'Aladdin' at 30: Director John Musker says Robin Williams ‘sweetness’ is key to film’s longevity
“We knew we were taking risks and weren’t sure how they’d be received,” admits John Musker, reflecting on Disney’s animated classic Aladdin, a film he co-directed with Ron Clements.
“We had the idea to cast Robin Williams as the Genie and encouraged him to be Robin Williams and do all sorts of improvisational flights of fancy. We got some flak for it at the time.
"People thought: 'Is this even a true Disney movie? Is it going to date it and make it feel like a Saturday Night Live sketch?' There was definitely a question of: can you do a Disney feature that’s a comedy and have it withstand the test of time?”
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It’s a valid quandry. Thirty years ago this month, Disney’s animated output was in the early stages of second Golden Age. In 1989, Musker and Clements had successfully harnessed the tune-writing power of composer-lyricist duo Alan Menken and Howard Ashman and struck gold with The Little Mermaid, one of the key films in what’s now considered the studio’s big-screen renaissance.
From there, things only got brighter as Menken and Ashman poured their skills into Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale’s iconic Beauty and the Beast in 1991, resulting in the first animated film to be recognised with a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards.
By the time 1992 arrived, studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg had tapped Menken and Ashman to work their magic on a retelling of Aladdin, hastily setting a release date of 11 November without a finished script.
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Story struggles intensified following Ashman’s death from AIDS in 1991, sending Aladdin back to the drawing board during an impossibly-tight turnaround. For its directors, the pressure was on to keep Disney’s freshly-renewed winning streak running. No biggie, then?
“We worked at breakneck speed to make the movie,” laughs Musker. “Howard had written a 40-page treatment and Alan cooked up six songs, many of which ended up in the movie. They were developing a script but Jeffrey didn’t like it. It was live-actiony in tone,” he reveals.
“The Genie was a very sober character, Aladdin had a human friend named Abu and Princess Jasmine had handmaidens. We tried to make it more animation friendly. We thought, ‘what if he had a monkey named Abu and what if we gave Jasmine a tiger as her confidant?’ We also pushed the Genie away from being this big, powerful force to being a comedic shapeshifter.”
At the centre of their story was Williams’ Genie; a mile-a-minute force of nature that’s undoubtedly one of Disney’s most treasured creations. That said, not everyone was a fan initially.
“Jeffrey was a little suspicious and not quite sure how it’d look,” says Musker. “He had this imposing figure in his head so we did a pencil test with Robin’s voice, taken from one of his comedy specials, and it sold him on the idea.”
Meanwhile, Williams was in his high-flying element playing a whirlwind character that’s spent a millennia cooped up inside a tiny lamp. “The great thing about Robin was he knew how to direct his own improv in a way that helped support the story,” smiles Musker.
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“We felt like we were offering him a chance to do things he couldn’t do in his live action films. We could make him look like whatever we wanted, as fast as we wanted to.
"We could also rewrite dialogue so if he improvised, we’d go back and have it make sense, allowing other characters to set up lines or come out of lines he’d said,” he continues.
“It’s part of the Genie’s irrepressible personality. He’s been bottled up for 10,000 years and once he gets out, he’s on. He’s got an audience and doesn’t have a filter.”
Of course, there were times where the rapid-fire Williams was forced to reign it in a bit. “He’d joke about something and go ‘Woah. This is a Disney movie. I’m not going to use that!’” laughs Musker, recalling the times Williams’ jokes got a little risque.
“It was a bit of a running joke. He’d veer off into something and say, ‘Nope. That’s not going to happen!’” That said, he wasn’t as unruly as you might assume: “He took direction very well. He wasn’t an out of control force and he worked really hard. He’d be spent by the end of recording sessions.”
Key to both the Genie’s performance and the film’s longevity is something extra that came baked into Williams’ persona: a healthy dose of heart, warmth and affection.
“I think the idea of giving a heartfelt performance and even the idea of singing appealed to him,” reasons Musker, trying to pinpoint what convinced Williams to sign on.
“His sweetness and ability to reach into that part of his being was crucial to the film lasting. If it was just comedy, I don’t think it would’ve endured but because he really got that feeling of his big heart, sweetness, his concern for Aladdin, their friendship and his investment in Aladdin’s future across, it’s one of the keys of the film’s longevity.”
Warm fuzzy Disney feelings aside, Musker and his co-director were also keen to capitalise on the recent breakthroughs in digital animation, something that dazzled during Beauty and the Beast’s sweeping ballroom scene.
Aladdin’s equivalent was its magic carpet; a mute, intricately designed character that provided its own unique set of challenges. “We thought of the carpet as a pantomime character, which are often the most memorable Disney characters. Dumbo and Dopey never speak yet you always knew what they’re thinking and it’s an animator’s challenge to convey attitude and personality.”
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To do that, Musker’s team relied on digital texture mapping to provide the carpet’s intricate, Persian rug design - but once again, Katzenberg wasn’t immediately sold. “I remember Jeffrey objecting at one point because it was costing too much. He said: ‘Wait a minute… I’m paying thousands of dollars for a bunch of skwiggles?’ I said, ‘They’re not skwiggles - it’s going to look great’” laughs Musker. “He conceded defeat.”
In fact, the hard-to-please Katzenberg even ordered an eleventh-hour overhaul after an initial storyboard pitch session didn’t meet his standards.
One of his gripes was the look of the film’s main characters, an issue that later resulted in accusations of cultural appropriation and whitewashing which Disney’s 2019 live-action reimagining — and many of its recent golden era reboots — have attempted to post-actively rectify with diverse casting.
“We were initially playing Aladdin a little bit more like Michael J. Fox — a somewhat scrawny underdog — but Jeffrey said ‘No, he’s got to be Tom Cruise!’” says Musker. “So he stopped being skinny and became kind of buff.”
While certain plans and songs were ditched, some of Ashman’s unfinished songs were adopted by future lyricist of The Lion King, Tim Rice, who helped get them over the finishing line.
“We wanted a musicalised, ultimate dream date scene where Aladdin takes Jasmine flying on his carpet,” remembers Musker, recalling the creation of love song A Whole New World.
“We were influenced by the Superman movie where Christopher Reeve takes Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane on this amazing date,” he continues.
“Did we know A Whole New World would become a staple of ice skating shows for the next 30 years? No, but kudos to Alan and Tim. It’s stood the test of time and become part of the fabric of American musical theatre.”
When Aladdin finally reached audiences, Musker and Clements’ hard work paid off, finding unlikely fans in the process. “Martin Scorsese was in an early screening and we have a bit where Robin did a riff on Taxi Driver,” laughs Musker. “We saw him afterwards and he said he enjoyed the tribute.”
Three decades on and while imperfect by today’s standards thanks to its Westernised depictions of key characters, Aladdin remains one of Disney’s key animated offerings and a much-loved entry into its second Golden Age.
“There’s a wistful, ephemeral quality to it following Robin’s passing and also Gilbert Gottfried, who played Iago. It’s a reminder of how life and movies are so fleeting,” suggests Musker, “but to see people still watch, enjoy and embrace it is very satisfying.”
Aladdin is streaming on Disney+.
Watch: The cast of the live action Aladdin talk to Yahoo