1992's 'Aladdin' Barely Got Made – And It Only Proved How Unstoppable Disney Animation Had Become

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today's column, he discusses the 1992 film Aladdin.)

Walt Disney Animation Studios was riding high at the end of 1991 and into early 1992. The studio had reached a creative height with Beauty and the Beast that seemed impossible just a year earlier. They'd released a film that audiences and critics had adored, and one that had even netted them an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. The plan, foisted upon them by executives Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, to make one film per year was working out even more than the animators could have imagined. 

The studio's next film would be another big hit, even bigger than its predecessors. And just like Beauty and the Beast, it was amazing that Aladdin got finished at all.

A Whole New World

If it had been up to Howard Ashman, his follow-up to The Little Mermaid would not have been Beauty. It would have been an adaptation of Aladdin, which he pitched to Disney in 1988. But as noted in a Baltimore Sun article published when the film opened in November of 1992, Disney rejected Ashman's 40-page treatment to turn the Middle Eastern fable into a 30s-style musical with the Genie envisioned as a Cab Calloway type. 

Ashman's extensive treatment didn't see the light of day, but the title stuck around in development, with writer Linda Woolverton (of Beauty and the Beast) writing her own version of a script that would incorporate a bad guy named Jaf'far, and a friend of Aladdin's named Abu, though not in monkey form. 

When they finished work on The Little Mermaid, directors John Musker and Ron Clements were given three choices for their next feature: an adaptation of Swan Lake, Aladdin, and something called King of the Jungle — an idea inspired by executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, the latter was a coming-of-age story about a lion cub who grows up to become the king of the animals, supplanting his father. (Who knows whatever happened to that story.) Musker and Clements went with Aladdin.

Though it was Ashman's true passion project, the composer didn't live to see even a rough version of Aladdin, whether it was what he'd envisioned or not. He passed away in March of 1991; the following month, Musker and Clements turned in a version of the full script to Katzenberg, in part based on Ashman's ideas and the six songs he'd written with composer Alan Menken. But for good or ill, the script and story reels (filmed versions of storyboards that the animators had created) didn't work. 

As discussed on the special features of one of the film's DVD releases, this script so bothered Katzenberg that he told the animation team to rewrite the entire story...without budging from the film's scheduled release date of November 25, 1992. No wonder the animators called this day "Black Friday."

One Jump Ahead

Though Musker and Clements still have writing credits on the finished film, they were joined by two new writers: Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Elliott and Rossio, who'd only had one other screenwriting credit to that point (the 1989 comedy Little Monsters), first followed in Katzenberg's guidance and gutted many of the human connections that Aladdin had. In Ashman's version, Aladdin had a mom and was desperate to make her pleased with him, hence the deleted song "Proud of Your Boy". (That number, along with a bouncier song featuring Aladdin and three human friends, was brought back to life when Aladdin became a Broadway production.) Katzenberg saw the mom as "a zero", so she was axed from the new version of the script.

Katzenberg's larger concern is one that the finished film doesn't quite resolve: that Aladdin himself wasn't as engaging as the other characters. As Katzenberg said in that Time article, "We would look at the story reels and even Jasmine was blowing him away." Or, as he said to the Los Angeles Times, "Aladdin was the least interesting person in the movie." Elliott and Rossio tried to turn Aladdin into a younger version of Harrison Ford, the kind of rakish adventurer that audiences had fell in love with years ago. Katzenberg himself suggested to animator Glen Keane that the character be less like Michael J. Fox, and more like Tom Cruise circa Top Gun.

The overall design of Aladdin was intended to stand apart from both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, even if the lead character would be cut from a familiar, heroic cloth. The style of Arabic architectural and calligraphic design led the animators to an unexpected source for its visual inspiration: Al Hirschfeld. The famed illustrator was best known for his distinctive, swooping portraits featured in publications like The New York Times, and those same designs would manifest in Aladdin. The major exception to this character design was Jafar, overseen by the excellent animator Andreas Deja. The icy-looking Jafar was always meant as a deliberate contrast to the jollier, Hirschfeld-inspired design of characters like Aladdin, the Sultan, and the most important one of all: the Genie.

Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

For Musker and Clements, there was only ever one person who could play the Genie: actor and stand-up comedian Robin Williams. In the early 1990s, Williams had begun to make a leap in the films he starred in, balancing comedy and drama fairly evenly. He'd already appeared in a couple big successes for Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures, Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society. By the time of the release of Aladdin, he'd also co-star in more dramatic films like Awakenings and The Fisher King, presenting himself as a man of many talents. His A-list status was cemented by the time Musker and Clements tried to convince Katzenberg to pursue him.

Of course, that same A-list status is what made Katzenberg dubious that Williams would ever say yes. Even in 1992, animation voice-over work was not the realm of the famous. Certainly, this was beginning to change — Musker and Clements' The Great Mouse Detective featured Vincent Price as the odious Ratigan, for example. And rival studios were able to lure some well-known names as well, such as Burt Reynolds in All Dogs Go To Heaven and Jimmy Stewart in An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. Williams, though, was a megastar and to lure him was not only to convince a celebrity to do work without showing their face. It also would require animators to match his improvisatory qualities. (Of course, it's worth noting that Williams' first role in animated production came earlier in 1992, in the Fox-released Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, as a strange bat named Batty Koda.)

It took a new hire, Eric Goldberg, to stand toe to toe with Williams' ability to change from one character to another on a dime, while also working within the Hirschfeld-inspired design. Goldberg himself spotted the obvious connection to Hirschfeld when reviewing the work from production designer Richard Vander Wende: "I thought, 'Well, OK, what kind of characters fit in curvy environments?'" Goldberg, hired away from Pizzazz Pictures, an animation studio he'd created in London, went to work on proving to Katzenberg that there was a way to animate a character who not only sounded like Robin Williams but embodied him as well.

Breaking Ground With Hand-Drawn Animation

As mentioned in the Los Angeles Times article, Goldberg went to one of Williams' stand-up routines to attempt a visualization: "There was a line in one of the bits where Robin says to the audience, 'Tonight, I want to talk to you about the very serious problem of schizophrenia.' In the animation, I had him grow another head, so he could argue with himself about it." This tape — briefly shown in the Blu-ray of the film — was remarkable enough to impress both Katzenberg and Williams himself. 

Soon enough, Williams began recording his lines for the film, with Musker, Clements, and Goldberg in attendance to get a close-up glance at the man at work. The good news is that Williams recorded for 30 hours, heavily improvising the script that he was provided. (As Musker noted in that LA Times article, there was never any expectation that he would stick to the script.) The bad news was...well, there was 30 hours of incredible material that had to be winnowed down into the sequences in which the Genie appears in the finished film. 

While Williams had indeed accepted the offer to appear in Aladdin as such an important character, he had done so with specific strings attached. He waived his asking price of $8 million, but also demanded to have his name not be mentioned in the marketing materials for the film, and that his character couldn't be a major part of the advertising. Ostensibly, it was so Williams could dedicate his marketing efforts on another film opening that fall, Toys. (That film was directed by Barry Levinson, who'd directed Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam, thus arguably splitting the star's allegiances.)

In the run-up to the release of Aladdin, Jeffrey Katzenberg cut a blithe figure in response: "We didn't hire him for his celebrity or his marquee value," he said to the Los Angeles Times. "We hired him for his talent." While that's undoubtedly true, Williams' casting was a major sign for studios moving forward: casting big-name actors in animated films is less a sign of an actor's star being on the fall, and more a potential guarantee of box-office fame.

A Perfect Blend of Actor and Animator

Williams' talent, and the dexterity of animators like Eric Goldberg, is on full display in Aladdin. It's worth keeping in mind how much of the joy of watching the Genie interact with Aladdin (whether he's himself or impersonating Arnold Schwarzenegger, William F. Buckley, Jr., or Edward Everett Horton) was thanks to the animators, not Williams. It makes perfect sense that animator Glen Keane fiercely argued that the Oscars should honor both Williams and Goldberg for their joint performance. 

It's worth noting that Aladdin is one of a handful of Disney animated films from the 1990s where the end credits do not separate the cast from the animators. Robin Williams' name is listed right next to Eric Goldberg's as the Genie's supervising animator. No doubt, the voice is all Williams. But the visualization of what imagination that voice displays — reportedly improvising more than 50 characters in the whole film — had nothing to do with the actor, and all to do with the man behind the scenes.

Of the rest of the major cast, only one actor was close to being as well-known as Williams, fellow stand-up comedian Gilbert Gottfried. In the same way that Sebastian the crab was originally seen as an English butler type, so too was the case with Iago, the right-hand parrot of the evil grand vizier Jafar (voiced by stage and TV actor Jonathan Freeman). But after revising the script, and watching Beverly Hills Cop II, Gottfried was called upon, with his distinctively grating voice used to great effect in the finished product. 

For the leads, Disney cast Scott Weinger — best known for his recurring role on the ABC sitcom Full House — and Linda Larkin. None of the actors in the 1992 film were from the Middle East; all of them are White, a casting decision that was equally reflected in the animation of a lot of the characters. Though they may have been inspired by Arabic designs, many of the faces onscreen seem less like denizens of a Middle Eastern nation, and more like the same white-bread characters from past animated films. The friendly Sultan (voiced by Douglas Seale) may be a kindly character, but despite his costuming, he looks like a tiny version of Santa Claus, with a bushy white beard and rosy cheeks.

Courting Controversy

Of course, the depiction of the Middle East in Aladdin is only so concerned with authenticity to the region. It can be a little difficult to ding a film in which one of the characters is unstuck in time, referencing everything from Rodney Dangerfield to Pinocchio, for accuracy or lack thereof. The flip side is that it would've been nice if any of the non-Genie characters were cast with non-White actors. And looking at the film more than 25 years later, it's unavoidable that the only characters in the film who do have distinctively Middle Eastern features are antagonists like Jafar and the head of the guards. 

Such concerns didn't go unnoticed back in the 1990s, either. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee pointed out a number of representational issues in the film, ranging from the "light-skinned lead characters, Aladdin and Jasmine [having] Anglicized features and Anglo-American accents. This is in contrast to the other characters who are dark-skinned, swarthy and villainous—cruel palace guards or greedy merchants with Arabic accents and grotesque facial features" to the film's opening song, "Arabian Nights".

In the final film, "Arabian Nights", one of the three songs written by Ashman and Alan Menken that lasted through production, serves as an epic opening to this story of intrigue and mystery. A street vendor, before speaking with Williams' voice, sings about the adventurous but dangerous ways in which life is like in Agrabah. One line in particular stands out if you watch the film now: "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense/it's barbaric, but hey, it's home".

That line stands out now because it wasn't in the film's theatrical release. No, the original lyric goes like this: "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face/it's barbaric, but hey, it's home". (The Guy Ritchie-directed remake opens with "Arabian Nights", but has a third version of this lyric.) That line leans much harder into the depiction of the Middle East as a place to fear, receiving enough justified calumny and criticism after the fact that home-media releases removed the line. Of course, that line doesn't eliminate the real, and reasonable, criticism about the character designs or all-white casting. 

Pretty But Lacking Main Characters

Nor does it eliminate an intriguing flaw in Aladdin, a flaw that Jeffrey Katzenberg was able to spot early on and was never resolved: neither Aladdin nor Jasmine are that interesting. Part of the problem is one of comparison — how many Disney characters are that interesting when you place them next to the irrepressible Genie? Even the most complex and detailed characters pale when you're looking at a force of nature. Jafar and Iago are also well-drawn and brought to life, both by their animators and vocal performers. Though neither of them gets to operate essentially outside of the movie the way the Genie does, Jafar and Iago each feel in sync with the more Looney Tunes-esque nature of the Genie's sensibility and jokes. If nothing else, they have personalities.

Aladdin, in the final version, is a true loner; his only friend is his monkey Abu, though most other people in the Agrabah marketplace know him well. The palace guard treats him cruelly, and he's mocked by an incoming suitor for the hand of Princess Jasmine, as being a "street rat". Of course, it's established soon after that Aladdin is actually (and inexplicably) a "diamond in the rough" who is the only worthy person in Agrabah to descend into the tiger-shaped Cave of Wonders. 

There's a lot of elements of the plot of Aladdin that make very little sense if you think about them for more than a second. Where Beauty and the Beast made enough emotional sense to elide plot questions, Aladdin struggles to do the same. Aladdin is the only person who can go into the Cave of Wonders; this is proven when Jafar and Iago hypnotize the Sultan into providing them with his Mystic Blue Diamond...which is the key ingredient in some strange device that can peer into Agrabah and locate the diamond in the rough. (A device that is not mentioned again after an early scene.) There's no explanation for why Aladdin is that metaphorical gem, just that he is. 

Aladdin's gifted qualities are less teased at, and more spoken about. Even once Aladdin is turned into the charming Prince Ali Ababwa, he's able to figure out that Jafar uses a staff with the head of a snake to hypnotize the Sultan, simply by being in the right place (i.e., literally next to Jafar) at the right time. Though it's unfair to list out the things wrong with the movie, here's a film that isn't quite as entertaining to sit through when it's not simply focused on having fun with its visual style and outlandish supporting characters.

The Cadence of a Joke

And there really isn't anyone more outlandish than the Genie. As much as Aladdin may suffer from having weaker lead characters, the Genie is still a one-of-a-kind creation in the annals of Disney animation. Williams' performance and Goldberg's animation are a fusion akin to lightning in a bottle. Now, it's not hard to believe that Williams' style could be brought to life via animation; if anything, it's hard to imagine a better way of making Robin Williams' stand-up livelier.

Williams' style represented a major shift not only in celebrities being made a part of animated projects; the types of jokes being told would expand and encompass a wider audience than just kids. I laughed myself silly at age 8 when watching Aladdin in theaters; the Genie was my favorite character, even though I would have barely recognized Groucho Marx and Arnold Schwarzenegger, let alone aural references to Edward Everett Horton, Ed Sullivan, and Peter Lorre. (You know the old saying: Kids love Peter Lorre!) Yet I laughed because Williams' timing and delivery was so good that you didn't have to get the reference, to get that it was meant to be funny.

The Genie's arc makes more sense in Aladdin than even Aladdin's. Once our ostensible hero gets what he wants — Jafar out of the way and proven to be a traitor, Jasmine to fall for him, and a kingdom that will happily accept him as a future leader — he gets cold feet. Though this is meant to reflect Aladdin's insecurity because he lied his way into the palace, the shift is so drastic that it comes out of nowhere. (The live-action remake, which mostly echoes the animated film, notably does not repeat this story beat.) The Genie's frustration at Aladdin, who had previously promised to use his third wish to free the blue dude, is more fully realized and understandable.

It also doesn't help matters for Aladdin the character that the two best songs in Aladdin the film are performed...by the Genie. While "A Whole New World" is a charming and well-paced ballad, courtesy of Menken and lyricist Tim Rice, and brought to life with some beautiful animation, it's "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali", the other two surviving songs that the late Ashman wrote, that are the most enjoyable, fun, intelligent, and impossible to forget. Though Williams wouldn't be mistaken for the best singer in the world, his energy and unmistakable style gives each song a vibrant sense of urgency.

Pushing the Limits

The animation largely met that challenge of urgency. As in previous Renaissance-era films, the film showcased computer animation in a few different spots, to varying degrees of success. The Cave of Wonders itself is a computer-animated creation (and one that unsurprisingly looks awfully similar in the ads for the live-action remake), and computer technology was used in the chase scene inside the cave as Aladdin and Abu frantically attempt to escape before being trapped within its walls.

The entirety of the film's animation is on par with Beauty and the Beast; both of them are remarkable leaps forward for an animation team that was now spread out in two studios at opposite ends of the country, in California and Florida. This was the third feature Musker and Clements had co-directed in just a 6-year span, and it represents a shocking and impressive change in how the characters and environments could be brought to life and stylized. The shift in design between The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin is incredible, even if the story occurring within those designs doesn't always measure up. 

The reactions to Aladdin didn't quite measure up to those for Beauty and the Beast; the uniform love the 1991 film received from critics wasn't matched a year later. Some critics, including Time's Richard Corliss, crowed that Aladdin was a cartoon version of Raiders of the Lost Ark, while Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, in an otherwise positive review, noted the stark visual difference in the human characters. Aladdin and Jasmine, in his estimation, looked "like white American teenagers". 

But the positive-if-not-unanimous critical reaction only mattered so much. Aladdin wound up being the highest-grossing film at the domestic box office in 1992, topping such titles as Home Alone 2: Lost in New York and Batman Returns. If nothing else, Aladdin rose on the wave of goodwill Disney engendered through films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast coupled with the massively funny and charming Robin Williams performance that was basically all anyone could talk about. And at the Oscars the following March, Disney walked away once again with the awards for Best Original Score and Best Original Song ("A Whole New World"). 

A Dark Purpose

These financial and material victories did come at a notable price, though. Robin Williams, as celebrated as he was for his work in the film, was displeased that Disney had, in his mind, done exactly what he demanded they not do: market the film around him, both in advertising and in merchandising. A year later, upon the release of the comedy Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams spoke out about his frustrations with Disney's treatment of him based on his agreement. "You realize now when you work for Disney why the mouse has only four fingers — because he can't pick up a check." 

The pain that Williams felt was admittedly short-lived. Once Jeffrey Katzenberg left the Walt Disney Company to start his own studio, DreamWorks SKG, incoming exec Joe Roth was able to placate Williams to the point where he would star in films like Jack and Flubber for the House of Mouse. (That those films are quite bad is unfortunately immaterial.) More importantly, things were smoothed over in time for Williams to play the Genie once more in the third Aladdin film, a direct-to-video sequel called Aladdin and the King of Thieves that was directly marketed on the comedian's return.

The presence of not one, but two direct-to-video sequels is in and of itself a sign of the massive success of Aladdin back in the 1990s. Though it's not a perfect film by any stretch — whatever else is true of the live-action remake directed by Guy Ritchie, there is room for improvement in the story outside of the Genie — Aladdin was enough of a hit that it lodged all but permanently in the collective childhood consciousness of the Western world. It weathered controversies, it became a triumphant hit, and it entered Disney legend.

Walt Disney Animation Studios had now hit the jackpot three of the last four times. Its last two films in particular were both unique but shared some interesting similarities. They were big box-office hits that hit the right all-ages market, but were also films whose production hiccups had nearly ruined them before they ever got released.

The studio's next release would be the biggest yet — both in terms of its successes, and the ways in which it nearly failed before audiences ever saw it.

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Next Time: It's the circle of life.