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Will Smith and some fresh faces recreate the magic of ‘Aladdin’

Thursday, May 23, 2019

By LINDSEY BAHR and CINDY MARTIN

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES

In 1992, Disney transported audiences to the mythical land of Agrabah, where they met a street rat with a heart of gold, a flying carpet, a headstrong princess and a magical genie with some oddly current pop culture references. With the music and lyrics of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, “Aladdin” would go on to win the hearts of millions and become the highest-grossing picture of the year.

It was an ambitious animation project that paid off and generated decades of fan goodwill, not to mention the two Oscars and a future Broadway musical. Now, following in the lucrative footsteps of “Beauty and the Beast” and others, the studio is taking another shot at “Aladdin,” this time in live-action. The film, from director Guy Ritchie, opens nationwide Friday.

But how do you recreate the magic of “Aladdin” without the help of a genie’s lamp?

Well, getting a movie star like Will Smith on board doesn’t hurt. Smith agreed to play the Genie. The part was originated by the late Robin Williams, who brought his signature irreverence and wit and modern references to the role. But even with Smith’s bona fides, he was nervous. Williams’ performance has become iconic in the past 27 years. In other words, it would be a tough act to follow.

“It was not a no-brainer,” Smith said. “I was really terrified at first. You know, you have to be careful with these types of films that mark people’s childhoods.”

Smith and the filmmakers knew that remaking “Aladdin “ would inevitably involve a delicate dance of paying homage to the original while also modernizing some aspects of the story, including casting ethnically appropriate leads, who could sing and dance and carry a large scale production, and giving a character like Princess Jasmine more agency.

They found Egyptian-born and Canada-raised actor Mena Massoud to play Aladdin and British actress Naomi Scott, who is of half South Asian descent, to play Jasmine.

As far as musical numbers go, the biggest production of the film by far is the “Prince Ali” sequence, where Aladdin, with the Genie’s help, enters the city as they think royalty would, boasting of his great wealth, bravery and an assortment of animals including 75 golden camels, 53 peacocks and 95 white Persian monkeys.

Ritchie employed 250 dancers and 200 extras to flesh out the world and commissioned a 30-foot high camel made of 37,000 flower heads for “Ali” to ride in on.

“It’s one of the biggest dance sequences you’ll ever see in a movie. It’s the sequence I’m most proud of,” Smith said. “You got to go check it out. It’s hot.”

While there will be many, many familiar touchstones for audiences from the songs to the score to even some of the dialogue, there are some ways the live-action film had to deviate from the original.

With a runtime of over two hours, compared to the animated film’s 90 minutes, there are also additional story elements and a new character in Jasmine’s handmaiden (played by “Saturday Night Live” alum Nasim Pedrad). And it leans into the diversity you’d expect from a story set in the Middle East, which was personally important to Massoud.