With Disney’s continuing cycle of live-action remakes of animated classics, the question invariably becomes: Is this really justified? While it’s been very hit and miss, thus far, in the case of “Aladdin,” director Guy Ritchie has made a much more engaging remake than the previous live-action version of a Howard Ashman/Alan Menken musical fantasy, “Beauty and the Beast.”
The secret was providing greater relevance for today while staying true to the spirit of the original — and yet opening it up in a way that plays totally to the strengths of live action. Chief among them was encouraging production designer Gemma Jackson (“King Arthur”) to create “a whole new world” that was colorful and diverse, which allowed Will Smith to be Will Smith as the beloved Genie, and empowered Naomi Scott to be a more politically active and ambitious as Princess Jasmine.
The biggest decision was expanding the mythical Agrabah into a trading port. “Guy said, let’s create our own world, then we can have everybody coming and going through that world,” said Jackson. “A trading port gave us that license.” This not only established the political potential of Agrabah as a kingdom, surrounded by desert on one side and the sea on the other, but also benefited the power play between Jasmine and Jafar (Marwan Kenzar) in their quests to become sultan.
Jackson likened Agrabah to Namibia, “where the desert literally goes down to the sea and it’s astonishingly beautiful.” The Agrabah sets were built at Longcross Studios in Surrey, England, and the layout was worked out between the art department and VFX team with mathematical precision. The rousing opening number, “One Jump,” was choreographed in a way that captured the thrill of the original in a more visceral way. It’s a crowded town teeming with tanneries, rose water, and culinary delights. Jackson said she had to hang onto her vision without losing any of the necessary choreographed elements for the parkour-like chases and dancing.
Meanwhile, at the “Aladdin” press conference on Sunday, Smith gave a shout out to Jackson about walking through her glorious sets: “It was in the textures of the walls and all of that. And the stairs were real,” he said. “You could go up and go out onto the rooftop. It was a powerful way to transport the actors into the emotions and the smells of the time and place.”
But after researching Morocco as a potential location, Jackson was thrilled that they chose instead to shoot in Jordan. “That was crucial,” she said. “Not only did it open up the film — you’ve been in a town, you’ve been in a palace where they’re both kind of restrictive — and then off you go [on a magic carpet]. It gives it that sense of breadth with vast areas of sand.”
Also crucial was the production designer’s inspiration for the palace: a Burmese monastery with a wooden structure painted gold. But rather than creating a mashup of different environments within the palace, Jackson went for a unified look that still conveyed the proper glam appeal in contrast to the rough and rumble market square outside the palace. “It needed to have a more cerebral feel to it, a lusciousness,” she said.
The palace decor allowed Jackson to dabble in her favorite passions: Persian and Indian miniatures; Iznik ceramics; Turkish architecture and pottery; and Byzantium architecture. “But there was a simplicity,” she said. “There were a lot of empty halls in the reception area and then the people that come in fill in the colors. They give it the energy. And there are two different princes with different entourages [Mena Massoud’s Aladdin, who pretends to be Prince Ali, and Billy Magnussen’s Prince Anders]. This complements Jasmine and the [pet] tiger.”
Jackson, who found the Disney animated original charming and beautiful, contributed “a lovely inside/outside feeling” to the palace. “Sometimes when things weren’t working on the film, the solution usually was to go back to the original,” she said.