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How Robin Williams' Genie in Disney's Aladdin Changed Animated Comedy Forever

The beloved comedian's iconic portrayal of a supporting character helped usher in the age of the animated celebrity vehicle.

by | June 6, 2017 | Comments

(Photo by Walt Disney courtesy Everett Collection)

Robin Williams was an extraordinarily busy man in the early 1990s. In December of 1991 he starred in the blockbuster Hook and followed it up with 1992’s heavily hyped, mega-budgeted Toys. These films were largely sold on Williams’ name, and he was worried that his vocal turn as a mischievous but gold-hearted genie in Aladdin, for which he was paid the union minimum of $75,000, would overshadow the movies for which he was being compensated handsomely.

So Williams struck an unusual deal with Disney, who agreed not to market Aladdin as a Robin Williams movie. He didn’t want his name used in advertising or promotion, going so far as to dictate that the Genie character couldn’t take up more than 25 percent of the movie poster. Generally, actors want to draw as much attention to their work as humanly possible, particularly if they’re an incorrigible ham like the late, lamented Williams was, so this was notable.

It seems a little ridiculous today to worry that Aladdin might possibly overshadow his more central turn in Toys, since the former went on to become the top-grossing film of 1992 while the latter was an enormous bomb, but Williams didn’t want people to focus on his performance in Aladdin. Of course, it became one of the most talked about vocal performances of all time, and the neat little gig he’d squeezed into his schedule ended up changing the way American animated films were made and marketed forever.

(Photo by Walt Disney Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

Williams’ presence dominates the film to such an extent that it feels like a starring vehicle.

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the history of American animation can roughly be divided into pre-Aladdin and post-Aladdin eras. Though the film rode the wave of late 1980s/early 1990s Disney hits like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and The Beast, it also represented a brash new beginning. After Aladdin, animated movies became increasingly star-driven. It’s doubtful anyone but the most dedicated fan would be able to tell you who voiced the title characters in Pinocchio or Cinderella, but in the age of Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, studios now frequently advertise animated films on the basis of the movie stars providing the lead voices.

Williams is so synonymous with Aladdin that, re-watching the film, I was shocked to discover that the big blue scene-stealer Williams gave life to doesn’t make his first appearance in his popular form until 35 minutes have elapsed. Even after his introduction, there are still long stretches where he’s offscreen. Yet Williams’ presence dominates the film to such an extent that it feels like a starring vehicle for the beloved comedian and Academy Award winning actor, even though, when it comes to screen time, it’s undeniably a supporting role.

Genie injects an exhilarating rush of adrenaline and excitement whenever he appears onscreen, but Williams’ wildly entertaining presence also helps distract from a take on Arab culture and gender that is, shall we say, problematic at best. The film’s opening song, “Arabian Nights,” originally contained the lyric,

“Oh, I come from a land,
From a faraway place,
Where the caravan camels roam.
Where they cut off your ear
If they don’t like your face.
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”

Arab-American rights groups understandably complained about the song and film’s grim depiction of Arab culture, so the latter half of the stanza was rewritten:

“Where it’s flat and immense,
And the heat is intense.
It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”

It speaks to how tone-deaf and oblivious Disney was that even the amended, revised, less racist version of the lyrics still depicts the Arab world as “barbaric.” The film then sets about illustrating the point, introducing its title character (voiced by Scott Weinger) as a self-described “street rat,” a small-time thief perpetually one step ahead of the dark-skinned, big-nosed, racist Arab stereotypes who litter the film.

(Photo by Walt Disney Pictures courtesy Everett Collection)

The animators have a blast realizing Williams’ goofy flights of comedic fancy.

In sharp contrast to the sword-wielding brutes that pursue him relentlessly, Aladdin looks like Tom Cruise with a serious tan, while his love interest, Princess Jasmine, is ridiculously over-sexualized, even by Disney standards. The primary goal of the character’s animators seems to have been to show as much midriff and cleavage as possible in every scene. When Jafar absconds with her late in the film, she’s outfitted in a harem girl costume that calls to mind Princess Leia’s slave girl costume from The Return of the Jedi, which likewise ignited the nascent sexual imaginations of multiple generations of kids who probably shouldn’t have been watching in the first place.

The film takes its sweet time introducing the big blue guy, but when he finally appears onscreen, Aladdin becomes another movie altogether — looser, goofier, and more manic. When I was a film critic and Robin Williams was still alive, I generally bristled when a movie became little more than a rickety showcase for his improvisation.

I liked Williams best when he was restrained and dramatic, but playing a force of nature like Genie perfectly suits his more-is-more sensibility. His persona informs the performance to such an extent that he seems to be playing himself, the ad-libbing maniac and wildcard comic genius, as much as he’s playing the character. Few actors could claim to be as lively and ebullient as he was, and here the animators have a blast realizing his goofy flights of comedic fancy.

It doesn’t make sense for a genie from a different era to launch into Rodney Dangerfield and Jack Nicholson impersonations, for example, but Robin Williams was known for rapidly cycling through a stable of well-known characters, some of them specific people and some of them broad archetypes. He even manages to smuggle a subtle genie-human gay marriage joke into the G-rated Disney movie (incidentally, it probably should have been PG-13, what with all its scary and sexual imagery) when he says to his human charge, “Oh, Al. I’ m gettin’ kinda fond of you, kid. Not that I wanna pick out curtains or anything.”

It speaks to Williams’ gifts as an actor, and how thoroughly he made the role his own. He packs an awful lot of sincerity, kindness, and pathos into the line “I’m gettin’ kinda fond of you,” and he does so in a relative vacuum, as the comparatively bland Weinger doesn’t give him a whole lot to work with. Yet the relationship between Aladdin and Genie is tender and sweet and memorable all the same, and that’s entirely because of the soul and substance Williams brings to the role.

Like many of the star-driven, smartass, meta-textual animated comedies that would follow, Aladdin is overflowing with in-jokes and references to other fairy tale and cartoon characters, many of them from Disney’s overflowing catalog. Late in the film, for example, Genie wears a Goofy hat — as in the Disney character Goofy’s hat, not just a goofy-looking hat, although, to be fair, it’s plenty goofy-looking as well — and an outfit that was apparently a winking tribute to a short film Williams had made for a Disney studio tour in the late 1980s.

(Photo by Walt Disney courtesy Everett Collection)

Genie may not be onscreen all that much, but Aladdin unmistakably belongs to Williams.

But the film also represents a throwback to the impish, spry comedy of 1930s- and ’40s-era Looney Tunes and Disney’s own distant past, in large part because Williams exists both inside and outside of the frame. He’s at once the nitro-fueled engine driving the plot and the comedy, as well as the emotions, but he’s also a sassy, almost Bugs Bunny-like outsider heckling the action from an ironic distance. Genie may not be onscreen all that much, but Aladdin unmistakably belongs to Williams.

The only real competition he has for the audience’s attention comes, appropriately enough, from another motormouthed comedian famous for not having much of a filter: Gilbert Gottfried as Iago, the pet parrot of villain Jafar. If anything, Gottfried cuts an even more American and more contemporary figure than Williams does, even if he’s playing, you know, a scheming parrot.

Aladdin flags whenever Iago or Genie are offscreen, because, as is generally the case with Disney movies, the leads are bland and generic. Gottfried and Williams lent this star-crossed fairy tale romance a subversive, wisecracking, unmistakably contemporary sensibility that eventually came to characterize many, if not most, animated comedies.

That wasn’t inherently a positive development. Too many animated comedies have used celebrity-intensive casts, wall-to-wall pop-culture references, and regular violations of the fourth wall as a cheap, lazy crutch. Aladdin remains a delight as long as you ignore everything that doesn’t have to do with Genie or Williams, but the movies that followed in its wake have generally been abysmal, glib and gimmicky, pandering and facile.

Considering the enormous commercial success of the live-action Beauty and The Beast and the public’s enduring fascination with Aladdin, it should come as no surprise that the film is being remade as a live-action blockbuster by Guy Ritchie. As of last month, Will Smith is reportedly in talks to play Genie, although Kevin Hart may be in contention as well. Those are some very big, very pointy shoes to fill, obviously. Not only is Genie sacred to millennials and Gen Xers, but whoever lands the role will have to compete with what could very well have been the single most influential, acclaimed voice performance in cinematic history.

Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

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