Disney must have taken a deep breath before it hired director Guy Ritchie to swap the East End for the East and remake the beloved and talismanic Aladdin.
This version is a three-hander of stars old and new. British Indian Naomi Scott stars as Princess Jasmine, Mena Massoud is Aladdin and Will Smith plays the genie – opposite a classic villain, Jafar (the charismatic Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari) the sultan’s vizier, who finishes… well, we know how the bad guy ends up because we know – and cherish – the kinds of story that Disney tells.
We also think we know Aladdin inside-out, but this movie only goes to show the endless richness and adaptability that very old stories hold within them.
In this rethink, there is a focus on Princess Jasmine’s determination to rule the sultanate despite her gender after her ageing father (a grey-haired and wise Navid Negahban from Homeland) steps down.
This is a quiet but decisive revolution, overturning ancient traditions and iron laws – a subversive political theme of this Middle Eastern-located movie, alongside the usual lesson of being true to yourself.
The young lead pair are relative newcomers.
London’s own princess Naomi Scott has a Brit father and a mum from a Gujarati family who was born in Uganda. To some critics that appears not to be Indian, Arabic or simply eastern enough for the role.
Such people typically argue that only the Chinese should be permitted to cook – or even eat – Chinese food. But Naomi looks perfect for the part and sings it, too. Talent won out, which is how it should be.
Director Guy Ritchie elaborated on the thinking behind the look of Aladdin and how it was cast: “The approach was to create a [city of] Agrabah which we believed was representative of a multicultural Middle-Eastern part of the world,” he said.
“It was in part fantasy, but there was an organic tone and the cast reflects that. That’s what we were really after: a multicultural representation of what we thought the world should be and hence we have the cast that we have.”
“I think we represent this movement that’s beginning to happen in Hollywood, that ethnically-diverse groups can lead Hollywood films to the finish-line,” agreed Mena Massoud.
There is one additional song in this version of Aladdin.
Titled Speechless and written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (La-La Land), the new tune is flung out of her lungs by Princess Jasmine at a pivotal point in the movie.
The song is astounding, and so is Naomi’s rendition of it: a narrative linchpin that transforms the film from comedy to profundity.
“I’m so connected to that song,” exclaimed Naomi, who is a recording artist in her own right.
“The message is so powerful – you know, the idea of not being shut down, of speaking out? I think that’s such a courageous thing to do, because sometimes you don’t know if you’re going to get backlash. Jasmine knows it’s now or never. She doesn’t necessarily win, but what a beautiful message for young kids – you have to speak out against injustice even if you don’t win.”
In dramatising Jasmine’s refusal to be kept silent, hidden and obedient under the traditional patriarchal order – now at the mercy of evil Jafar – Speechless is easily another Let it Go and is certain to immortalise this movie in a similar way that Idina Menzel’s belting performance monumentalised Frozen.
“I wanted it to feel raw and that’s why we sung the first part when the guards are taking me out. That’s all live,” Naomi confirmed.
Watching her sing it is simply electric, reflecting the intensely emotional atmosphere on set during production – Smith even renamed his director “Cry” Ritchie: so much for the tough-guy image.
The other songs, from 1992, with lyrics by Tim Rice and Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken (returning as musical director on this production) are so well-loved they are immune to removal.
Aladdin, the medieval Islamic everyman we thought the story was supposed to be about (Al Ad-din means “the sincere man of faith”), is handled with open-hearted aplomb by Mena Massoud, Canadian but born in Egypt.
Mena has been working hard in TV dramas, but this is his first big movie, and they don’t come any bigger; Naomi as the pink Power Ranger in 2017 is already a relative big-screen veteran. And if Jasmine is the Political Princess, concerned for the hungry urchins in the street far below her elegant boudoir, then Mena is surely the Parkour Prince.
He dashes, leaps and shimmies between, through and over buildings and narrow alleyways, using street furniture as ladders and elevators, defying gravity to such an extent that he seems almost laid-back when in later scenes he swoops by on his magic carpet (the rug is another great character, humanised in the Disney tradition). The breathless, plunging chase scene near the climax of the film approaches the genius Steven Spielberg achieved in The Adventures of Tintin – complete with big bird.
Smith is no doubt the biggest draw of the film, filling Robin Williams’ very big boots from the 1992 version.
Smith is magnetic and sympathetic, but very different from Williams, for which he has already suffered some unfair abuse in the Twittersphere.
Ritchie said what impressed him most about Smith’s genie was the consistency of his performance, not apparent until the premier in London, when the director could finally watch it as part of a real audience.
Smith is still magically whizzy, his genie tails off into swirling blue smoke, and he pivots away from Williams’s whirling, high-speed incarnation. In truth it is a relief to be spared the extremities and non-stop mania of the 1992 genie – it was perfect for a cartoon, but would have been wildly OTT here.
“When we first went into the studio, I was really concerned about how to get my signature onto the film,” Smith recalled in the press conference following the London premiere.
“Then we started messing with A Friend Like Me, the first song, and there’s a hip-hop breakbeat by the Honey Drippers called Impeach the President [Nixon in that case] – it’s like a hip-hop staple.
“I grabbed the drumbeat and started messing with A Friend Like Me over that. So, for me that song was the one – it opened the genie up within me. I’m not bragging!”
Reflecting a fashion for remaking animated features as live action but with a lot of CGI (Lady and the Tramp is next in line from Disney), this version of Aladdin required a more human-feeling supernatural entity, one with a certain street-wise weariness, sadness and longing, which Smith gives us.
Williams’s genie relished his magical powers; Smith’s instead wishes to be merely human, to marry and have children, then with his family sail the oceans at leisure, instead of zooming off to be zany all over the world.
That sorrow and wistfulness is what Smith gives us, woven into the comedy and his wise-cracking wisdom. Robins – or even Jim Carrey, who was rumoured to be considered for the role – would have been far too unbalanced for Ritchie’s Aladdin.
Both the young stars are charming and utterly winsome; both have the bloom of youth still on them, and their glow matches the fabulous and ravishing look of the movie itself, exotic and full of promise and adventure.
I asked the young stars what it was like being the face of Disney as it enters the commercial fray this November with the Disney+ streaming service launching in the USA as a (near half-price) rival to Netflix and the others all jostling for the rich subscription spoils of digital TV entertainment.
“I guess I don’t really think of it like that,” said Naomi. “I just cannot wait for people to see it – that’s where my head’s at right now.”
“The relationship that we were and still are cultivating is a lot like the genie and Aladdin relationship,” said Will – who has just turned 50 – of his off-screen paternal role during filming. (Ritchie paid tribute to him by saying, “I have to tell you that Mr Smith is unlimitedly inspiring in his generosity, and in no small part the entire positivity of the set was because of Will’s DNA.)
“We were talking just yesterday,” Will continued. “It’s like I want them to see how beautiful a moment and an opportunity that this is in their lives and careers. Take a minute and realise where you are, what you’ve done and enjoy these moments.”
But both Naomi and Mena will have to get used to being figureheads, because either by coincidence or design, Aladdin is the shop window for the House of Mouse’s big new offer to the public.
As it is, Aladdin is a profound musical feel-good movie that does exactly what big colourful movies are supposed to. It can even bring a tear to the eye of the most jaded cynic.
And on that basis, hopes must be deservedly high. Disney can breathe out now: the boy Ritchie done good.
VFX brings medieval city Agrabah to life in feel-good musical
The film makes use of a lot of CGI, but not as much as you would suspect from watching it. Naomi praised production designer Gemma Jackson and costumier Michael Wilkinson:
“They created these worlds. They really did build Agrabah, I really did have this beautiful bedroom, so in terms of being in the world, that was made easy.”
“Yeah,” agreed Mena. “Gemma did an incredible job, and I think one of the things that makes this film special is that we were never acting full green-screen or blue-screen. Gemma always built something. The Cave of Wonders, for example – that whole floor was designed and built. Chas [Jarrett], the head of the VFX team did an amazing job.”
Agrabah, the shining port city where the action is set – along with a sculpted-looking desert (“I love the desert! I was born in the desert!” says Mena) – might be open to criticism for being a Westerner’s patronising dream of the East, with costumes and architectural elements collected from Indian, Arab, African, Oriental, Israelite and ancient Egyptian cultures, all mixed in.
But it actually just looks fabulous and the sumptuous palette is pure Carmen Miranda fruit-bowl – to the extent that Aladdin’s grand entrance into the city as a fresh prince following his second wish, looks as vibrant – and as populous, with 300 real dancers – as the Rio Carnival.
In fact, the colour-saturation, lustrous and deep but never gaudy, makes the movie look as if it was shot on an superfast Eastman film stock of the mid-1960s, although it is ultra-modern digital Panavision.
Mena’s own “Speechless” moment is the whirling dervish dance-number he performs at the getting-to-know-you banquet with Jasmine, where Smith’s genie “helps” the young tearaway-thief overcome his shyness. When I asked how he managed it, Mena replied modestly that, “I had a great dance team behind me. It was challenging because I had to learn the choreography and the dance, and then had to pretend that I didn’t know what I was doing, and actually at one point [they] attached blue-screen prongs to my arms and we had puppeteers manipulate them.”
Each human character has a CGI companion – Abu the monkey for Aladdin, the deliciously malign parrot, Iago, for Jafar, and Rajah the fierce-affectionate Bengal tiger for Princess Jasmine, who had to learn how to act to it.
“With Rajah, it’s one of those things,” Naomi said. “You have this big grey plastic head that kind of comes in. The difficulty comes when they take it away and you have to do a take, and they would say, ‘No, you’re stroking through his head, through his ear,’ or ‘He’s too high, he’s too low!’
Mena explained how in addition to Abu on his shoulder, he had to deal with a floating genie: “We always started off doing the scenes with me and Will one-on-one,” he said, “being able to look at each other so that we could establish connection and establish a rapport. And then we’d figure out the height and play it at different heights. Often it was a laser I was looking at or a ping-pong ball. But Will was always there reading his lines and performing opposite me offscreen if need be.”