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Aladdin cast talks diversity, redefining Jasmine and ‘old school hip-hop’ Genie

By Todd Gilchrist

Disney’s latest live-action remake opens this weekend, taking fans back to the gorgeous world of Agrabah in director Guy Ritchie's Aladdin. So how did they balance fan adoration for the animated original with the challenge of telling a fresh story for modern audiences? By leaning into the gaps in the story, while still staying focused on what made millions fall in love with the tale of a street rat, a princess, and a big blue jokester in the first place.

Speaking at a recent news conference in Beverly Hills, Calif., Ritchie credited his eclectic cast, including Will Smith as the Genie, Mena Massoud as Aladdin, and Naomi Scott as Jasmine, for sticking the landing of bringing this story back to life. One key change fans will notice is in the agency and motivations of Princess Jasmine.

Scott explained she was thrilled to help develop Jasmine into a formidable counterpart not just for Aladdin, but as a real presence in the film. “I think it's a wonderful thing when you have a vision for a character and you think, oh, I'd love to see Disney do this with this character, and it aligns with Guy and our producers,” she said. “Guy was talking about ‘equality of challenge,’ the idea that Jasmine needed more of a challenge in this movie, and it was a natural progression.”

“The fact that she wants to become the leader, and kind of just wants people to go, oh yeah, that makes sense, she should be the leader, it’s not this thing that’s been shoehorned in,” she added. “It just makes sense. For me as an actor, my main thing is how do I humanize her, how do I give her depth? And so those things just came naturally.”

Working both as director and co-screenwriter, Ritchie said he tried to give Jasmine some real complexity as a character that she lacked in the 1992 version of the story. “What was conspicuous was that if there was anything that could use some evolution in this narrative, it was that there needed to be a voice given to Jasmine,” he said. “It just felt like there was an obvious space there that we could work on. And as Naomi just said, to me it was about equality of challenge, because there’s no point banging on about something until you can back it up.”

“She earns her right there,” he noted. “And for me it’s not as much about gender as much as it is about an individual standing up for themselves at a pertinent time and then they can articulate that point and they have the depth and personality to do that. And I think it really works, because it’s backed up. And that just felt like the most obvious place that this narrative could evolve, to give Princess Jasmine a voice, and that she could back that voice up.”

More broadly, the filmmaking team as a whole prioritized creating a landscape and a cast that accurately depicted the time and place in which the film is set, while satisfying a growing appetite among audiences for more diverse kinds of stories being told authentically by the right people. “I’m especially proud of the representation and the ethnically diverse casting that was put together for this,” Massoud said. “It’s not often that you can go to a movie theater and see all people of color represented like this. It’s certainly something that I was missing in my childhood, so I'm excited for little boys and girls to go see people that look like them on screen.”

As for the most magical part of this grand adventure, the Genie, Smith said part of his reasoning for making the movie was helping tell a story that provided viewers with the exact kind of experience Massoud described. “I think it is critically important to be able to pull stories and colors and textures and tastes from around the world,” he said. “I think that in this particular time in the world, that kind of inclusion and diversity will be a critical part of turning our connectivity, because we have more connectivity than ever, but transitioning that connectivity into harmony is going to be really critical. And I think these kinds of interactions in these types of movies are a powerful global service. So it was critical and important to me, I spent a lot of time in the Middle East, so this one particularly was a critically important in that way.”

Despite that goal, Smith’s enthusiasm for the project did little to quell his nervousness at the prospect of stepping into the shoes of Robin Williams, whose performance as Genie in the 1992 film is a bravura showcase of comedy and musicality. But the comedian and musician said he managed to find a backbone for his version of the character in early recording sessions that unexpectedly found common ground between the foundations of one of the film’s famous songs and his own hip-hop heyday. “The song that got me over the hump of ‘Yes, I can play Genie’ was ‘Friend Like Me,’” he revealed. “I went into the studio on the first day and I really wanted to play with it to see if I could add something to it, and literally 30 minutes in the studio and starting playing with it in that 94-96 bpm range, which is right old school hip-hop.”

Aladdin opens May 24.