Producer Dan Lin has overseen some of the biggest films of the past decade, from The LEGO Movie to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, but perhaps his biggest hit was this summer's Aladdin. A remake of Disney's 1991 animated classic, the movie overcame unsure hype to gross over $1 billion worldwide, becoming Genie star Will Smith's biggest-ever release in the process.
Screen Rant recently caught up with Lin for the home video release of Aladdin (available now on digital, Blu-ray and DVD) to discuss some of the film's biggest creative choices - and where the story may go next.
I wanted to go back to the making of Aladdin and talk about the challenges in updating the story. Because you've not only got to pay respect to the original movie, but there's so many cultural elements that you've got to be very careful in how you handle. How did you immediately go about handling that with the project?
Yeah, you’re right, there’ so many challenges. The cultural aspect, we immediately said, “We want to be culturally authentic as we can be.” So we wanted to breathe life into the film and cast in a culturally authentic way. We did a casting search all over the world to find our actors, and we were so fortunate to find Mena [Massoud] and Naomi [Scott]. But I think casting was number one, and not only casting Jasmine and Aladdin, but also finding our Genie. And that an easier search – Will Smith was always our top choice – but it was not easy getting him. We’re so glad that he committed and felt he could do justice to this character. What was so important was that we wanted to respect what Robin Williams has done in the past, and we wanted to create a new version of the Genie. A new interpretation that could coexist with Robin Williams’ interpretation, and that's what Will did. He brought his own personality and flavor and skillset to the role, and it was very different. He was, as we called him, a hip-hop genie. So, I think casting was a big part of it.
Certainly, shooting the movie was a big challenge. We had to recreate Agrabah outside of London, and we also shot in Jordan. We shot outside London because we needed a place where we could kind of control the weather, because so much of this movie's shot in exteriors. Then the music! How do we update this amazing music that everyone knows and is so iconic? Not only modernizing the music, but also adding new songs. That was so important, which then dovetails into the story and the character development and making the changes that we did. Because the movie’s runtime is longer than the animated movies, and we had more story to tell with Jasmine’s character. We wanted to create a new kind of Disney Princess. One that was empowered. In the original movie, her goal is more about finding her mate in life. Whereas here, we wanted her to be a leader and we wanted her goal to be to help her father the Sultan take over and run her country when he steps down. The female empowerment story was a very important one.
You mentioned Will Smith, who was fantastic as the Genie. Very different to Robin Williams. One of the more striking changes was that when we first saw him [in the marketing], he was not blue. I think that was such an interesting choice, especially in terms of his relationship with the other human characters. How did you decide in what sequences he would be blue and in what sequences he would be normal Will Smith?
Yeah, we wanted to take advantage of the fact that we had Will Smith, who’s an amazing actor, but we also didn't want to have a whole movie with him being blue and oversized. So, we really looked at what are some organic places that we can have Will be an organically human Will, so to speak. And then, what we loved was something Guy Ritchie invented. I don't want to give away too much for those who haven’t seen the movie, but we loved how Guy was able to create another character in the narrator using Will Smith. Naturally, the structure of this movie is that you don't see the Genie for a while. The movie starts with Aladdin and Jasmine, then builds to the Genie. But we have Will Smith in the movie; we want to see him earlier. So, Guy really created a storytelling device that allowed us to see Will as another character in the movie.
It was a good way to honor Robin Williams voicing the Merchant. But you're saying that the purpose of that narration device was to ensure Will Smith was in the movie early on?
That's not the sole purpose. That was one purpose, but it was also a great way to tell the story. We really wanted to figure out a way of making it feel like a fairy tale. It’s a way to add a little cliff at the end, so it’s not exactly what you think it is. It checked a lot of boxes for us. It’s important because you want to see a version of the Genie earlier; you want to see Will Smith earlier. That was an invention that Guy came up with to do that. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was one of the reasons.
Talking of Guy, obviously you've worked with him before. How was it different, working with him on a movie of this scale; a movie of this pressure? A movie that has so much weight behind it, with the Disney brand and stuff. How was that different this time?
What’s good about it is he didn’t make us feel the pressure. He created a really fun environment. We knew going in that he was doing this, frankly, for his family. I don't know if you know that his kids love Aladdin – not only do they love the original movie, but they love the Broadway musical. His kids and also his wife, so he had mainly some personal motivations. We wanted to make a movie that his kids could see, so that was really the pressure. It was that family element more than anything. But he really blocked out that stuff for the rest of us, as far as what expectations that were out in the world, and created a very fun environment led by himself – and also with Will Smith.
You talked earlier about updating Jasmine and making her a much stronger character, and about the Genie. One character who's very different from how he was in the original and created a lot of buzz online is Jafar. I wonder if you could talk about the process of deciding to basically completely redefine that character?
Yeah, we felt like Jafar was a little too cartoony; a little arch. We wanted a villain that you can understand his motivation and understand where he’s coming from. I think when people watch the movie, they’ll see that scene out in the desert. That amazing scene between himself and Aladdin that’s basically like two sides of the same coin. And Jafar went a little bit astray, but you can see how someone like Aladdin could be mesmerized and seduced by him. So, we wanted to create a Jafar that felt like a grounded villain; not as cartoony as the original movie. A bad guy that you can understand his motivation, that he’s been passed up by the Sultan and that explains why he’s doing what he’s doing?
The original Aladdin led to multiple sequels, The Return of Jafar being the first and most famous. Watching the movie, I felt there were seeds that if you wanted to do that, you could do that down the line. Is that something that you'd be interested in doing? And if so, do you have any thoughts on what the story of an Aladdin 2 would be?
It’s still early days. We never designed the movie to tell the Return of Jafar story, frankly. We were focused on telling the best movie possible. Now, we’re studying Jafar and the Thieves movie that came out, as well. We’re looking at that, but it’s still early days. We’re talking about different storylines. What we're talking about is not going to be a direct remake of any sequel that’s come out, the same way that our movie was not a direct remake of the first movie. We studied the original movie and saw what worked and what things we wanted to update, and if we're lucky enough to make another movie, we will do that as well. But it's not going to be a remake of any specific DVD sequel. It'll be a new story.
Cool. Getting away from Aladdin, there's so many Disney live-action remakes coming out this year. Four, if you count Lady and the Tramp [on Disney+]. Is there a Disney animated film that hasn't been done that you would love to reimagine in live-action?
There are. I can’t talk about it, because some are in development. But I think there's an opportunity – there are still a few select Disney animated films that I think would be amazing live action movies. And other Disney properties, frankly, whether it's doing rides that I think have viable stories to be told. But I think it’s too early to be specific about it.
I want to talk about the marketing and looping back to Will Smith. The original movie had Robin Williams largely associated with it, whereas the genie in this movie was almost held back in the trailers. How was the decision to market the movie and to slowly reveal the Genie decided?
I think the overall discussion was that the Genie out of context was really hard to understand. We wanted people to see the movie and get the full form and the full range of Will’s performance. That was a lot of the conversation going in, because naturally, it’s shocking to see Will Smith blue. It’s shocking to see anyone blue; it’s also shocking to see someone oversized and bigger and more muscular and with a cloud as a tail. So, we wanted to kind of build to the reveal of the Genie. At the same time understanding that, out of context and from a marketing perspective, it’s really hard to understand the appeal of the Genie in his full glory.
You must have seen some of the reactions to when they revealed the Genie. I guess you almost expected that there would be a weird period as people got used to Will Smith as the Genie.
Yeah, we expected some backlash. I'll be honest, we did not expect the amount of backlash that we actually got. I feel like it really became part of the popular culture, when we're on the news with people talking about how the Genie looked. We never expected that kind of reaction. But, certainly, we expected some kind of backlash. Given that he’s an iconic character; Robin Williams created a character that everyone loved in their childhood. Naturally when you take that character and turn it into a real-life live action character, it's going to bump some people. But we did not expect the reaction we got.
Did that all affect your marketing plan, when you had when you saw the reaction to those early looks at Will Smith? Or did you just keep going as you planned, because by the end it all worked out?
Yeah, we just kept going with the original plan. At that point, it was too late to change the look of the Genie. And more importantly, we had tested the movie several time, and audiences loved the look of the Genie and they loved Will Smith’s performance. So, we were really confident that when people finally saw the movie that [the negativity] would basically go away. But it's really hard to react to outside sentiment. You make the movie that you want to make, and people don't always get the full picture. But we always felt like this is the movie that we wanted to make, and that Will Smith wanted to deliver. And we felt good that once people saw the movie, they would understand.