Disney's live-action remake of Aladdin introduces the world to a new version of Genie. Played by Will Smith, the role was destined to be compared to the previous incarnation of the character, voiced so memorably by Robin Williams in the 1992 animated original. Bringing such an iconic role to life in a new form was always going to be a challenge, but it was a test that VFX Supervisor Chas Jarrett, who worked previously with director Guy Ritchie, was willing to take on.
For Jarrett, whose credits include Sherlock Holmes, Logan and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the opportunity to work with Disney came as something of a surprise.
"Guy called me out of the blue to say that he had the project," Jarrett told CBR. "I have friends who have worked at Disney for years but I've never actually worked with Disney. So it was very fortuitous. It was a good opportunity to get together with Guy and with the collaborators he often works with. And at the same time, to actually join the Disney gang, it was great."
"I was working on another film when the trailer for Beauty and the Beast came out, and my entire visual effects crew got together in the cinema to watch the trailer," he recalled. "[Beauty and the Beast] was a film that personally I hadn't really connected to when it first came out but then I suddenly realized how many people were deeply in love with that film. It was a true 'hoorah' moment to get involved in a show like that... I really wish I'd gotten to work on Dumbo. The original Dumbo, I really loved the film. I was very disappointed that I wouldn't get the chance to work on that one because it was already under way. I'd love to work on all of them. They're amazing, amazing stories to be told and it's really difficult to pick out a favorite... they really are great for what they were when you first saw them."
Trying to perfect the specific art style of the film proved to be a major factor for the special effects team. "It was absolutely the biggest issue on everyone's mind when we began the [film]," Jarrett explained. "It was an enormous undertaking, to transpose it from traditional animation where you could do anything. He's always essentially the blue genie in the original. But for brief moments, he intercuts into a different character [for a joke]. With this one, we knew we had to intercut with the Genie in camouflage mode, just regular Will Smith."
Despite having one of the most recognizable actors in modern cinema, Jarrett revealed that the modern incarnation of the Genie was originally not as clearly defined by his performance. The Genie is one of the most visually memorable members of the recent Disney canon, leading the artists behind the live-action Aladdin with an interesting challenge. "We experimented with a broad range of more caricatured blue genies early in pre-production," Jarrett said. "There was a chance we could have .... made it more caricatured-based. But what we went with instead... When you've got Will Smith, you realize what makes Will Smith works is all the little Will Smith mannerisms. It's what makes him Will Smith. And if you try to put those mannerisms on something that isn't Will Smith, it isn't quite satisfying.
"If you couple that with intercutting with a blue genie and a human genie, if you radically changed his look between two cuts, it just felt jarring. It didn't work. So over time, we pared down the caricature of him physically speaking, so those Will elements would shine through. And then we were left with the overall performance, [so we could make it] more magical and fun. He's zipping around and shrinking down. There's fun to be had in the staging of him, more than just his physical appearance."
The initial response to the newly computer-generated Genie was less than positive, but with the film's release, that died down. These concerns were something the people behind the film anticipated from the new approach to the character.
"We'd worked on it a good year, year and a half before the trailer dropped, and had really been through a journey with designing this character," Jarrett said, "and had all reached a place where we all felt it had become consistent with the film and Will's performance. Visually it worked as an idea, but then people saw the trailer for the very first time and were confronted with something for the very first time, that maybe didn't know what to expect. He could have been anything, but he just looks like Will. But I think if you see him in the context of the whole film, it works. Seeing it in a single shot can be a bit jarring. We always sort of knew it was going to be contentious, I suppose. That there would be comparisons between our Genie and the original. But ultimately we felt confident in the character we created, so we waited it out and it all worked out."
Looking back at his experience working with Disney and bringing a classic animated film to live-action, Jarrett reflected that, "It's always a tricky balance when you're remaking something someone has a passion for. I love the idea of bringing those films up for a new generation and so on. I think there are new ways to tell stories that are really exciting and ready to be explored."
Directed by Guy Ritchie, Aladdin stars Mena Massoud as Aladdin, Will Smith as Genie, Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine, Marwan Kenzari as Jafar, Navid Negahban as the Sultan of Agrabah, Billy Magnussen Prince Anders, and Frank Welker and Alan Tudyk as the voices of Abu and Iago, respectively. Aladdin is available now on digital HD and Blu-ray.