Disney’s beloved 1992 musical animation 'Aladdin' gets a very human update in a new live-action remake, hitting cinemas this weekend. An action-packed love story that takes place in the elusive Agrabah, 'Aladdin' follows a street urchin who falls in love with the daughter of a sultan and enlists the help of a fast-talking, wish-granting Genie (Will Smith) to turn him into an eligible bachelor. Cue a familiar soundtrack, complicated dance sequences and surprisingly poignant moments of self-discovery.
The reboot stars Egyptian-Canadian actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin and British-Indian actress Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, with English director Guy Ritchie at the helm.
The trio sat down with Gulf News tabloid! in Jordan (where the film partially shot) for one-on-one interviews, taking us inside the intensive casting process that took several months and spanned 15 countries.
During casting, there was a big push for an Arab actor to play Aladdin. How important do you think that is, personally?
Massoud: I think it’s incredibly important. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of in this film. They did a great job casting very authentically. Everybody in this film represents a different minority group and visibly diverse group. Me, Marwan [Kenzari], Navid [Negahban] and Nasim [Pedrad] are all certainly from the Middle East and North Africa. But Will [Smith] is African-American as well and Naomi [Scott] represents India; [there was] a lot of representation throughout Europe, as well.
At the final stages of casting, there was a chemistry read [to determine who would play Princess Jasmine]. How did that go?
Scott: I remember the screen test with Mena. We just connected… Aladdin is fun and cheeky and all of these great things, which I think he has just in his smile — I think that people fall in love with him. But I also think that Mena added depth and vulnerability… Their connection, Jasmine and Aladdin, is profound. They both feel trapped in some way.
Did Guy have any instructions for you on what he wanted out of 'Aladdin'?
Massoud: We discussed in length the overlying themes in this film. I think there’s some great lessons to be learnt from this. [Aladdin] goes on a journey of personal identity and falling in love and learning that you are good enough as who you are, not having to change.
What did you personally want to bring to your portrayal of Jasmine?
Scott: I wanted of course to just humanise her. I think that when you’re taking an animated character and translating that to live action, it’s important to make her feel human so that people can relate to her. She’s not perfect. She goes on a journey. Also, she’s a woman. She can be many different things, not just one thing... Ultimately she’s a leader, she’s a politician. She understands her duty.
Mena, we noticed that your hair is curly...
Massoud: It is curly! What else would it be?
What did you have to do to get the classical Aladdin mane?
Massoud: Christine Blundell, an Oscar-winning make-up artist, worked on the film and worked closely with me. We just had to chemically straighten it a little bit and try to get that look. But, you know, I like that my hair can do both things. I think Middle Eastern hair is very resilient.
How was it being a hopeful actor coming out of Markham, Ontario? Was it tough?
Massoud: I think there’s a little bit of a ceiling in Toronto, but it was great. I went and I got my training there and I did the arts all throughout high school and elementary school.
Egyptian cinema has such a rich history — there were people like [the late] Abdul Halim Hafez who would both sing and act, too. Did you grow up on any of that?
Massoud: Absolutely. I grew up on Abdul Halim Hafez and Esmail Yassine, a great comedic actor. I think Adel Imam also changed and revolutionised the game and comedy in Egypt. [Doing an Arabic] TV show might be a long commitment, but I would certainly go back and want to do a film, for sure. It was a dream of mine growing up to act with Adel Imam, but he is getting older, so we’ll see.
A lot of people grew up with 'Aladdin'. Were you ever worried, like, ‘Oh my god, this [remake] rests on my back’?
Massoud: [laughs] Yeah, definitely. I grew up watching this film. It was playing at the house all the time, as I’m sure many Middle Easterners, they could only kind of identify with this one movie and these few characters. So, I definitely felt the responsibility and I hope I did it justice.
Naomi Scott on why representation matters: “Growing up… my two favourites actually were Mulan and Princess Jasmine… I saw myself in [Jasmine].... When you’re really young, if you see someone that... represents you in any way, there’s a real power in that. Also, just getting rid of these myths that movies that have a diverse cast won’t necessarily do well, or the idea that [a movie with a female lead] is not going to do well. We just had Captain Marvel that made a billion dollars.”
Will Aladdin be a franchise?
There was only one 'Aladdin' feature in 1992. But is there a chance the reboot could turn into a franchise? “I would consider a part two,” said director Guy Ritchie. “Having just completed part one, I haven’t got my noodle anywhere near thinking about thinking about that one just yet.”
For Ritchie, best known for his R-rated crime romps such as 'Snatch' and 'RocknRolla', 'Aladdin' might seem like a departure. But the father-of-five says it’s actually closer to home. “My wife is a Disneyphile and my kids watch nothing other than family or Disney films. So, I’m more familiar with his world than you might think,” he said.
Recognised for his stylised action films and scenes that move at a breakneck pace, how did Ritchie put his directorial mark on 'Aladdin'?
“Well, funnily enough I didn’t,” said the 50-year-old. “You don’t really want to put a directorial mark on something like this. You’re there to serve a narrative, and I think secondarily what happens is you end up influencing the narrative in a dialogue or a vernacular that the audience is familiar with.”
Regarding the film aiming for authenticity, Ritchie added: “This film was influenced by the greater region. Although our Agrabah is a sort of multicultural Fantasia, if you will, there felt as though there were certain rules to that world that needed to be sympathetic to, I suppose, the culture and ethics of the Middle East. It was just inherent, to have made it any other way would’ve just felt inappropriate.”
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'Aladdin' releases across the UAE on May 23.