Aladdin (1992)

When Robin Williams was approached by Disney in 1991 to voice the Genie in their newest animated production, Aladdin, he had doubts. He’d never done anything like this before. But he felt he owed Disney a massive solid by not only producing his first-ever movie (Popeye, 1982), but when he was going through an ugly divorce, Disney helped his PR by having him star in Good Morning Vietnam (1987) and Dead Poets Society (1989). Not to mention, Eric Goldberg’s animation of a genie synced to his 1979 album Reality, What a Concept was mind-blowingly awesome. Then-studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg reminded the comedian he hadn’t done a movie that was appropriate for his young children. Williams relented, but because animation still wasn’t considered a terribly lucrative medium (Beauty and the Beast had yet to premiere months later), he was content to minimum SAG pay. The proviso…a quid pro quo being that Disney not use him or the Genie in advertising. Why? Barry Levinson, director of Good Morning Vietnam and friend of Robin, was going to release his new movie Toys around the same time Aladdin was set to be released, and he wanted audiences to go see his friend’s Robin Williams-starring movie rather than the Disney Robin Williams-starring movie. Katzenberg agreed, but this was just the beginning of many headaches for Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Robin Williams.

Today, the Genie is seen as one of the greatest Disney characters ever made, and an incredible amount of credit has to be given to Williams. Thanks to this character, he became so beloved by fans around the world that the mere idea of Aladdin’s Genie not played by Robin is almost completely abhorrent. Like, say…if an incredibly charismatic black man from West Philadelphia, born and raised, were to try on the curly-toed shoes, well…

And in celebration of the latest remake of a classic animated Disney movie, I suggest we take a magic carpet ride back back to 1992 and give a close look at this film. So arrive in Agrabah for an aerial, Arabian adventure in awesome animation!

The plot: Royal vizier Jafar (Jonathon Freeman) has found the elusive, enchanted entrance to the Cave of Wonders, where only “a diamond in the rough” may enter, who turns out to be homeless boy, or “street rat” named Aladdin (Scott Weinger). He is arrested and urged to venture into the cave to retrieve a lost magic lamp, but he ultimately gets trapped inside. However, his luck turns when he finds he is now the master of an all-powerful Genie who can grant him three wishes. Aladdin starts using his wishes to win the affections of princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin).

Jasmine is tired of the palace life, and more significantly, resents being just “a prize to be won”. Aladdin has to learn what it means to be true to himself and others instead of relying on the Genie’s magic to solve his problems.

How’s the writing?: It definitely is one of the better-written Disney movies. A lot of that has to do with directors John Musker and Ron Clements, who know how to write animated comedies that are neither too goofy or too serious (The Little Mermaid, Hercules, The Princess and Frog, and Moana). This is Arabia as we Americans visualized it in 1992 (Though given the most exposure to the Middle East most Americans had was the 1990’s Gulf War, that’s not a compliment). Not exactly a monument to political correctness, but it wasn’t Mickey in Arabia, either. It definitely took a fantastic perspective, and a lot of that comes from its comedic tone. What makes it work is being legitimately funny.

The writers on Aladdin were Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who also worked on the scripts for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Dreamworks’ Shrek. These men were instrumental to working alongside Musker and Clements, whose tastes seemed to meld perfectly (They would work together again for 2002’s Treasure Planet). As a result, the story flows, the characters are believable, and the lesson feels earned. To drive the point home, the original draft called for Aladdin to be younger and still have his mother, and use one of the two genies (The other being the Genie of the ring), and use their powers for infinite wishes instead of just three. While I would have loved to have seen the arc of Aladdin struggling to make his mother proud through the genie’s magic, the agreement to settle on just three wishes was a smart choice.

Does it give the feels?: Aladdin could very easily have been made to be a reprehensible character. After all, he is essentially cheating to win over pretty rich girl. But Aladdin’s struggle is a relatable one. He knows he legally can’t court her, plus he feels his inherit work is not enough. But when he does put on an act of bravado as “Prince Ali Ababwa”, he fumbles awkwardly and Jasmine sees right through it. Plus the movie frames this through Genie, Carpet, and Abu’s reactions as very stupid moves on Aladdin’s part.

Which brings me to the most emotional part of the movie. After Aladdin thinks Jafar is gone and he’s set to marry Jasmine, it hits him that the use of the Genie’s magic was a short-term gain, long-term loss. He’d promised the Genie he’d grant him his greatest wish, but in realizing he’d backed himself into a corner, his hands are tied unless he comes clean, which could mean he’d lose everything. Robin, a comedian who became known as a great dramatic actor thanks to Vietnam and Dead Poet’s, delivers a surprising amount of sincere, tragic emotion in only three lines from a character who spent an entire movie riffing on 20th century pop culture. That’s truly impressive. Better still, when Jafar usurps the throne, the drama piggybacks on this moment, and we watch Aladdin get stripped of everything…more than he worried he’d lose if he’d just told the truth. And it makes it all the sweeter when heads back to the palace to take down Jafar.

Who makes it worth it?: Yeah, it’s no contest. Genie wins. Wish-ality.

But why? Why does the Genie charm and amuse when other sidekicks like Phil, Mushu, Quasi’s gargoyles, or Terk often falter or outright fail? Is it Robin himself? Sort of. He’s funny, but even Ferngully: the Last Rainforest and Robots weren’t wholly saved as much as Aladdin was. Even the third movie, Aladdin and the King of Thieves was just mediocre by comparison. Was it that Robin’s material was ad-libbed? True, Williams was given plenty of free reign, but there are numerous comedian-driven movies that flop when they’re not given enough parameters to temper their impulses.

Ultimately, it came down to a great marriage. On one hand, you have a comedian known for his manic energy, riffing whatever comes to mind, who can nail impressions and accents. The other, animation that can make him literally become anything and everything. Diegetically, he’s a spirit who can transcend space and time. Not only has he been pent-up in a brass teapot in a subterranean cavern for ten millennia, but he can do literally anything. That’s why as funny as they can be, the others just don’t click as well as Williams does. Terk doing an Elvis impression is cute, but Genie probably met the guy. Pumbaa shouldn’t know what stars are, but Genie could probably breathe in space. Phil shouldn’t be able to grasp the enduring legacy of Greek mythology, even with cheeky dismissal, but Genie might’ve watched the Titanomachy like a Detroit Redwings game.

Yes, it began the tradition that animated films “needed” a funny sidekick, voiced by a stand-up comedian, to scream pop culture jokes, but we can’t blame Robin, Ted, Terry, John, or Ron for that. It was simply lightning in a bottle. It was, for lack of a better word, magic.

Best quality provided: There are plenty of great things in this movie, and the animation is absolutely incredible. The art style was inspired by Al Hirschfeld, a political cartoonist whose signature drawing style involved lots of swooping, elegant curves to emphasize fluid movement. While most of the characters have this art style subtly drawn into their style, the Genie has this most blatantly. Mostly because he is a spirit of undefined substance, his design (masterfully done by animator Eric Goldberg) is fluid, energetic, and very, very Herschfeldian.

What could have been improved: I mentioned before that there was a previous version of Aladdin before the rewrites took ahold. However, there were some serious casualties, including several songs. The most tragic of these was “Proud of Your Boy”.

In the OG script, Aladdin’s mother was a central figure. Aladdin was using the Genie’s magic less to impress the princess and more to make his mother proud of him. As Jasmine became a more prominent character, the mother became less and less important. In the end, she didn’t survive the cut. Despite the loss, the writers struggled to keep “Proud of Your Boy”, possibly as a way to sing to his mother in heaven, but it never came to be, and it’s a damn shame.

“Proud of Your Boy” is about Aladdin’s promise to his mother to stop screwing things up. It’s no empty promise, either. He knows he’s let her down too many times to count. And he’s truly sorry. The song is perfectly legato and sounds genuinely heartbreaking. As a young adult who’s had his fair share of screwups, I can really relate to this song. I think we all go through a period in which we want to make our moms and/or dads proud of us, so it’s a shame this song wasn’t used. On the 2004 Platinum Edition DVD release, a cover performed by American Idol winner Clay Aiken was on it, but I couldn’t stand it. Do me, I love the raw version as done by composer Alan Menken. It just feels so beautiful.

Now, do I want this song put into the movie, just like Disney did for “Human Again” in Beauty and the Beast, or “Morning Report” for The Lion King? No. As it stands, the addition of the song would slow things down too much. We got its spiritual successor, “One Jump Ahead (Reprise)”, that is not only a more appropriate length, but better reflects the previous scenes in context. To hear the song, click here. You’ll be glad you did.

Verdict: Action. Comedy. Romance. Aladdin has it all. I really love this movie. It’d be stretch to say this is in my top ten, but top 15, easy. I find it that good. I give this nine magic lamps out of ten.

Now, I suppose I ought to reward you with the rest of Robin’s saga with Disney, shouldn’t I? Well, here it is:

When Robin recorded his lines for Aladdin, it simply went too well. Katzenberg was kicking himself for agreeing to not promote or advertise what was easily the best thing about the movie. Numerous times, he went behind Robin’s back to promote Aladdin, violating the agreement. As Robin feared, Toys bombed, and Aladdin took off. Never mind the Juilliard-trained actor was getting credited for only his voice, and the disingenuousness of Katzenberg, but now he was kicking himself for agreeing to be paid so little…which meant he didn’t even get a cut of the revenue. He left Disney.

Some years later, after Katzenberg left, Disney publicly apologized to Robin. He agreed to return, taking over Dan Castellaneta’s recordings for Aladdin and the King of Thieves, as well as starring in 1996’s Jack and 2000’s Bicentennial Man. But when the budget got curtailed, Robin left again. He returned to Disney for 2009’s Old Dogs with John Travolta, a despicably unfunny comedy. Robin passed away in 2014, but there was one more surprise: as one last middle finger to Disney, a clause in his will declared that all unused recordings he left for Aladdin can not be used for 25 years after his death. So by 2039, expect to hear Disney announce a new movie starring the posthumous Williams.

In the meantime, cut Will Smith some slack.

For more details on this whole ordeal, click on this link to read the account as reported by Jim Hill.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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