LOS ANGELES — When Will Smith agreed to step into the role of Genie in Guy Ritchie’s live-action Aladdin , he had one wish: create something different than what Robin Williams did with his interpretation in the iconic 1992 animated Disney film.
“Coming into this definitely started with fear, considering what Robin did with this character,” Smith told journalists in Beverly Hills earlier this week. “He just didn’t leave a lot of room to add to the Genie, so I started off fearful.”
The film, which opens tonight, continues Disney’s recent spate of remakes that finds the studio giving some of its most beloved animated titles the live-action treatment.
Aladdin , which stars Toronto actor Mena Massoud as Aladdin and British actress Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, found Smith stepping outside of his comfort zone when he was tapped to play the CGI-enhanced blue magical being who is stuck living in a lamp.
Using much of the same music from composer Alan Menken’s Oscar-winning 1992 score, the revamp adapts the storyline of a street hustler, a princess and the Genie who brings them together from the animated original. But the new version of the fictional Agrabah, which is brought to colourful life by production designer Gemma Jackson ( Game of Thrones ) and infused with new songs like Speechless , gives Ritchie’s retelling a modern touch. Even the villainous Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) has some newfound political acumen with lines like, “Steal an apple, you’re a thief. Steal a kingdom, you’re a statesman.”
But it was one of the most popular tracks from the earlier version that allowed Smith, who turned 50 last year, to feel at home in the role.
“The song that got me over the hump of saying, ‘Yes, I can play Genie,’ was Friend Like Me ,” Smith says referring to the Oscar-nominated toe tapper.
“I went into the studio the first day and I really wanted to see if I could add something to it. And after literally 30 minutes in the studio, I began to play with it in that 94/96 BPM range. That BPM range is right old school hip-hop … I messed around with Erik B. & Rakim’s I Know You Got Soul … and I was like, ‘I’m home.’ I started playing with the hip-hop flavour, and the Genie was born in my mind from the music.”
He now calls the part, which won Williams a Special Achievement Golden Globe for his voice work, “the most joyful experience of my career … that Disney magic is real. There’s something that Walt Disney did in the design of the stories that shocks the inner child within.”
After breaking out as the lead on TV’s Fresh Prince of Bel-Air , Smith found box office success in the 1990s thanks to hits like Bad Boys , Independence Day , Men in Black and Enemy of the State . His leading-man stature continued into the 2000s with Oscar-nominated roles in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness , sequels to Bad Boys and Men in Black , comedy smashes like Hitch , the superhero dramedy Hancock , and such sci-fi thrillers as I Am Legend and I, Robot .
But there were misses, most notably 2013’s After Earth , which co-starred his son Jaden, and a prolonged break from Hollywood.
“I guess I had sort of hit a ceiling in my life,” Smith admits candidly. “So I took a couple of years off, essentially to study and journey spiritually. And Aladdin was really my first coming-back-in and seeing if my heart was even still in this kind of performing. And what I’ve discovered is everything starts with, ‘What am I sending to the world? How does this piece contribute to the human family? Can I go around the world with the ideas that the movie represents and can I teach and preach those ideas in good conscience?’ ”
Aladdin , he continues, checked all those boxes above.
“One of the things I related to in Genie is that he has shackles. The Genie has these spectacular powers, but he’s shackled. … That’s how I felt with ‘Will Smith.’ I felt shackled by ‘Will Smith.’ And in these last couple of years, I’ve just started finding my freedom. I’m getting free of ‘Will Smith’ and getting more comfortable being me. Aladdin was the first step out.”
Aladdin opens in theatres tonight.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019
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