Dis­ney’s Ge­nie dreams are blue

‘Aladdin’ roll­out may be wish­ing for a do-over

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE - Bryan Alexan­der USA TO­DAY

If Walt Dis­ney Stu­dios and di­rec­tor Guy Ritchie were granted three wishes, one of them would surely be that Will Smith’s Ge­nie in the live-ac­tion “Aladdin” would find a lit­tle love.

So far, there’s been over­whelm­ing vo­cal con­ster­na­tion over the piv­otal char­ac­ter in the re­make that flies into the­aters May 24.

It was al­ways go­ing to be a bumpy ride for any­one step­ping into the curled ge­nie shoes af­ter Robin Wil­liams voiced his iconic, ex­hil­a­rat­ing role in 1992’s an­i­mated “Aladdin.”

Fans re­joiced when the Ge­nie-less first teaser ar­rived last Oc­to­ber. “I fan­girled so hard ... It looks so good!” one tweeted. “I’m le­git over here sob­bing,” an­other wrote. But the very blue un­veil­ing of Smith’s Ge­nie in a Grammy Awards tele­cast “spe­cial look” was skew­ered on so­cial me­dia.

The New York Times’ Kyle Buchanan fever­ishly led the tweeted crit­i­cism, in­clud­ing, “They pre­miered this im­age at night??? We are sup­posed to sleep af­ter this???”

We could go on about the cho­rus of so­cial me­dia barbs, which be­came such a thing that John Oliver used the blue Ge­nie im­age as a punch­line on “Last Week Tonight,” com­par­ing it to the loom­ing “dis­as­ter” when Bri­tain leaves the Euro­pean Union.

“You know how Twit­ter is. There’s a pitch­fork army out there and they all join in. And right now, Will Smith’s blue Ge­nie is out in front of this army, in a neg­a­tive way,” says Jeff Bock, se­nior box-office an­a­lyst for Ex­hibitor Re­la­tions. “The Ge­nie just looked odd. And while it’s called ‘Aladdin,’ all the at­ten­tion since Robin Wil­liams’ role is fo­cused on the Ge­nie.”

Dis­ney wouldn’t com­ment on the mar­ket­ing as­pects of the film, which has stoked ex­cite­ment with fans who made 2016’s live-ac­tion “The Jun­gle Book” a ma­jor hit. The stu­dio stood be­hind its Ge­nie in a state­ment to USA TO­DAY: “We have one of the most an­tic­i­pated films of the year and are confident that au­di­ences will fall in love with the Ge­nie and all of the char­ac­ters when it hits the big screen this May.”

Bring­ing out the Will Smith Ge­nie, and the blue, has been a slow, de­lib­er­ate roll­out for Dis­ney af­ter two teaser trail­ers – as if to ease fans into the full live­ac­tion blue­ness against the for­mi­da­ble his­tory of Wil­liams’ car­toon cre­ation.

In De­cem­ber, a smil­ing Smith was un­veiled on the cover of En­ter­tain­ment Weekly, mi­nus his CGI blue col­or­ing. Af­ter fans re­acted badly, the star as­sured them on In­sta­gram, “I’m gonna be BLUE! :-) This is how the Ge­nie is in Hu­man / Dis­guise Form.” They didn’t know how blue. How­ever awk­ward the first look, the neg­a­tive re­ac­tion shouldn’t be a sur­prise, ac­cord­ing to di­rec­tor Raja Gos­nell, who un­veiled his own bright blue up­date of beloved an­i­mated char­ac­ters in 2011’s live-ac­tion “The Smurfs.”

“We didn’t have the Twit­ter world back then that we have now, thank God. But that un­veil­ing was met with lev­els of hor­ror and gnash­ing of teeth by the on­line com­mu­nity,” says Gos­nell. “There is al­ways go­ing to be some sort of out­cry by the key­board war­riors. It was go­ing to be the same thing with the blue Ge­nie from ‘Aladdin.’ “

But there are many voices who con­tend Dis­ney missed the vi­tal op­por­tu­nity to make a strong first im­pres­sion that Smith’s Ge­nie could hold his own against Wil­liams’ legacy.

Paul Michael Glaser con­cep­tu­al­ized and di­rected 1996’s “Kazaam” around 7foot-1 su­per­star cen­ter Shaquille O’Neal. While the fan­tasy mu­si­cal was dis­par­aged by crit­ics, vi­su­al­iz­ing Shaq as a ge­nie was spot-on cast­ing.

Glaser says the de­ci­sion to de­pict Smith as blue and phys­i­cally pumped up, like a live-ac­tion ver­sion of Wil­liams’ char­ac­ter, wasn’t “a smart thing to do.”

“Mak­ing him blue was a bit of copout. But even more than that was the big, mus­cu­lar look makes this Ge­nie more com­pa­ra­ble to the an­i­mated ver­sion. Why does a Ge­nie have to be all of that?” says Glaser.

He would have pre­ferred see­ing more of what the su­per­star lead­ing man could bring. “They missed the boat in terms of try­ing to really ex­plore what it would be like to rub a bot­tle and have Will Smith come out of it,” says Glaser.

Smith has made clear he will make the part his own in the final film, which EW de­scribed in the first-look story as “part Fresh Prince, part Hitch.” Smith, who ac­knowl­edged he was “ter­rified” to go up against Wil­liams’ “iconic” role, said in the piece his char­ac­ter was “dif­fer­ent enough and unique enough that it would be in a differ­ent lane.”

There’s still time for the for­mi­da­ble Dis­ney mar­ket­ing ma­chine, with the pow­ers of charis­matic PR power player Smith, to right the spilled bot­tle.

“Dis­ney has its own magic lamps,” says Bock. “And ‘Aladdin’ is for­tu­nate to pretty much own Memo­rial Day week­end for fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment. So it’s in good shape there.”

Part of the mar­ket­ing blitz will in­clude a full trailer, which still hasn’t been re­leased yet. Perri Nemiroff, se­nior pro­ducer of movie site Col­lider.com, sug­gests “scal­ing back on Ge­nie in the mar­ket­ing, that might be the smartest move af­ter what we’ve seen.”

The em­pha­sis could fo­cus on other “Aladdin” as­pects such as Mena Mas­soud as Aladdin, Naomi Scott as Jas­mine and their ad­ven­ture story.

Then Smith will have an en­tire movie to un­furl his full Ge­nie.

Robin Wil­liams' in 1992's “Aladdin” is a tough act to fol­low. WALT DIS­NEY

Crit­ics didn't love “Kazaam.” But Shaq looked the part. TOUCH­STONE

Will Smith stars as Ge­nie in "Aladdin." It hasn't been all smiles. WALT DIS­NEY

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