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Will Smith on Paying Homage to Robin Williams and Bringing His ‘Own Flavor’ to ‘Aladdin’

When Disney’s animated classic “Aladdin” was released in 1992, Will Smith was best known as the rapper-turned-star of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” and a career as a movie star seemed like a pipe dream. It would a few more years until “Bad Boys,” “Independence Day” or “Men in Black” would make him a box office king (and a few more years before the shine started to dull on the crown). Fast-forward 27 years to the premiere of Disney’s live-action adaptation of the film and witness Smith the superstar, taking on the iconic role of the Genie, and taking over the extravagant premiere.

“It’s a whole lot easier to stand in front of you guys when the movie’s good,” Smith quipped as he walked up to reporters at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. The star had reason to be in high spirits since many of the early reviews of the film have been positive, including Variety’s own — with chief film critic Peter Debruge calling it a “high-risk, mostly rewarding” remake.

And one of the biggest risks the film had to overcome was finding a way to capture the magic the late Robin Williams brought to the Genie. Legendary composer Alan Menken, who wrote the music for the original film and the remake, told Variety that “Will’s performance is a tribute to him — the emotion that’s in it.”

“I was pretty confident that Will could do it,” director Guy Ritchie told reporters. “So my job really was to encourage Will to be more Will. And as long as we stuck to that M.O., then I felt as though it would work. Then gradually we found that identity in rehearsals. And then once we found it, we were off to the races.”

Smith said the biggest challenge of playing the role was “being able to find a way to not make it jarring and disturbing by how different it would be. To make people feel at home while they were getting something new and special.”

“The music was really how I saw my way in to be able to play the Genie,” Smith explained to Variety. “That first day messing around with ‘Friend Like Me,’ I noticed that it was in the BPM range of old-school hip-hop. So when I started playing with it, it was like, ‘Oh man — this really lends itself to a tempo and a flavor that I really understand.’ And that showed me how I could pay homage to Robin and not change the songs so much, so people would have the nostalgic value, but then also be able to come with my own flavor.”

“It’s thrilling. I mean the Will Smith aspect was very easy for me,” Menken said of reworking the songs for the rap star. After listening to Smith’s ideas for “Friend Like Me,” Menken said he thought, “this is gonna work. Because he made it fresh and he respected the song totally and brought such a joy to it.”

The film’s young stars Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and Nasim Pedrad also relished working with the superstar. Massoud, who stars in the titular role, gushed over Smith, saying, “maybe we’ll come back together for a sequel!”

“We’re all just so ready for this movie to come out, it’s been two years,” Scott (who plays Princess Jasmine) said. “There was so much joy and love and thought that went into this movie and hopefully that translates on screen.”

Trey Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Jaden Smith'Aladdin' film premiere, Arrivals, El Capitan Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 21 May 2019
CREDIT: Rob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

But back to Smith — the support for him didn’t end with the “Aladdin” cast and crew. The entire Smith clan made an appearance at the extravagant event, from his real family — wife Jada Pinkett Smith and his three children, Trey, Willow and Jaden — to his TV siblings, “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” stars Alfonso Ribeiro and Tatyana Ali.

But the most peak-Will Smith moment of the night happened at the after-party, when a queue of celebrities waited to get a moment (and a photo) with the superstar, while his 1998 hit “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” played over the speaker system of the Roosevelt Hotel. It’s a scene that the actor is sure to have experienced many times before; he just smiled and accepted the well-wishes, seemingly unfazed.

Menken summed it up best: “The Genie has been a pretty good role for a lot of people [mentioning Tony winner James Iglehart]. Now, Will is the king of that, long may he reign.”

“Aladdin” hits theaters on Friday.

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