The actor also talks about his reluctance to take over Robin Williams' classic role, and what changed his mind.
It was easily one of the most recognizable and iconic voice-over performances of all time, which is why Will Smith's initial reaction to replacing Robin Williams in the live-action "Aladdin" was, "Hell no!"
It's an understandable reaction. So much of Robin Williams manic stage persona and distinct approach to comedy was infused into his Genie, there's really no way anyone else could step into those shoes and do it any justice.
Dan Castellaneta had the unenviable task of attempting to do just that in the first direct-to-video sequel and animated series, but neither were particularly well-received by critics and the Genie's comedy and personality had to be drastically modified.
"Robin Williams smashed that role," Smith told Jimmy Fallon Monday night on "The Tonight Show." "When you look at things like that you always try to find, like, what would you do differently? What would you add to that? So I looked at it and the first thing was I didn't feel like I wanted to touch it."
There's a reason "Aladdin" remains one of Disney's most beloved animated films of all time, and so much of that is wrapped up in Williams' unpredictable, at times shocking and totally scene-stealing performance. But there was also a sincerity and heart to the performance.
And it was focusing on the parts of the character that weren't signature Williams that Smith was able to find his own direction. In particular, when he discovered that he could put his own style and approach as a rapper into those classic songs.
"What did it for me, when I was messing with the music, there's a song 'Friend Like Me,'" Smith said. "When we went in I had them grab 'Impeach the President' by the Honeydrippers and he used the drums off [of that]."
At this point, Questlove went into the old-school drumbeat and Smith just started riffing some of the lines from the song in his own way. It was totally recognizable as "Friend Like Me," but also totally recognizable as Will Smith, and that's the key to the Genie character.
Robin Williams made the role iconic because everyone loves Robin Williams and Genie was just Robin Williams with "phenomenal cosmic power!" In order to make it work now, Will Smith's Genie already had to be totally recognizable as Will Smith's signature comedy and hip-hop style.
So far, it looks like they nailed it. He's not trying to be anybody else but himself, which is the best way to honor Williams' approach to the character. Smith also proved that he's become a master at driving the film's magic carpet in a ridiculous race around Fallon's studio that's just as ridiculous as you'd think.
Will Smith brings the madcap action to life when "Aladdin" hits theaters on Friday, May 24.
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