How Agrabah was brought to life in Disney's live-action Aladdin
How do you conjure up the fictional Arabian realm of Agrabah into real-life? From the souks of Marrakesh to the monasteries in Burma and a 1,000-year-old olive tree, production designer Gemma Jackson travelled far and wide to bring a multitude of influences into crafting the set for Disney’s live-action Aladdin, bringing the 1992 animated classic into the three-dimensional world.
Out on May 24, Guy Ritchie’s reimagining of Aladdin stars Will Smith as the iconic blue Genie; Mena Massoud as the titular street rat hero Aladdin; Naomi Scott as the beautiful, sheltered Princess Jasmine; and Marwan Kenzari as the nefarious Jafar.
Jackson shared her secrets with EW, lifting the veil on the expansive real sets they built in Surrey, England for Ritchie, bringing the city of Agrabah to life with real markets, a palace, and a new geographical location that allows the realm to become a bustling port city. Watch the exclusive behind-the-scenes video above to see how the film was shot in England and the deserts of Jordan.
The Markets of Agrabah
Ritchie is known for weaving fast-paced action sequences into his films and Aladdin is no different, as the film kicks off with Aladdin and a disguised Jasmine being chased through the labyrinth of Agrabah’s streets by the palace guards in the “One Jump” sequence. “We just wanted to make it mysterious, all these fairs in Marrakech have these wonderful, secretive alleyways for running around … so we created quite long runs for the actors so the cameras could chase them through,” Jackson told EW. “Guy loves to do real time things and play with that so we had some great alleys you come running around an be confronted.”
Then came the details, from building real tanneries to alleyways where clouds of kettles filled with rose water flew up when Aladdin and Jasmine raced by. Jackson said she wanted to include as many interesting sights as possible, even if they didn’t make it into the film. “There’s someone in stocks … and if you run through the courtyard, there are people doing basket work, then run behind that through an alley and there’s huge, big jars above you, there’s constantly things to look at. And that’s great for the Magic Carpet [scenes] as well,” Jackson said.
In Ritchie’s film, Agrabah is also a port city that rests on the cusp of Eastern and Western nations, making it a thriving trade town and bringing together a melting pot of cultures and influences that lend itself directly to a new backstory for Jasmine.
“One side of Agrabah is water and behind the palace is sand dunes, it’s like Namibia where the sand dunes go right down to the sea,” Jackson said. This helped for the storyline involving Prince Anders of Skånland (Billy Magnussen), who comes to town seeking Jasmine’s hand in marriage. “He arrives on a ship and is carried into town on his carriage, so everything comes and goes on ships, which gives Agrabah quite a good connection to the rest of the world,” Jackson explained. “That’s why Jasmine is quite worldly and she has got a lot of information and when you see the Sultan in his place, he has quite a big collection of stuff from around the world, because they traded with other countries.”
The Sultan’s Palace
Jackson said that initially there were talks of filming Aladdin in Morocco and having that be the setting for Agrabah. “In the end, I think it’s great that we didn’t because I think I was freer just to pull things from where I wanted them, I didn’t just have to be Moroccan, I could go anywhere I liked in my imagination,” she said. To design the Sultan’s palace, Jackson said she found a Burmese monastery made of wood, painted gold and distressed with age, and that was the foundation of the building. “Of course, it got huge and became more Byzantine as it built up, but the premise was to paint everything in versions of gold so all the gold against each other, I just thought it was really interesting,” she said.
To craft the interiors, Jackson then looked to a plethora of influences. “The reference that I had was a real mishmash — obviously you can’t lift anything directly or you’ll get done by everyone right, left, and center so you have to steal a bit of this, a bit of that and a bit of the other, and mix it up and make it your own,” she explained.
“I loved Iznik ceramics, I love Turkish and Persian miniatures … there’s the Orientalist paintings that I used, a lot of the Victorians used to go on those wonderful journeys and do these fabulous paintings stuffed full of detail.”
And then there’s an actual, live 1,000-year-old olive tree that became the centerpiece for the palace courtyard. “It looks rather beautiful I think, in the middle there with all the carpets up on the wall and around the outside, and for me, it gave [the set] a lovely aging,” Jackson said. “The [palm] trees and bougainvillea gave it — for me bougainvillea means heat and I just wanted all the things that make you think of a hot country. Although it’s quite dry, there are things that flourish in the heat, we had some prickly pears in there as well.
Even living in the streets, Aladdin has always dreamt big and his home in a dilapidated tower reflects his big imagination. “Guy wanted to feel that Aladdin wasn’t just living under a sack, that he was quite inventive and created a mysterious, wonderful place for himself,” Jackson said. This is where he brings Jasmine at the beginning of the story as they hide out from the palace guards, and Jackson said they wanted to create a space that would impress even a princess. “He pulls this cord and up goes this beautiful hand-painted canopy, and she is absolutely astonished by this beautiful [sight] and then he says, ‘I have the best view,’ and to her slight horror, there is this absolutely gorgeous view of the palace, which he sits and looks at and dreams about, and of course she’s trying to escape,” Jackson said.
When Aladdin uses one of his three wishes to be made into a prince named Ali, the Genie makes sure to give him a lavish entrance into Agrabah as he heads to the palace to win Jasmine’s hand. To bring the expansive song-and-dance number for “Prince Ali” to life, Jackson had to create a multi-functional set that would accommodate the spectacle. “We had this huge pageant and we had Aladdin on top of a huge carved camel covered in flowers, so he was way above the crowd, and the Genie came in on beautiful dais with flowers and girls, and it was just a sensation,” Jackson said. “We had tumblers and wonderful performers and dancers, so for that, we needed a huge amount of space because it was a huge crowd of people, so the parade circled around the old town, and then it went through the upmarket part of the town and it ended up at the gates of palace that was gold and gorgeous.”
As the ambitious and manipulative Grand Vizier to the Sultan, Jafar would need his own space in the palace to plot his dark deeds. “We imagined there was a tall tower that’s slightly separate from the rest of them and he lived up there,” Jackson said. “I went a bit more Islamic with the decoration in there, it was quite ornate and he had a great big orrery in the middle of his room that turns.”
This will be the setting for when Jafar attempts to get rid of Aladdin and steal the magic lamp for himself. Jackson added that as part of the reshoots for the film, they decided to give Jafar another space. “We decided when we did the reshoots that they wanted to make him even badder, so in the reshoots in the summer, we built him a dungeon to do more nefarious things in, so he suddenly had more detail and more storytelling, so that was fun to give him a bit more character.”