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Recreating magic of 'Aladdin' with Smith, fresh faces

LOS ANGELES — In 1992, Disney transported audiences to the mythical land of Agrabah, where they met a street rat with a heart of gold, a flying carpet, a headstrong princess and a magical genie with some oddly current pop culture references. With the music and lyrics of Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, “Aladdin” would go on to win the hearts of millions and become the highest-grossing picture of the year.

It was an ambitious animation project that paid off and generated decades of fan goodwill, not to mention the two Oscars and a future Broadway musical. Now, following in the lucrative footsteps of “Beauty and the Beast” and others, the studio is taking another shot at “Aladdin,” this time in live-action. The film, from director Guy Ritchie, opens nationwide this week.

But how do you recreate the magic of “Aladdin” without the help of a genie’s lamp?

Well, getting a movie star like Will Smith on board doesn’t hurt. Smith agreed to play the Genie. The part was originated by the late Robin Williams, who brought his signature irreverence and wit and modern references to the role. But even with Smith’s bona fides, he was nervous. Williams’ performance has become iconic in the past 27 years. In other words, it would be a tough act to follow.

“It was not a no-brainer,” Smith said. “I was really terrified at first. You know, you have to be careful with these types of films that mark people’s childhoods.”

Smith and the filmmakers knew that remaking “Aladdin” would inevitably involve a delicate dance of paying homage to the original while also modernizing some aspects of the story, including casting ethnically appropriate leads, who could sing and dance and carry a large-scale production, and giving a character like Princess Jasmine more agency.

Ethnically appropriate leads

They found Egyptian-born and Canada-raised actor Mena Massoud to play Aladdin and British actress Naomi Scott, who is of half South Asian descent, to play Jasmine.

“She was one of my favorite princesses,” Scott said. “I think I gravitated toward her because of her strength and because I felt like I saw myself in her.”

In this film, she’s fighting for equality and the opportunity to succeed her father as Sultan.

“It’s just about her being human and more well-rounded,” said Scott.

She even gets her own empowerment anthem in a new original song called “Speechless,” written by Menken, and fellow Oscar-winning songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“The Greatest Showman,” “La La Land”).

Menken was the bridge between past and present for the production, and said he had to be both the “keeper of the flame of the original” and “part of a new team.”

“When you’re working at Disney you have a lot of people keeping an eye, a very careful eye, on the legacy,” Menken said. “So I am very protective.”

Naturally, the filmmakers wanted to give the production an epic feeling fitting of an overseas action-adventure musical.

“Aladdin” was shot on a massive soundstage outside of London, where the Agrabah set spanned the size of two football fields, and on location in Jordan, including at Wadi Rum. It was not lost on Ritchie that “Lawrence of Arabia” was also filmed there. Since there’s no real city of Agrabah, production designer Gemma Jackson (“Game of Thrones”) used elements of Moroccan, Persian and Turkish architecture as inspiration.

As far as musical numbers go, the biggest production of the film by far is the “Prince Ali” sequence, where Aladdin, with the Genie’s help, enters the city as they think royalty would, boasting of his great wealth, bravery and an assortment of animals including 75 golden camels, 53 peacocks and 95 white Persian monkeys.

Ritchie employed 250 dancers and 200 extras to flesh out the world and commissioned a 30-foot high camel made of 37,000 flower heads for “Ali” to ride in on.

“It’s one of the biggest dance sequences you’ll ever see in a movie. It’s the sequence I’m most proud of,” Smith said. “You got to go check it out. It’s hot.”

Some deviations

While there will be many, many familiar touchstones for audiences from the songs to the score to even some of the dialogue, there are some ways the live-action film had to deviate from the original.

“You cannot have a parrot talking paragraphs in live-action, where you can actually in animation,” Ritchie said. “The mind’s eye seems to tolerate certain exotic indulgences, for example, genies coming out of lamps and flying carpets, but it doesn’t seem to tolerate talking animals, right? So a parrot is allowed to have short sentences but once it turns into paragraphs you go, hold on, what is this?”

With a runtime of over two hours, compared to the animated film’s 90 minutes, there are also additional story elements and a new character in Jasmine’s handmaiden (played by “Saturday Night Live” alum Nasim Pedrad). And it leans into the diversity you’d expect from a story set in the Middle East, which was personally important to Massoud.

“Coming from the Middle East and Egypt we’re just really ecstatic any time we see positive representation coming from Hollywood,” Massoud said. “This is certainly positive representation.”

But, like all films, its primary goal is to entertain.

“It’s a fun film,” said Massoud. “You should leave feeling good and happy.”

“It was not a no-brainer. I was really terrified at first. You know, you have to be careful with these types of films that mark people’s childhoods.” Actor Will Smith

Today in History

Today’s Highlight in History:

On May 23, 1934, bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were shot to death in a police ambush in Bienville Parish, Louisiana.

On this date:

In 1788, South Carolina became the eighth state to ratify the United States Constitution.

In 1814, a third version of Beethoven’s only opera, “Fidelio,” had its world premiere in Vienna.

In 1915, Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary during World War I.

In 1939, the Navy submarine USS Squalus sank during a test dive off the New England coast. Thirty-two crew members and one civilian were rescued, but 26 others died; the sub was salvaged and re-commissioned the USS Sailfish.

In 1944, during World War II, Allied forces bogged down in Anzio began a major breakout offensive.

In 1945, Nazi official Heinrich Himmler committed suicide by biting into a cyanide capsule while in British custody in Luneburg, Germany.

In 1967, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, an action which helped precipitate war between Israel and its Arab neighbors the following month.

In 1975, comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, 81, died in White Plains, New York.

In 1977, Moluccan extremists seized a train and a primary school in the Netherlands; the hostage drama ended June 11 as Dutch marines stormed the train, resulting in the deaths of six out of nine hijackers and two hostages, while the school siege ended peacefully.

In 1984, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop issued a report saying there was “very solid” evidence linking cigarette smoke to lung disease in non-smokers.

In 1993, a jury in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, acquitted Rodney Peairs of manslaughter in the shooting death of Yoshi Hattori, a Japanese exchange student he’d mistaken for an intruder. (Peairs was later found liable in a civil suit brought by Hattori’s parents.)

In 1994, funeral services were held at Arlington National Cemetery for former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Ten years ago: Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, 62, leapt to his death amid a widening corruption scandal. Charles Donald Albury, co-pilot of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan, died in Orlando, Florida, at 88.

Five years ago: A 22-year-old armed with knives and a gun went on a rampage near the University of California, Santa Barbara; Elliot Rodger killed six students and wounded 13 other people before taking his own life. In a report potentially exposing the Catholic Church to new legal arguments by clerical sex abuse victims, a U.N. committee found that the Vatican did exercise worldwide control over its bishops and priests, and had to comply with the U.N.’s anti-torture treaty.

One year ago: NFL owners approved a new policy allowing players to protest during the national anthem by staying in the locker room, but forbidding players from sitting or taking a knee if they’re on the field. A federal judge ruled that President Donald Trump violates the First Amendment when he blocks critics on Twitter because of their political views. For the first time in the 36 seasons of TV’s “Survivor,” the season finale ended in a deadlock, and a tiebreaker was needed to crown Wendell Holland as the champ.

Thought for Today: “Life is like a game of poker: If you don’t put any in the pot, there won’t be any to take out.” — Jackie “Moms” Mabley (1894-1975).

Birthdays – May 23

May 23: Actress Barbara Barrie is 88. Actress Joan Collins is 86. Actor Charles Kimbrough ("Murphy Brown") is 83. Actress Lauren Chapin ("Father Knows Best") is 74. Country singer Judy Rodman is 68. Comedian Drew Carey is 61. Actress Lea DeLaria ("Orange Is the New Black") is 61. Country singer Shelly West is 61. Actor Linden Ashby ("Melrose Place") is 59. Actress-model Karen Duffy is 58. Actress Melissa McBride ("The Walking Dead") is 54. Drummer Phil Selway of Radiohead is 52. Actress Laurel Holloman ("The L Word") is 51. Drummer Matt Flynn of Maroon 5 is 49. Singer Lorenzo is 47. Country singer Brian McComas is 47. Singer Maxwell is 46. Singer Jewel is 45. Actress LaMonica Garrett ("Designated Survivor," ''Sons of Anarchy") is 44. Comedian Tim Robinson ("Saturday Night Live") is 38. Actor Adam Wylie ("Picket Fences") is 35. Director Ryan Coogler ("Black Panther") is 33. Singer Sarah Jarosz is 28.

— Associated Press

Correction: May 23, 2019
  • Quotations regarding the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s “bold goal” of increasing its graduating class size, and having its graduates succeed and contribute “across the globe” were misattributed in Sunday’s paper. The quotes should have been attributed to Chancellor Debbie Ford.
  • Photographs in Tuesday’s paper of the Gateway Technical College graduation were taken by Sean Krajacic.