A global box office success, Guy Ritchie’s live-action version of Disney’s animated classic Aladdin offers Bollywood exuberance and a few revisions, including a bigger role for Princess Jasmine.

Disney fans expected The Lion King and Toy Story 4 to be huge box office hits. But Guy Ritchie’s live-action remake of Aladdin? Not so much.

In the run-up to the film’s release, concerns were expressed over the dependence on CGI effects and in particular, Will Smith’s enormous blue genie.

Yet Ritchie surprised everyone with his exuberant Bollywood style and relevant social issues, coupled with romance and humour.

Taking a magic market ride nobody predicted, the film surpassed US$1 billion at the box office, marking both Ritchie and Smith’s first billion-dollar movie.

For Smith, he was particularly gratified to be part of a diverse cast. “I think it’s critically important to be able to pull stories and colours and tastes from around the world. In this particular time in the world, that kind of inclusion and diversity is a critical part in transitioning that connectivity into harmony. These kinds of interactions in these types of movies are a powerful goal service,” he tells STACK when we meet in Beverly Hills.

Guy Ritchie

For all of Ritchie’s tough guy image – gained from hardcore movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch – he quickly earned a gentler reputation on set, even landing the nickname “Cry” Ritchie after he was caught tearing up during some of the emotional ballads.

Portraying a charismatic Aladdin, Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud was impressed by Ritchie’s hands-off style.

“The beautiful thing that Guy does on set is that he creates a sense of family and community so everybody feels free to create and bring their take on it,” Massoud explains, “and then he kind of moulds it from there and allows us to play. I think that’s something that no one else could have done as well as Guy.”

Anglo-Indian singer and actress Naomi Scott was proud to bring an empowered version of Princess Jasmine to the big screen. “Guy said something in a bar which I thought was really great, talking about equality of challenge; the idea that Jasmine needed to be more of a challenge in this movie. For me, I really think it was a natural progression, the fact that she wants to become the leader. She should be the leader, and it’s not this thing that has been shoehorned in, it just makes sense,” she argues.

Agreeing with Scott, Ritchie adds, “If there would be a sunny evolution in this narrative, it was that the lead was given to Jasmine. Aladdin had been given enough chapters to get on with and the Genie had his hands full, and the most conspicuous character was Jasmine, who was arguably a tad passive in the original. It just felt like an obvious space that we could work on.

“So, for me, it was really about the quality of change, because there is no point in going all out about something, unless you back it up,” he says, praising Scott for her rendition of Alan Menken’s new power ballad Speechless, describing it as the best song in the film.

“It’s not really about gender as much as it is about an individual study at a pertinent time and she [Naomi] can illustrate and articulate that point and have the breadth and personality to do so. It just felt like the most obvious place that this narrative could evolve was to give Princess Jasmine a voice and the strength to back that voice up.”

When asked to name his own three wishes, Smith smiles. “If I had one wish, my wish would be divine understanding. Last year I turned 50 and I have been finding that lack of understanding and confusion is the mother of fear and violence. So I would absolutely wish for divine understanding to be shared with all. I think understanding is the seeds of peace.”

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