A Disney musical about a street urchin who befriends a genie and falls in love with a princess isn’t a premise that comes to mind when one thinks of Guy Ritchie.
The British director, 50, is known for gritty thrillers featuring robberies, explosions, and car chases, such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. But switch a car for a magic carpet, replace stolen money with a stolen lamp, throw in an underdog hero, and you can start to see why Ritchie felt reconceiving Aladdin for live-action might be in his wheelhouse when the studio approached him in 2016.
“My skills and experience could add enough to make it feel fresh and worth it, but not so much so that it would wash away nostalgia,” Ritchie tells EW. He adds that because he has five children, “making a kids’ film was very appealing to me.”
EW: How much of this film is taking from original animated story and characters and what can we expect that’s new?
GR: It’s probably got more humor in it than the original, I’m not sure if that happened by default…it was a question of finding new stuff. I just found there were moments we could make more humorous, and we, to a degree, made the narrative more contemporary and applicable to our time now. It was a movie of a particular moment, the 1992 one, and we are in the age we’re in now, so there are contemporary references about how we as a culture have shifted just because it’s a modern audience. Films change according to times that we’re in, so it does reflect contemporary issues in a classical theme.
A lot of the humor in the animated film came from the late Robin Williams as Genie. You have another comedic genius in Will Smith, what does he bring uniquely and so differently as Genie?
The great thing about the role of the Genie is that it’s essentially a hyperbole for who that individual is, for the actor, so it’s a wonderful platform and tapestry for an actor to fill his boots on, and Will Smith is an extrovert and you need an extrovert for Genie. So once you find a voice, which takes a while — and it’s funny because one of the things that we noticed because we tested things is that the Robin Williams concern was an issue, and that issue was aberrated almost immediately because the commitment of tone that we went with Will — and Will depicted our interpretation of how the Genie should be, and it’s different from Robin’s. There’s a lot of mimicking that takes place in the original and that’s very successful, but we went on a different path with this one.
How will your blue Genie look? (And yes, Will Smith will be blue as Genie)
There’s a particular type of physicality that I grew up with that I was keen on, that 1970s body builder look — not inflicted by steroids but by lifting vast amounts of weight and eating vast amounts of food — so I just want a genie with abs, a genie that looks like he can move stuff. I did want a traditional demi-God, someone who looked like a big, strong dad. I didn’t want a genie that looks like all he can do is eat either, that is the way you end up going. I wanted a muscular 1970s dad — 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.
The Magic Carpet — what did you want to do with this delightful character?
The Magic Carpet has quite a similar role, but you’d be surprised how little you need to do to animate or anthropomorphize animals and carpets, how little you need to give them in order for them to come to life and for people to relate to them. Iago was a concern that I had to relegate until I constructed — our animals are basically some degree of reality so we don’t have tigers that talk or monkeys that talk, but parrots fortuitously do talk. It’s hard to have a full blown conversation with a parrot in reality, so the decision that we made with our peripheral characters was to ground them in some degree of reality. It does seem like you could take mad liberties, but because it’s live-action, you can’t take quite the same liberties with parrots and monkeys. But you’d be surprised with how little you need to do in order to give them a lot of character.
Tell us more about Billy Magnussen’s Prince Anders of Skånland — who is he and why was it important to include this newly created role?
Our narrative is about, we are going to marry Jasmine off and it’s a question of appropriate suitors, so there’s different ways of recognizing and illustrating the appropriate characteristics that our rather sophisticated Jasmine needs in order to have a relationship that’s based on equal merit. Jasmine, needless to say, brings all sorts of things to the party, all sorts of hard-to-match characteristics, so this is a downside of being a prince or princess, there’s a danger of not evolving, there’s a lot of open doors but you’re not very good at developing the skills to pick a lock to open those doors. So we have princes that are not as sophisticated as Jasmine, but nevertheless, they look good on paper.
I do want to touch on the cultural sensitivity issues that surrounded the 1992 version when it came out, and what you’ve been looking at to address representation issues. I know Agrabah and these characters are from this fictional hybrid Middle Eastern/South Asian world, but when you’re doing live action and in 2018, these things are very closely scrutinized. So what were you looking at and what can we expect to see in terms of representation on this film?
We made a decision early on, really that was just to do with the integrity of a plausible narrative in the first place, the only thing we did was to make sure it was a slightly broader world, a hybrid as you say, but that was a decision we made early on of having an international, Middle Eastern and Asian crowd. And that was it, there was nothing else to decide or choose once we made that decision, all the decisions were made on that. Billy Magnussen and his entourage are the only northern European characters in the whole movie, and that’s because they represent (the Scandinavia-inspired) Skånland, a country somewhere in the North of Europe.
Given that there’s such scrutiny of the filmmakers that are telling the stories of people and cultures of color and you are coming to this as a white, English director, was that something you were concerned about in taking on the story, or how did you feel like you can tackle this world?
I’m not really sure what that question means. It almost feels loaded in the sense that, the truth is, that’s not what the film’s about. What the film’s about is a particular environment, however the challenges that the individual has to transcend are the same for any ethnicity or culture. And that is not affected by the color or the culture in this particular case. So I’m afraid, I found it to be not a — five years ago no one would have asked this question, of course.
I would like to chime in, I’m English and also I’m Indian, and this is something I definitely would have asked five years ago. In 1992 when Aladdin came out, this was a film that was one of the very, very few representations of the world of our ancestors, of our parents and where we came from, even if it was a hybrid Middle Eastern-South Asian world, and it became something that represented a lot of us. Now there’s an eye towards which filmmakers are making these kinds of stories. We have Ryan Coogler who directed Black Panther for Disney, Ava DuVernay handled A Wrinkle in Time with a black female lead — a lot of people are now looking to who’s helming these stories. That’s why I wanted to ask you that question, because this movie does represent certain cultures and ethnicities that have been quite often overlooked or lacked representation in Hollywood.
Yeah. I’m afraid I feel the same way about — the whole idea about acting is that actors are supposed to act. The whole idea about directing is directors are supposed to direct. They see it comes from a filter and that filter, which is incidentally hard to articulate because ultimately the creative process is hard to articulate, but I feel so — trying to explain what I find to be a secondary component to what is principally a human challenge rather than an ethnic one, my concern was principally a human concern and all the other challenges are met according to the challenge of any creative component. There are just decisions that are made, there were decisions that were made because they were obvious, because that was the DNA of that particular narrative, so outside of that, I’m confused by, only because maybe I’m taciturn about exactly how to express or articulate that particular component because for me, it’s just obvious. These human challenges seen through the lens of a particular world, and once that world is created, then everything comes through the prism of that world. So the ethnic component is just part of the makeup of the whole creative expression, it’s not, it just inherits and it’s not a disparate path on a whole, it’s all entwined. I can’t say how it would feel like to be Asian, but I don’t think it’s relevant. What’s relevant is to be human.
A big part of 1992’s Aladdin is the music — are the original songs modernized in any way or do they keep their original format, and what feel do the new songs add?
I haven’t made a musical before but most my films are very musical, that was another component I found provocative and interesting in a creative way. Clearly people are very attached to the original songs and clearly that’s part of the DNA so we didn’t really want to stray from the original stuff, just an embellishment with a couple of new tracks. The new tunes are marginally shifted now with the fact that we’re 26 years later, the world moves on so there is a shift, which is just an unavoidable aspect time. But essentially the soundtrack’s the same, just somewhat embellished with a couple of new tunes in it.
Has making Aladdin made you want to explore anything different as you go forward in your career?
Like any job, you want to do things fresh and exciting for you, it’s quite nice to go back to old stuff and it’s nice to do new stuff. Three years ago, I wasn’t thinking of doing anything for Disney and the experience of working with Disney was wonderful, they were as an organization very supportive and very helpful, very intelligent and everything to do with the experience from my point of view was, the truth is I’ve never made a film like I’ve made here…In the end, Aladdin’s fun and it’s a story that’s worth telling and it’s for kids and for families and it’s a broad, accessible world and an interesting film, so it doesn’t really have anything that gives off a bad odor…it just left a good taste in everyone’s mouth.
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