(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.

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