One of Robin Williams’ most iconic roles was as the Genie in the 1992 Disney film Aladdin. For being a supporting role, he certainly commanding more than his fair share of attention (which got the Mouse House into some trouble when the character’s overt presence in advertising violated his original agreement to do the film for scale). Since the release of Aladdin, Williams became a Disney legend and lent his voice to the character later for the direct-to-video sequel Aladdin and the King of Thieves.
Of course, Aladdin represents more than an iconic role for Williams. It was riding the wave of Disney’s second golden age of animation, followed by the record-breaking film The Lion King. For the DVD release in 2004, co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements sat down with co-producer Amy Pell to record a commentary of the film. So much has changed in the last ten years since this was recorded, though it is still a worthwhile listen for fans of Disney animation.
Commentators: Ron Clements (director/producer/co-writer), John Musker (director/producer/co-writer), Amy Pell (co-producer)
1. The opening sequence of the Narrator riding on a camel in the desert was meant to look like one continuous animated shot. However, there are a few cuts hidden in there, including the pan up to the city over the dunes and the flame eater blowing fire into the camera before pushing into the marketplace.
2. Bruce Adler sang the opening song “Arabian Nights,” and Robin Williams provided the speaking voice for the Narrator. This character was originally planned to show up throughout the movie and also at the end, revealing himself to be the Genie.
3. The Narrator’s lines at the beginning were scripted, but when Williams performed them, it didn’t really work. On Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg’s suggestion, the crew brought in a bunch of props for Williams to riff off about, and they ended up with about an hour of material, the best of which was cherry picked for the Narrator’s lines.
4. Richard Vander Wende designed the color scheme for the film. Certain main colors had meaning: blue was water and goodness, red was heat and evil, gold was neutral that leaned slightly to evil, and green was a good color.
5. Originally, Jafar used the phrase “Rasoul Azadani” (the name of one of the film’s animators) to open the Cave of Wonders. However, the line was cut because the production was worried it might inadvertently mean something or sound like something inappropriate in a Middle Eastern language.
6. The tiger’s head for the Cave of Wonders was first sculpted out of clay but animated digitally to make sure it matched the lighting and color of the surrounding picture.
7. Frank Welker, who voices Scooby-Doo, did the voice of Abu. He also did the voice of the monkey from Raiders of the Lost Ark. After the filmmakers showed the movie to Steven Spielberg, he said, “Yeah, whenever things got too gooey in the movie, cut to the monkey.”
8. The character of Iago was originally planned to have a British accent, but when the directors saw Gilbert Gottfried in Beverly Hills Cop 2, they wanted him for the role. Originally, there were concerns that Gottfried would be too anachronistic in the film, but after casting Williams as the Genie, they figured they could use Gottfried to keep the humor very broad.
9. Howard Ashman died during the production, but three of his songs (“Arabian Nights,” “Friend Like Me,” and “Prince Ali”) were used in the film.
10. Several songs were planned for the film but were replaced with reprises of earlier songs because the timing of the film did not allow full production numbers to be done. These include an earlier version of “One Jump Ahead” featuring a couple of Aladdin’s friends who were eventually cut from the film, Aladdin’s reflection after escaping the guards (which ended up as a reprise of “One Jump Ahead”), and Jafar as a sorcerer at the end (which ended up as a reprise of “Prince Ali”).
11. Around the 10 minute mark of the film, after Aladdin gives his bread to the young street urchins, he comes out of an alley to stand between two men. These two men are character representations of directors John Musker (on Aladdin’s left) and Ron Clements (on Aladdin’s right).
12. In keeping with the established color scheme, Jafar’s outfit was originally designed to be completely red to denote evil. However, black was added to his cloak because he looked too bright, “like a fire engine.” Additionally, in Jafar’s character design, he’s one of the few places where you can find straight lines in the film. Most of the character and background animation uses curved lines to keep in line with Persian architecture.
13. The lead guard who keeps catching Aladdin is named Razoul, after animator Rasoul Azadani.
14. Aladdin was one of the first movies to use Disney’s CAPS system (Computer Animation Production System). This is their computerized ink-and-paint system which allowed for layers to be composited, changes in focus to be achieve, and reverse images to be mapped onto reflective surfaces.
15. The magic carpet was one of the earliest uses of CGI for a character. The intricate pattern was originally drawn on paper and then texture mapped onto flat carpet. Originally, Katzenberg was skeptical about spending so much money on the carpet animation, calling it “a bunch of squiggles.”
16. Aladdin taking the lamp contains many visual references to Raiders of the Lost Ark. When the production showed the film to Steven Spielberg, they apologized for stealing the imagery. Spielberg told them not to worry because he stole a lot of that imagery from other earlier films.
17. For a visual reference in animating the magic carpet ride to escape the Cave of Wonders, animators filmed themselves on roller coasters. Rasoul Azadani took his camera to the Magic Mountain amusement park, and he had to ride the roller coaster twice because on his first time, he left his lens cap on.
18. Aladdin was originally designed to be a younger person, based on Michael J. Fox. After Jasmine was designed, the production realized she would not be attracted to a younger kid, so they aimed more for Tom Cruise. The earlier, younger design can be seen in some shots when Aladdin climbs up the stairs to get the lamp as well as when Jafar abandons him in the Cave of Wonders.
19. The design of the Genie was based on Al Hirschfeld’s caricatures from the New York Times.
20. The filmmakers wanted Robin Williams to play the Genie from the script stage, and they wrote the film with him in mind. Ironically, much of his dialogue was improvised from the actual words on the page.
21. Originally there were concerns about using all the celebrity impressions that Williams brought to the role because few children would know who Ed Sullivan, William F. Buckley, or Ethel Merman were. However, they decided that even if they were not recognizable, they would just be seen as funny characters.
22. Even though Williams had sung in Popeye, he was nervous about doing it in this film, mainly because Popeye was a specific character, and the Genie was his own brand of broad comedy. To get Williams more comfortable with the songs, the directors took many takes, having him sing in different voices and accents.
23. The script originally called for unlimited wishes, which is based on the original “One Thousand and One Nights” story. However, the writers decided to put in the three-wish rule because it raises the stakes for each wish and gives the ending more punch. However, this limited them, and they had to keep finding ways to have the Genie use magic without burning through his wishes.
24. The Pinocchio gag was thrown in by Williams during improvisation, and the animators picked up on it. It was such a popular reference with test audiences that they had to go back and add frames to the gag, which is the opposite of what usually happens when making an animated film that is constantly being cut for running time.
25. Other Disney character cameos include Sebastian the Crab from The Little Mermaid being pulled from a cook book and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast seen among the animal toys the Sultan is building into a tower when Jafar comes in to talk to him about marrying Jasmine.
26. Jasmine’s character is symbolized by a caged bird yearning to be free. The canopy over her bed was designed to look like a birdcage.
27. When Aladdin climbs onto Jasmine’s balcony and is threatened by her tiger, many people claim to hear him say off-camera “good teenagers take off their clothes.” However, he is actually saying, “Good tiger. Take off. Scat. Go!” which was ad libbed for background noise to extend a shot a few seconds.
28. While that off-color reference was never recorded, Williams did include plenty of off-color ad libs in his recording sessions that were, of course, not used. The shot that reminded the directors of this was when the Genie asks Aladdin if he should sting Jasmine. You can only guess what jokes Williams made for that one.
29. “A Whole New World” was the first song that Alan Menken wrote for the film with Tim Rice after Howard Ashman died.
30. Williams ad-libbed calling Aladdin “Al” in his first session. The filmmakers incorporated it into the rest of the script to show their close relationship.
31. Even though the Genie makes many cultural and political references that were completely anachronistic to the rest of the story, the filmmakers explain this by saying he is an all-powerful, god-like creature that transcends time and space. He is not making the jokes for others in the film because they would not get them. Instead, the Genie is trying to entertain himself.
32. Iago’s line “On a scale of one to ten, you are an eleven” was an homage to L.A. film critic Gary Franklin’s rating scale and presentation.
33. The shot of Jafar knocking Aladdin and the tower into the sky at the end of his “Prince Ali” reprise was a nod to Johnny Carson’s signature golf swing.
34. According to the directors, the longest recording of Robin Williams improvising was for the scene in which he is cheering on Aladdin in the final battle with Jafar. However, most of that ended up on the cutting room floor because it detracted too much from the action and Aladdin’s hero moment.
35. The filmmakers were worried they might get a PG rating for the intensity of the final conflict. However, they were handed a G rating on the first submission. This immediately caused them to second guess whether the climax was, indeed, as intense and powerful as they thought it was.
36. The outfit the Genie wears as he prepares to leave for vacation is identical to an outfit that Robin Williams wore in a Disney theme park video he appeared in.
37. This was one of the last major Disney animated films that used the entire crew throughout its production. Subsequent films had overlapping schedules, which compartmentalized the departments.
38. Aladdin did not hit #1 at the box office until the first weekend of January 1993, which was the eighth week of release and the sixth week of wide release. (However, the first week of wide release did have the highest weekend gross of the film’s theatrical run.)
Best in Commentary
- Musker: “We went through a little bit of a Tom Cruise make-over.”
- Clements: “The second appearance of William F. Buckley is coming up.” Musker: “You didn’t have enough. There was a groundswell of conservative Republicans. The National Review readership was demanding.”
- Musker: “You think of a personality like Robin if you were trapped in a prison for years and years and years, just what a sad thing that is just because of the energy and impulse to just sort of entertain and be a bright light.”
While I respect The Lion King greatly, for me, the greatest run of Disney animated films included The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and then Aladdin. Both John Musker and Ron Clements are very personable people, and they offer a brisk and informative commentary.
As expected, the more controversial elements of the film (such as the lyric change in the opening song and Robin Williams’ falling out with the studio over his use in advertising) are left out of this commentary. I would love to have heard more specific, candid discussions of those elements, but as an authorized Disney commentary I expected they’d be swept under the rug. Still, it’s nice that the commentators didn’t shy away from some of the potentially blue humor hinted at behind the scenes.
Robin Williams will be known for many characters, but the Genie from Aladdin is near the top of the list. Listening to the commentary and hearing how much there is to say about so many other elements of the film, it’s somewhat shocking to see how little the Genie character was actually in the film. He was integral to the plot, and he because easily the most recognizable thing from the film. This is the power of a strong supporting role, and it reminds me of what a shame it is that voice-over work was never considered in the Academy Awards. If it had, Williams could have been a contender for an Oscar for this movie. (I’m not saying he could have beaten Gene Hackman from Unforgiven, but it would have been close.)