Making the Inner Child Come Alive:
Behind the Scenes with Will Smith and the Gang of Disney’s New ALADDIN
By Dr. Tom Synder, Editor
Disney’s new live-action version of its classic 1992 animated movie, ALADDIN, easily became the Number One movie in the world recently, earning more than $281 million at the box office worldwide in its first week.
At a press conference attended by MOVIEGUIDE®, Director Guy Ritchie appeared to latch onto a key to why the movie’s so successful.
Ritchie said his goal was to create a “very positive” attitude of being “uncynical,” adding, “We want people to leave [the movie theater] with a sense of positivity and hopefully a sense of freshness.”
Both Ritchie and Will Smith, who took over the role of the Genie in ALADDIN, said working on the movie was the best experience they’ve had in their entertainment careers.
Ritchie also praised the positive vibe that Smith brought to the set.
“When Will came,” Ritchie said, “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. . . . 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 my job was just to encourage more of that.”
“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. Actually, no one on the set was cynical. But, for me, it was the most fun, creative process I’ve ever been through.”
“Disney Magic is real,” Smith added. “This is my first Disney movie. There’s something that Walt Disney did in the design of these stories that at the core of these stories is something that shocks the inner child within you and forces it to come alive and smile and appreciate the moment. So for me, coming into this, 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.”
Smith said the song that made him realize that he could do the role of the Genie and honor the performance that Robin did in the animated movie, was “Friend Like Me.”
“I went into the studio the first day,” he said, “and I really wanted to play with it to see if I could add something to it.”
The discovery he made that day was that he could add “a really classic old school hip hop break beat to the song.”
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m home, I’m home.’ Then, I started playing with the hip hop flavor, and the Genie was really born in my mind from the music. I understood that once I played with ‘Friend Like Me.’”
The other cast members also hailed the quality of joy and freedom that Guy Ritchie brought to the set.
“Guy is so collaborative and fun,” said Nasim Pedrad, who plays Princess Jasmine’s handmaiden, Dalia in ALADDIN. “Every day, you’re like ‘oh my gosh’, he puts the scene up on its feet, and it turns into a whole fun new thing that you wouldn’t have necessarily even seen on the page. It was just such a blast.”
“The beautiful thing that Guy does on set,” said Mena Massoud, who plays Aladdin, “is that he creates a sense of family and community, and everybody feels free to create and bring their take on it. And, then he kind of molds it from there, but he allows us to play. I think that’s something that no one else could have done as well as Guy.”
“Yeah, that’s a really beautiful approach that he has,” Smith said. “I heard an idea in THE ALCHEMIST about a Shepherd leading from behind. That’s a really beautiful approach that Guy takes. It’s like the first five or six takes, he doesn’t say anything. He just watches. He just lets you do it, and you do it, and he sees what everybody’s choices are naturally, and he watches and everybody gets excited, and we’re playing, and we feel like we’re making it. And then, he comes in and just gently starts to guide everybody back towards what he wants.
“Also, he’s wildly collaborative and open. It’s a rare combination to be that open and that definitive at the same time. It’s a very difficult thing to do, and he has mastered that very well.”
“Guy is truly the least rigid filmmaker,” Pedrad added. “When I would watch the film, so much of the joy that is there came from his spontaneity and his comfort in finding something on the day, which I would imagine is a challenge for a movie on this scale. You look around, and you’re like the money is being spent. There are so many pieces in place, and it’s really easy to just be locked into an idea you had of something. But, he was so open to finding new things. . . . It made it so fun for us.”
Before ALADDIN, Guy Ritchie was known for making gritty British crime movies and SHERLOCK HOLMES movies with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. Yet, he said he was perfectly at home in the fantasy world of Disney fairy tales.
“You’ll be surprised how familiar I am in this territory,” he said, “considering I’ve got five kids, and the oldest one is 18, which pretty much means I’ve been up to my eyeballs in Disney productions for 19 years. Also, by sort of family demand, it was about time I made a movie that we could all watch together. So ALADDIN ticked the box in the sense that it was a street hustler, and I was familiar with that territory. My wife is a big Disneyphile. Anything to do with Disney princesses is high on her list. So, it was really a question of demand by the family. And, frankly, I was just ready to do something in this world.”
Ritchie added, “You know, some clever director once said that the lion’s share of directing is casting. I think that’s true, and, once we got our little team together, and we were all on the same frequency (and it didn’t take us long before we all dialed into that frequency), then it just all worked from there. And, it all came out very organically actually.”
One of the major things the live action version adds compared to the original animated movie was a song for Princess Jasmine, called “Speechless,” where she could express her feelings to her father about her desire to go out into the world and make a difference.
“There needed to be a voice given to Jasmine,” Ritchie explained.
In the movie, the song becomes a symbol of Jasmine’s female empowerment, but Ritchie said, “To me, it’s not really about gender as much as it is about an individual standing up for themselves at a pertinent time, and they can illustrate that point, they can articulate that point. And, they have the breadth and personality to do that.”
Eventually, the song’s message actually inspires everyone to stand up to the tyrannical villain in the movie, despite the tremendous power the Genie has given him.
Smith discussed how he had taken two years off from work before doing ALADDIN.
“I took a couple of years off,” he said. “I guess I had sort of hit a ceiling in my life. I had created the things that I could create in my career. I was getting to the end of my wisdom with leading my family, and I kind of got to a point where I had a bit of just a collapse of my life and creations. So, I took a couple of years off essentially to study. To study and journey spiritually. ALADDIN was really my first sort of coming back in and seeing if my heart was even still in this kind of performing.
“And, what I discovered is everything starts with what am I saying to the world? How does this piece contribute to the human family? Can I go around the world with the ideas that the movie represents, and can I teach and preach these ideas in good conscience? And, Aladdin checks all of those boxes. I love the idea of the Genie. One of the things that I related to in Genie is that the Genie has shackles. The Genie has these spectacular powers, but he’s shackled. He is a prisoner of his spiritual fate. And, that is sort of how I felt with Will Smith. I was sort of shackled by Will Smith. And, in these last couple of years, I’ve just started finding my freedom, where getting free of Will Smith, and I’m getting more comfortable being me.
“So, ALADDIN was that first step back out. I’m going out into the world, and I have a big voice, and people look and people listen. I just want to make sure I’m saying things that improve and contribute to people’s life and growth and joy.”
In the end, therefore, the whole movie has inspired Will Smith to find a new voice for himself.
And, if he had one wish from a genie, like the movie, what would he wish?
“My one wish would be divine understanding. I just turned 50 this year, and that’s the thing that I’ve been finding – that lack of understanding, confusion, is the mother of fear and violence. So, for me, I would absolutely wish for divine understanding to be shared with all. Divine understanding is the seed of peace.”