Every time Disney remakes one of its classic animated films, the filmmakers face the same challenge. The new movie has to be different enough to justify its existence but also live up to the audience’s expectations. Maintaining that balance was among the many challenges co-writer and director Guy Ritchie had as he tackled the company’s latest remake, Aladdin.
“There’s a sweet spot there, I think,” Ritchie told io9. “That sweet spot is you want your nostalgia to be stroked, [and] simultaneously, there needs to be embellishments and additions, but they need to feel fresh and worth it. Otherwise, that familiar experience can taste rather bitter.”
With Aladdin, Ritchie straddles that line throughout and almost always in a good way. The basic story is exactly the same as the 1992 animated film. A young thief named Aladdin (Mena Massoud) meets a genie (Will Smith) and falls in love with a princess named Jasmine (Naomi Scott). But from the very first shot of Ritchie’s film, and at every turn thereafter, there are changes, both minor and major, that evolve that story and the characters for today’s audiences.
“Once you’re in and you buy into the frequency of how it is that we’re going to tell that story, then you’re receptive to new ideas and minor jaunts off the well-trodden path,” Ritchie continues. “It needs to feel fresh, right? You don’t want to just watch it frame for frame. But what you do need is to know that it’s essentially, actually more than essentially, loyal to the original.”
Ritchie acknowledges that the original film is excellent, of course. So changes were only made when he and his team felt there were was something to improve on, which wasn’t always the case.
“As [we] approached certain components in the original [we] thought ‘Could we trump this in any particular way?’” Ritchie said. “And sometimes you could and sometimes you couldn’t. But everything was up for ‘If it can be improved, let’s try to improve it.’”
So, one small example would be animals. The villainous Jafar (Marwan Kenzari) still has a talking parrot named Iago (voiced by Alan Tudyk), and Jasmine still has a pet tiger named Rajah, but Ritchie approached those characters in a different way.
“We made a decision that our animals were going to feel quite real. So the parrot can’t talk in paragraphs,” Ritchie said. “We’re also trying to straddle the line of being humorous, yet you want to feel gravity and the stakes need to be real. So there’s quite a lot of lines you have to find in order for it to feel complete.”
The biggest change in the remake, though, is Princess Jasmine. This time around she’s a much larger part of the story, with a more complete character arc, stronger motivations, and she even sings a brand new song that was written for the film. In fact, she’s so much more prevalent in this version it may shock fans of the original at the start. (She’s already in the marketplace during “One Jump,” for example.) But that was an essential part of the film Ritchie, and Disney, wanted to make this time around.
“If there was anything that could use some evolution in this narrative, it was that there needed to be a voice given to Jasmine,” Ritchie said in a press conference before our interview. “It just felt like there was an obvious space there that we could work on.”
“I think it’s a wonderful thing when you have a vision for a character and you think, ‘Oh, I’d love to see Disney do this with this character’ and it aligns with Guy and our producers,” Scott added. “Guy [talked] about ‘equality of challenge,’ the idea that Jasmine needed more of a challenge in this movie, and it was a natural progression.”
Making Aladdin straddle that line between the past and present was a natural progression for Ritchie too. It was the first thing that occurred to him when he was presented with the opportunity to make the film.
“I remember when I first read the script...I thought there were tweaks that needed to be made in order to make it funny and contemporary and so on. But I like those challenges,” Ritchie told io9 “I like it when you just make up your mind, there’s a script on the table you go, ‘Right. I want to make that.’”
The final challenge will be if audiences think the changes Ritchie and his team made, from Jasmine all the way down the line, do what he set out to do—which is to make a film that lets audiences feel that nostalgia for the 1992 film, but also realise that this is a new, updated, and worthy Aladdin.
“I don’t want to stray too far from what it is that you expect from Disney in the same way as I don’t want to stray too far from what it is you expect from Aladdin,” he said.
Aladdin opens Thursday.