Aladdin was always going to be a hit. After the 2D animated original made over $500 million worldwide in 1992, the live-action treatment was guaranteed to perform for Disney. Still, by making over $100 million over the Memorial Day weekend, and sailing above predictions, Aladdin is looking more and more like a wish granted for the mega-corporation.
Though the new version skews closely to the animated film, at least a few of the tweaks can be attributed to Guy Ritchie. The writer-director knows his way around a blockbuster (Sherlock Holmes, The Man from UNCLE, King Arthur) and his thematic interest in the British working class, at least on paper, makes him a logical fit to take on Aladdin’s “street rat” saga.
So what did Ritchie bring to the hand-drawn story etched into the memories of Disney fans? Polygon rang up the filmmaker shortly before the release to ask him.
Polygon: Aladdin is so well-known, and I’m sure Disney was protective of meddling with the magic of the original. So how did you bring something new to the direction?
Guy Ritchie: You want it to hold on to enough of the nostalgia of the past incarnation. But there was room for some embellishment, shall we say. Not least is the character Jasmine, with whom I wanted to create a sort of equality of challenge.
How does Jasmine reflect more modern values, versus the 1992 portrayal? Were you basing her off anyone you’ve seen navigate the real world?
If you’ve got to have a significant character, that character has to earn their position. No longer is it good enough to be passive and pretty, you have to be active and formidable. It felt right that we should challenge Jasmine in this incarnation. She needed the equivalent of a challenge that, say, Aladdin has, but in her own way.
Was Jasmine’s new song, “Speechless,” a place where you could innovate since there wasn’t visual precedent?
It’s one thing that Jasmine is asking for a position that is traditionally not open for women, and by her asking for this position, she had to illustrate, in some way, her unique value for that position, and a musical number happened to tick that box very elegantly for us, making the table for the meal that follows. It’s a fantasy within a mind, which is an illustrated speech, and that speech is significant in terms of illustrating or demonstrating her ability to lead. So it, it felt very organic to have a musical number to set the table.
You’re known for big action scenes, but this is your first full-blown musical. Do you have favorite musicals? Did you watch any shows before taking on the film?
Originally I started making music videos, so [the musical] wasn’t as exotic as you might think. (Although I sort of forgotten about that and only recently did I remember that’s how I started.) Most of my films try to move to a rhythm, essentially a musical rhythm. So it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with music, but I suppose it’s because it’s a traditional musical and I haven’t been in that department before. So that didn’t feel very exotic. But being drawn into family entertainment, that, I suppose, was exotic, and dealing with a Disney princess was relatively exotic.
I couldn’t help but picture the daily headlines as Jafar ranted about border control and nationalist agendas. Did you set out to make Aladdin more political, and specifically comment on Trump?
No, and I can tell you why not: I don’t see it as political as much as I see it as psychological. Arguably, Aladdin is the parable of the prodigal son. He is a man who tries to apply themselves to materialism, then recognizes the futility of that exercise. Jafar represents the individual that has also tried to find himself through the material wealth, and then is not prepared to recognize the futility of that particular investment, and ends up creating rope for his own neck. So I see it as more a spiritual narrative / a psychological thriller than I do as political. I do find that political conversation to be terribly passive. Somehow politics has become so unsexy.
How did you land on the tenor of the Genie performance, knowing Robin Williams’ take was so ingrained in the pop culture consciousness?
I chose Will principally because I thought Will had the caliber and generosity of spirit to not entangle himself in the long shadow that was impressive shadow cast by Robin Williams in his performance. I thought Will could give us something that was the equivalent of but not entangled with Robin’s performance. So for me, it was just about encouraging Will to be more Will.
Was there a specific Genie impression or bit that you wanted to bring over from the original movie?
No, it was really a question of finding, in the moment, some embellishments on what was in the script. It was really trying to commit to a magnanimous character who was replete with wicked charm. That’s what we thought about in every instance: How is this going to wash over in terms of the commitment to the character?
The original Aladdin has been criticized for its portrayal of Arab culture. What were your Eastern touchstones as you reapproached the depiction in the update?
I would say that, clearly it’s coming through the prism of the greater eastern region, in terms of the Middle East. That is the thrust by which we have influenced this particular narrative. But really it’s a human story that is not specific to any particular culture in the sense that all men and women have to wrestle with the issue of where they find their identity, inside or outside. So in that sense that was principally what the story’s about. The colors by which we painted that story just happened to be Middle Eastern.