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Street Smart: Talking to the cast of Aladdin

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The success of a remade classic movie is by no means a foregone conclusion, but in the case of Aladdin, which is released in cinemas worldwide on Wednesday May 22, you get the impression it stands as good a chance as any in terms of impacting box office figures in a positive way.

Why? Well, put it this way, when you have Guy Ritchie, a hugely established director, calling the shots and Will Smith, an iconic figure who can call upon 30 years of experience in the entertainment industry, involved in the production, it’s safe to assume the movie is in good hands.

The characters of Aladdin and Princess Jasmine are played by Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott respectively, two talented young actors who look set to go on to even bigger and better things. having taken on their roles with maturity and determination. They enhance the classic while retaining its sense of nostalgia and the qualities which captured the hearts of global audiences following the initial film’s release in the early 1990s.

Fans of Ritchie, who has built up a well-deserved reputation over the years for producing action-packed crime thrillers, with plenty of laughs along the way, will probably have been surprised to hear his latest role was overseeing the production of a Disney classic. After all, Aladdin is a world away from films such as Snatch, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and RocknRolla, but the director says he is far more familiar with iconic, animated movies than a lot of folk may think.

“I’ve got five kids and the oldest one is 19 now, so for the last 19 years I’ve been up to my eyeballs in children’s entertainment, and my wife’s a Disney fan, so I’m familiar with all the princesses too,” Ritchie explains.

“Aladdin is a street kid trying to crack on so I’m familiar with that part, I’ve covered that enough in my previous filmography so it just felt like a natural segway to go from my previous work into this and I have to tell you I enjoyed it a lot, in no small part because a film like Aladdin is so not cynical.

“It does what it says on the tin, it’s for the family. There’s something about that because when the actors and creative heads go in and embark upon it, there’s an agreement that it’s for the family. And somehow it sort of evaporates any cynicism, so the whole process has been tremendous for me.”

Smith, a veteran on the silver screen having starred in huge hits such as Independence Day, Ali and the Men In Black movies, to name just a few, having started out as the lead character in ‘90s hit The Fresh Prince of Bel Air what seems like a lifetime ago, has a tough part to play for many reasons, none more so than the fact that in the original version of Aladdin his character, The Genie, was played superbly by the late, great Robin Williams.

The difficulty of following Williams’ performance isn’t lost on Smith, who explains how he tries to bring something new to the role.

“What Robin Williams did with The Genie wasn’t just a good performance as a character, he revolutionised what we as actors thought we could do in these kind of movies,” Smith says.

“So what I wanted to do was try to figure out where there was still some meat left on the bone, where there was room to do things that were new, and the music was my way in. The hip-hop energy to The Genie was how I started to see how I could capture the nostalgia that Robin did, that would still feel like the same Genie, but then the references would lean slightly more into 1990s hip-hop, so that was how I found the narrow path to walk that razor’s edge.”

For both Massoud, who plays the lead, and Scott, cast as the princess with a plan, the roles represent the biggest of their careers to date.

Prior to Aladdin, Massoud featured predominantly on television, including in Jack Ryan, an Amazon Prime production, along with a few smaller films. However, playing the main character in a Walt Disney movie is a massive step up.

“I’ve been watching this film since I was a little kid, I think the first time I watched it was back in Egypt when I was a baby, I have two older sisters so it was always on and I felt the responsibility of delivering,” he says.

“I loved the character growing up so I wanted to create a figure who the younger generation could love and admire growing up in order to bring them back to their childhoods.” The new version of the movie puts a modern twist on the original, although Aladdin remains a kind-hearted street urchin who is doing his best to get by, aided by a magic lamp which has the power to make his wishes come true, his pet monkey and partner in crime, Abu, and a magic carpet, which comes to his rescue on more than one occasion.

For 27-year-old Massoud, who was born in Egypt but raised in Canada, being given the opportunity to work alongside such a talented cast proved to be a real learning experience.

“It’s a dream come true. I couldn’t have asked for a better cast and crew around us, not just Guy but there were people who have won Oscars and Academy Awards so when you’re around people like that it’s a true honour,” he adds.

“I’d be on set quite often and Will would come in with his uplifting energy. He would always say hello to everybody, whether you’re an actor or a camera rig operator so he inspired me to stay true to myself and continue to treat people with respect no matter what you’re doing or where you end up in life.”

At 26, Scott is still in the early part of her career, but the intelligent and likeable British star possesses strong experience given her tender years. She starred as Kimberly Hart in a co-leading role in 2017’s Power Rangers, while later this year she is due to feature as one of the three lead characters in the latest remake of Charlie’s Angels, alongside Kristen Stewart and Ella Balinska. As somebody who grew up watching Aladdin, the role ticked every box.

“It’s kind of the best gig ever for me,” she says. “The opportunity to play an iconic princess, that I love, and the opportunity to adapt and modernise her for a 2019 audience, as well as sing, dance and do all the things that I love within one role was amazing for me.”

In a slight adaptation to the original movie, and without wishing to give away any plotlines, in the latest version there is also a theme of female empowerment running through the film, particularly in terms of Scott’s character, which feels especially apt given the world we live in today.

“I love the fact that, with the narrative of this movie, at the beginning her objective is to become the leader,” Scott says.

“I think it’s really important to start with that and off the bat have a sense of the fact that she knows what she wants. Having a strong narrative and making the film well rounded, more dynamic and strong was really important.”

Scott’s passion for the movie is evidenced by the enthusiasm with which she speaks, and the enjoyment she experienced in playing the role of Princess Jasmine was massively enhanced, as she explains, by the presence of a bonafide superstar.

“Will is the most generous actor I’ve worked with, on and off screen,” she says. “He really goes out of his way to make our experience more enjoyable and him being on set really set the tone for everything.

“I’ve spoken about how positive and magical the atmosphere on set was and I think a lot of that was down to him. He’s just incredible and watching him on screen, and watching how he conducts himself, is a learning experience.”

The final word goes to the director who, having invested so much time and energy into the movie, provides his reaction to the final version.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with it,” says Ritchie. “I watched it with my kids and my wife. They’re my harshest critics and they seemed to get on with it in a very positive fashion and the truth is, after about 15 minutes I’m completely lost into the narrative and I forget I’ve had anything to do with it. By the end of it I was left with the taste that I wanted to leave with, so I feel very positive about it.”
A whole new movie, indeed.

Aladdin is released in cinemas on Wednesday May 22.

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