of the Middle Eastern and South Asian worlds, pointing out that he’s Egyptian-Canadian; Scott is Caucasian-Indian; Pedrad is Iranian-American; and actor Marwan Kenzari, who plays Jafar (the villainous Grand Vizier to the Sultan, who seeks the lamp for his own nefarious gain), is Dutch and of Tunisian descent. “We’ve covered almost every continent, which is rare these days, but I’m really proud to be in a film that represents so many visible and ethnically different cultures,” says Massoud. Ritchie says the live-action film has a “slightly broader world, a hybrid world” that would include a Middle Eastern and South Asian crowd on screen — some 500 extras of diverse backgrounds filled Agrabah.
Meanwhile, Jackson drew inspiration from Moroccan, Persian, and Turkish cultures, Victorian paintings, and Iznik ceramics to conjure the setting. Ritchie was also assisted by “an army of cultural advisers” on set, adding that the film, while steeped in this Arabian world, is what he calls “principally a human challenge rather than an ethnic one.” “The challenges that the individual has to transcend are the same for any ethnicity or culture,” Ritchie says. He adds, “I’m loathe to shine a light on culture or color or ethnicity, because I feel as though that’s shining a light on the wrong part of the stage. The question should be, how sensitive are you towards humans?”
Jackson’s evolving set was a playground for Ritchie to film musical numbers, parades, and fast, choppy chase scenes where Aladdin is pursued by the Sultan’s guards through narrow alleys and along clustered rooftops, traversing tanneries and ducking through market stalls. “It’s like Old Hollywood and what making big movies was like in the 1950s,” Ritchie says of the physical sets.
“When you think timeless Disney classic, you’re not really thinking Guy Ritchie,” Smith says. “But he brings a beautiful edge to the look and feel and imagining of Aladdin.”