The Simpsons Decade

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

Tag Cloud

dceu Premiere Dates medical drama National Geographic disaster Legendary Amazon Prime Video cops HBO Go 007 football USA Chilling Adventures of Sabrina BET DC streaming service spider-man aapi italian dragons diversity live action PlayStation wonder woman NBA Toys sequel Action crime Sundance Now crossover spider-verse golden globe awards comedies San Diego Comic-Con hist Pop TV American Society of Cinematographers spanish language Walt Disney Pictures Freeform adventure TV renewals sag awards RT21 MGM Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt comic richard e. Grant TV Acorn TV marvel comics chucky New York Comic Con Spring TV popular ratings Wes Anderson X-Men Binge Guide Ghostbusters HFPA mob festivals 2018 FOX 72 Emmy Awards politics japan BBC ABC Musical Prime Video spinoff Schedule Podcast anthology south america Ovation heist movie 2019 films IFC Films Hulu summer preview casting cooking jurassic park worst movies Biopics Image Comics summer TV WGN Sundance TV halloween tv series cancelled television cancelled TV shows Comedy Universal Pictures NYCC rt labs critics edition streaming facebook TruTV GIFs Amazon Prime Funimation james bond reviews archives Best Actress universal monsters 2016 women critics hispanic See It Skip It Trophy Talk parents comic book movies movies space green book emmy awards A&E cars TV movies transformers The Walt Disney Company foreign batman Best Director FX Dark Horse Comics comic books Superheroes Rock TIFF Apple TV Plus ABC Signature Masterpiece screen actors guild 24 frames CMT telelvision Black Mirror christmas movies ABC Family war crime thriller gangster Turner Classic Movies CNN classics zombie Writers Guild of America MCU child's play GLAAD nbcuniversal Focus Features Martial Arts anime Nat Geo legend pirates of the caribbean Sci-Fi animated Set visit royal family Awards rt archives slasher halloween tv talk genre The Academy cancelled TV series 2020 toy story what to watch E! unscripted razzies Pacific Islander Cosplay rotten OWN Apple fast and furious YouTube Red Sony Pictures Rocky movie spanish Netflix Christmas movies french kaiju Peacock japanese Reality prank breaking bad vs. hispanic heritage month IMDb TV Box Office laika international Best Picture Marathons Lucasfilm suspense Fox News blockbuster satire Western posters Logo Instagram Live Endgame toronto jamie lee curtis indie Bravo police drama marvel cinematic universe Photos dogs ESPN Year in Review USA Network news Pop ViacomCBS AMC technology SXSW 2022 Marvel Studios Universal Rom-Com dreamworks nfl docudrama mutant sitcom VICE king arthur Mary Poppins Returns teaser Mindy Kaling TCA remakes lord of the rings Reality Competition Stephen King festival TV One singing competition Alien Fall TV quibi CW Seed TCM documentary game of thrones critic resources Cannes Ellie Kemper boxoffice venice 20th Century Fox television screenings joker FXX E3 revenge australia Teen Hallmark Christmas movies Holidays Discovery Channel adaptation BET Awards Syfy latino IFC cancelled LGBT video Hollywood Foreign Press Association Oscar 94th Oscars Spike historical drama Baby Yoda 2017 Thanksgiving versus South by Southwest Film Festival Horror stand-up comedy Election Pixar rom-coms zombies Paramount The Purge discovery First Reviews CBS Tokyo Olympics Extras Tarantino Watching Series TCA Awards spain feel good Christmas Spectrum Originals Classic Film Summer MTV WarnerMedia Best Actor Super Bowl cartoon dark know your critic 99% true crime crime drama CBS All Access BBC One rt labs Adult Swim YouTube godzilla robots NBC asian-american 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards RT History Vudu scary movies obituary Family franchise monster movies miniseries Nickelodeon Travel Channel YA VH1 Oscars sports book MSNBC Hallmark zero dark thirty king kong Countdown stoner justice league Quiz scene in color political drama twilight SundanceTV thriller supernatural canceled TV shows Netflix Mystery The Witch binge Black History Month Trivia concert Paramount Plus free movies best Infographic Valentine's Day Neflix slashers superhero Tumblr directors Creative Arts Emmys PaleyFest Fantasy Esquire sopranos natural history sequels 71st Emmy Awards The Arrangement Kids & Family ghosts adenture 73rd Emmy Awards award winner 4/20 Columbia Pictures 1990s 45 SDCC basketball comic book movie period drama Lifetime Anna Paquin comics Star Trek reboot Comic-Con@Home 2021 DGA biography GoT boxing Comic Book 90s SXSW Certified Fresh TCA 2017 docuseries BBC America Warner Bros. Women's History Month Pet Sematary VOD AMC Plus TNT aliens APB canceled Paramount Pictures Animation indiana jones rotten movies we love hidden camera cinemax biopic TLC Amazon Studios Best and Worst Lifetime Christmas movies Star Wars Comedy Central Red Carpet Avengers DirecTV video on demand Film Festival kids dc Trailer Crackle 21st Century Fox science fiction Tubi dexter 79th Golden Globes Awards PBS blaxploitation Showtime Cartoon Network worst mockumentary Academy Awards HBO Max ID game show Calendar new zealand Epix hollywood Disney streaming service scary book adaptation Paramount Network Fargo werewolf vampires HBO kong serial killer Sneak Peek doctor who 2021 Emmy Nominations Television Academy renewed TV shows live event TCA Winter 2020 finale Country cats President Starz Amazon Food Network harry potter romantic comedy cults trailers Britbox olympics obi wan Comics on TV Music summer TV preview Arrowverse History leaderboard Pirates trophy YouTube Premium art house OneApp Chernobyl mcc Lionsgate Crunchyroll Mudbound Heroines ITV Awards Tour Mary Tyler Moore travel streaming movies Rocketman First Look talk show Film Elton John superman composers Shondaland psychological thriller Song of Ice and Fire witnail Disney Plus Hear Us Out young adult Interview Polls and Games Opinion black comedy children's TV LGBTQ Superheroe mission: impossible Shudder social media nature new york Marvel Television Musicals Character Guide Holiday Broadway Nominations criterion streamig independent Fox Searchlight The CW stop motion A24 scorecard debate high school Apple TV+ 2015 documentaries 93rd Oscars deadpool DC Comics Tags: Comedy new star wars movies The Walking Dead Disney+ Disney Plus Tomatazos spy thriller theme song Mary poppins romance Turner Marvel strong female leads El Rey Sundance Emmys TBS TV Land all-time Exclusive Video FX on Hulu Winter TV target comiccon Drama based on movie Winners Captain marvel dramedy die hard Television Critics Association action-comedy psycho Disney Brie Larson saw name the review Disney Channel BAFTA golden globes elevated horror fresh DC Universe Grammys a nightmare on elm street Video Games black Pride Month blockbusters