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EXCLUSIVE: Jamal Sims Talks About Choreographing 'Aladdin' To Celebrate The Live Action Release

Back when Disney announced they were making their classic Aladdin into a live action film, fans were skeptical. Not only is it a much beloved classic, how in the world would they find anyone to replace Robin Williams? But despite reservations, the film is a huge success. It has grossed over $1 billion dollars worldwide, making it the fifth highest grossing film of 2019. Now that the film is out on digital, Moms.com got to sit down with the film's choreographer, Jamal Sims to talk about what it was like to give this classic a new life.

Jamal Sims has quite a task on his hands, teaching a group of non-dancers to do a simple dance routine. Of course, no one is looking for perfection, but we want to do the best we can. Clad in a running suit that looks like he borrowed it from Aladdin star Will Smith circa his Fresh Prince days, he slowly leads us through the moves. Taken directly from what is probably the film's most famous song "Friend Like Me," it's only about a minute's worth of choreography, but it's still a challenge.

Full disclosure, I have many years of dance training, so the moves weren't particularly hard, but it's been many years since I danced, so it took time to get a groove. As we slid, spun and laughed our way through the dance, it felt like just a taste of what it must have been like on set. Sim had a very unique challenge — he had to handle some of the most iconic music of the Disney Renaissance, but there wasn't much of a roadmap.

Since the original Aladdin from 1992 was animated, there was no real choreography. Obviously, the Genie, voiced by the legendary Robin Williams danced around, but it was all in the animator's mind. So Sims had complete creative control when it came to how the movie's dances were going to look. But as they say, with great power comes great responsibility.

"There was a lot of pressure," he says when asked what it was like to take on this project. "As I'm flying to London [where the movie was filmed] all I could hear was people saying 'this is my favorite movie, don't mess this up.'"

Of course, eventually you have to remember that this is a completely new interpretation of the movie. As Sims explains, that realization gave the cast and crew a lot of peace.

"I think what helped is that once we got there, I was like, 'I have to release that' and just enjoy and be inspired by the music and the material I was given. Once we did that we were able to just find our own thing. The magic is there."

When you're working with the classic songs of Alan Menken, it's a gift. But we all have our favorite songs from Aladdin. (Personally, my favorite is "Friend Like Me" followed very closely by "A Whole New World.") But for Jamal Sims, it wasn't just about the song, but about what was the most fun number to bring to life.

"My favorite was Prince Ali. We had over 350 dancers, and background, and animals. We had a lot of things going on. And we were up against weather. The first day it rained, and the streets were muddy and there was a lot of things. It was a big task for all of us, and we just dealt with it."

One of the biggest draws to this new Aladdin is seeing superstar Will Smith as Genie. He had incredibly big shoes to fill after Robin Williams, but Smith rises to the occasion. His version of the Genie is very different, given the fact that the film is live action. Smith's Genie is able to assume a more human form, which gives him a chance to play to his strengths. So, what was it like to work with such a famous performer?

"It's intimidating to work with Will Smith. Not because he makes you feel intimidated, just who he is as a person — his energy is huge," Sims confesses. "He walks in the door and everybody is like, 'that's Will Smith.' But what he does is he breaks the wall immediately. And so, it felt like I was working with a family member or friend I had worked with a long time. It was amazing to watch him work."

Having the control to pretty much do whatever he wants put Sims in a unique position. When you have such a rich amount of source material, where do you begin?

"It started with the music first," Sims explains. "So when I started to hear 'Friend Like Me' and Will's spin on it, it started to inform what the movement was going to be like. He's a hip hop legend, so those moves were influenced [by the music] as well as having the classical moves we wanted to see, and staying true to where we were in the world," he says.

The moves we learned are intricately tied to the music, often timing the steps to specific beats. But there are also those hip hop elements Sims mentions. We dropped it low on an eight count in the music that felt straight out of a 90s hip-hop video! But the moves also mixed those east Asian/Middle Eastern influences in Aladdin. Plus there were the smooth steps in a more classical Broadway style that add for a little flair and polish.

"There's a new harvest festival dance we did, and I wanted it to feel very true to the style of dance where it was. And then we got to go over the top and be crazy, and be fun. That was the whole thing, taking what was there and putting our spin on it."

As much as Aladdin stays true to the original, the new scenes added make the story more fleshed out. For the first time, Princess Jasmine gets a song of her own, "Speechless." The changes make the film feel fresh, but it still feels very much like the film we all know and love.

Aladdin is available now on digital, and Blu-ray September 10. The animated classic Aladdin also joins the Walt Disney Signature Collection on 4K and Blu-ray September 10. 

READ NEXT: EXCLUSIVE: Chat With Gemma Jackson, Production Designer Of 'Aladdin'

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