Guy Ritchie might seem an odd choice to helm Disney’s live action version of Aladdin. But as a father-of-five, it was all too familiar territory, as STACK discovered when we met with the director and stars in LA.
Guy Ritchie wears a cat-who-got-the-cream smile, as he stands surrounded by his dazzlingly diverse Aladdin cast prior to the film’s Hollywood premiere.
Possibly one of the least anticipated films among Disney’s current live action re-dos of its treasured animated classics, many believed the studio had lost the plot in hiring Ritchie to helm this luscious musical love story about an Arabian princess, a thief and a genie in a lamp.
But Disney’s three wishes have surely been granted. And many, many more thanks to Ritchie’s fantastical Bollywood-style song and dance recreation, with Will Smith stepping up as the magical genie.Unburdened by the legacy of Robin Williams’ beloved comedic turn in the 1992 animated original, Smith makes this jiggy genie entirely his own. A genius of a genie.
Early trailers featuring Smith’s oversize Smurf-esque genie led nay-sayers to imagine the worst – that the director best known for gangster Brit flicks Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch would Cockney rhyming slang the heck out of this beautiful story and destroy it for a whole new world of fans.
But what, perhaps, we all overlooked is that Ritchie is a father-of-five and, as any parent will testify, there is no escaping the House of Mouse during those early childhood years.
Sons Rocco, 18, and David, 13, from his 2000 marriage to Madonna, joined by three children from his subsequent marriage to model Jacqui Ainsley – Rafael, seven, Rivka, six, and Levi, five – together represent the various ages of Disney-fication.
When STACK meets with Ritchie, 50, in Beverly Hills, he acknowledges as much: “You would be surprised how familiar I am with this territory. With five kids, it pretty much means I have been up to my eyeballs in Disney productions for 19 years,” he laughs.
“And also by family demand, it was about time I made a movie we could all watch together. So Aladdin ticked the box in that it was a movie where I was familiar with that territory. Disney princesses are high on my wife’s list and, frankly, I was just ready to do something in this world.
“Someone once said that the lion’s share of directing is casting and I think that’s true. And once we got our team together, we were all on the same frequency and it didn’t take us long before we all dived into that and it all just worked from there.”
Casting Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud, 27, as his charismatic Aladdin and Anglo-Indian singer and actress Naomi Scott, 26, as Princess Jasmine, he tapped into today’s post-feminist zeitgeist by transforming her into a take-charge woman who proposes to inherit her father’s kingdom.
It doesn’t hurt that Scott has pitch-perfect pipes and knocks the ball out of the park, with composer Alan Menken’s new power ballad, Speechless, standing out among his original score.
Struck by the timeliness of the song‘s lyrics, she says, “I loved the message behind the song; the idea of not going speechless and everyone has a voice and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like. It doesn’t matter what your gender is, it’s your voice that matters. And speaking out against injustice matters, not just standing by and being a spectator. So it was very emotional because I wanted it to feel raw and convey what she’s going through so, for me, it’s the world’s song. Whatever people take from it they will take. I’m just obviously very blessed to be the person to embody it in the movie.”
Witnessing her singing the song live for the first time moved the director to tears, Will Smith promptly re-naming him “Cry” Ritchie.
Growing up imitating the dance moves from Step Up, Massoud adds, “I’m especially proud of the ethnically diverse casting in this. It’s not often you can go to a movie theater and see people of colour all represented like this. It’s something that I was missing in my own childhood so I’m excited for the little boys and girls to go see people that look like them on the screen.”
Supplementing Aladdin’s diverse cast is Dutch-Tunisian actor Marwan Kenzari [Jafar], Turkish-German actor Numan Acar [Hakim] and Iranian-American actors Navid Negahban (the Sultan) and Nasim Pedrad (Dalia).
Filmed on location in Jordan and sound stages in London, Game of Thrones’ production designer Gemma Jackson enhanced this exotic world with her luscious sets.
Giving kudos to Smith, Ritchie says, “I give most credit to Will. He is not cynical and that’s hard not to be after doing this for 30 years. Will is number one on the call sheet, and he is so positive that it flowed all the way down.”
Likewise, marking his own debut Disney outing, Smith tells us, “Disney magic is real. At the core of all these stories, there is something that shocks the inner child within you and forces it to come alive and smile and appreciate the moment.
Coming into this, first starting in fear with what Robin Williams did to this character, when I got with the music, it just began waking up a fun childlike, silly part of me.”
Music was key to finding his inner genie. “The song that got me over the hump was A Friend Like Me. I went to the studio the first day, really wanting to see if I could add something and – literally 30 minutes in – I started to play with it and found that range is right in old school hip hop. So I grabbed The Honeydrippers’ Impeach the President, which is really a classic old school hip hop break beat, and threw that break beat under there and I was like, ’Oh my God, I’m home’.”
Marking a comeback, following a two-year hiatus, he adds, “I guess I hit a ceiling in my life. I was getting to the end of my wisdom with leading my family and got to a point where I had just a collapse of my life and creations.
“So I took a couple of years off to study and journey spiritually. And Aladdin was my first sort of return; seeing if my heart was still even 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 teach and preach these ideas in good conscience?’
“And Aladdin checks all those boxes. One of the things I related to in Genie is that the Genie has shackles. He has these spectacular powers, but he’s shackled; a prisoner of his spiritual fate. And that’s sort of how I felt with Will Smith, I was sort of shackled by Will Smith. So, in these last couple of years, I’ve just started finding my freedom; getting free of Will Smith and getting more comfortable being me.”
Aladdin played a huge role in his personal evolution: “I’m going out into the world and have a big voice and people look and listen, so I just want to make sure that I am saying things that contribute to people’s life and growth and joy. Aladdin has been the most joyful experience of my entire career.”
Aladdin is in cinemas now – check out our review