There was a moment during the golden age of American animation around the thirties and forties which I loved when the humor of Looney Tunes directors like Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones led animated comedy down a path that was more loose, sophisticated and ageless than what had come before, meaning that it was silly enough to make kids laugh but still smart enough to make adults laugh. That sense of humor kind of began to fade around the seventies when the reputation of animation changed from either the strictly kid-oriented fare of Saturday morning cartoons or the strictly adult-oriented fare of Ralph Bakshi, but it got restored when Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out and TV shows like Ren & Stimpy and Animaniacs aired. However the Disney Renaissance, which was busy reviving the spirit of classic Disney animation with movies like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, also contributed to this in an unlikely way with their comedic fantasy musical Aladdin, a movie I loved as a kid because it seemed to combine two of my favorite things: Disney magic and Looney Tunes humor.
Disney’s Aladdin basically told the story of a young thief in the fictional desert city of Agrabah who gets his hands on a magic lamp and meets a Genie who grants him any three wishes he wants. He asks the Genie to turn him into a prince so that he can meet the girl of his dreams Jasmine the princess of Agrabah, but his deception gets him into more trouble than he expects. To complicate matters, the sinister royal vizier Jafar is also after the lamp and will stop at nothing to get it. As you can tell the plot is pretty standard but the entertaining cast of characters, the humorous writing and the colorful, beautifully animated presentation sells the entire thing remarkably well, much in the tradition of Disney’s best films.
Based on the Arabic folk tale of Aladdin and his Magic Lamp from One Thousand and One Nights, the idea of the film came from lyricist Howard Ashman, who first pitched it to Disney in 1988 as a jazzy 1930s-style Arabian musical complete with a Cab Calloway Genie, but Disney CEO Michael Eisner didn’t have faith that American audiences would be interested in a film set in the Middle East (until Aladdin, most animated Disney films had either European or rural settings) so Ashman and his music-writing partner Alan Menken went to work on Beauty and the Beast instead. Ashman reluctantly put Aladdin on hold even though it was his passion project, but after Disney animators-turned-directors John Musker and Ron Clements expressed interest in developing the story after their film The Little Mermaid became a major hit in 1989, Disney revived the project.
Musker and Clements took a stab at writing Ashman’s story and in 1991 they presented their idea to Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, who infamously disliked it so much that he told them to start over from scratch without changing the film’s 1992 release date, essentially giving them less than a year to animate it. Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were hired to rewrite it further, making several changes including removing Aladdin’s mom from the cast (at the behest of Katzenberg who found her boring), giving Jasmine a stronger personality, changing Iago from a stuffy Brit to a loud and angry comic relief and changing the film’s setting from Baghdad to the fictional city of Agrabah. Aladdin as a character also changed from Michael J. Fox-like teenager to debonair Tom Cruise-like leading man.
The curvy and flowing lines of Arabic calligraphy inspired production designer Richard Vander Wende to base the film’s art style on the curvy and flowy drawings of American caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, and Hirschfeld himself praised the film’s art style.
The team of animators working on the film was full of talent. Glen Keane who previously supervised the animation of Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Beast from Beauty and the Beast supervised the animation of Aladdin, Andreas Deja who previously supervised Roger Rabbit, King Triton and Gaston was tasked with supervising the animation of the villain Jafar (while Kathy Zielinski animated Jafar for his transformations into an old beggar and a cobra), Al Hirschfeld-inspired animator and Richard Williams alum Eric Goldberg got his first ever Disney assignment supervising the animation of Genie, and Mark Henn who previously co-supervised the animation of Ariel with Glen Keane and the animation of Belle with James Baxter from Disney’s Florida studio finally got his own princess when he was assigned supervising animator of Jasmine, and he did such a good job here that he would later go on to supervise Mulan and Tiana from The Princess and the Frog as well. Other animators include Duncan Marjoribanks who animated Abu the monkey and the peddler/narrator, Will Finn who animated Iago the parrot, David Pruiksma who animated the Sultan, Randy Cartwright who brought the partly digital Magic Carpet to life via pantomime animation and other skilled people like T. Daniel Hofstedt, Nik Ranieri, Tony Fucile, Russ Edmonds, Randy Haycock, Ken Duncan, Anthony DeRosa, Tom and Tony Bancroft, Aaron Blaise, John Ripa and Tom Sito.
Meanwhile computer animation was also used in groundbreaking ways like bringing the Cave of Wonders to life, from the outside when the mouth of the cave speaks and on the inside during the scene where Aladdin tries to escape the cave on a flying carpet.
The voice cast was also full of talent, including Aladdin voice actor Scott Weinger who was best known for playing D.J. Tanner’s boyfriend in the ABC sitcom Full House (and who would later write and produce ABC sitcoms like Black-ish, Galavant and The Muppets). Weinger was joined by Linda Larkin as Jasmine, Douglas Seale as the Sultan, animal noise expert Frank Welker as Abu, Ohio stage actor and Shining Time Station puppeteer Jonathan Freeman as Jafar and loud-mouthed New York comedian Gilbert Gottfried as the loud-mouthed Iago, getting that role thanks to Musker and Clements seeing Gottfried’s memorable performance from Beverly Hills Cop II. Meanwhile Aladdin and Jasmine’s singing voices were provided by chorus boy-turned-stage actor Brad Kane and Olivier Award-winning Filipina singer and Miss Saigon star Lea Salonga.
But most memorable of all was improvisation master Robin Williams as Genie. In the minds of Musker and Clements, Robin Williams was always the Genie, and thankfully the comedian was available to record dialogue during breaks from filming Hook and Toys. Williams largely improvised much of Genie’s dialogue, which was an unusual thing for animated films at that time, as was basing a character in an animated feature so heavily on the persona of a Hollywood star. Williams was famous not only for Mork and Mindy but for hit films like Good Morning, Vietnam and this movie kind of kick-started a trend in Hollywood of using celebrity voices as an essential selling point for animation. You can tell Disney even tried to repeat the formula themselves when they cast Eddie Murphy as a dragon in Mulan.
Unfortunately that trend was off to a bad start because it’s worth noting that Disney essentially screwed over Robin Williams financially for his participation in this movie. At first Williams agreed to a lower SAG-scale salary for this movie as a favor to Disney over the success the studio brought him with Good Morning, Vietnam, but that was only on the condition that Williams’ name would not be used in Aladdin‘s marketing and that the Genie character would not be excessively advertised in the film so as not to cause conflict at the box office with Williams’ other 1992 film Toys. Disney of course went back on that deal (because Disney would rather make money than make Robin Williams happy), and as a result Williams refused to reprise his role as Genie in Disney’s straight-to-video sequel The Return of Jafar, only agreeing to return for Aladdin and the King of Thieves because Jeffrey Katzenberg had left by that point.
Eric Goldberg and his animation crew took all the best moments from Williams’ recording sessions and brought them to life via hilarious animation with Goldberg’s flowy animation style and Williams’ rapid dialogue a match made in heaven. Williams was even allowed to impersonate celebrities. The Genie being an all knowing and all powerful cosmic being meant that no reference was too far-fetched so in this movie you will literally see the Genie impersonate people like Groucho Marx, Peter Lorre, Ed Sullivan, Rodney Dangerfield, Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arsenio Hall and even political commentator and National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., which is a reference that no kid on Planet Earth understood but it didn’t matter because the Genie was still one of the funniest animated characters in existence.
Aladdin was the third and final Disney film on which Howard Ashman and Alan Menken would collaborate making the soundtrack before Ashman’s death in 1991. Menken handled the music and score, Ashman wrote the lyrics for the opening number “Arabian Nights,” the Genie’s jazzy swing number “Friend Like Me” and the grand march of “Prince Ali” but the lyrics for “One Jump Ahead,” the romantic ballad “A Whole New World” and Jafar’s villainous “Prince Ali” reprise were all written by the English lyricist Tim Rice, best known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the stage musicals Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Evita. The result? One of Disney’s best soundtracks ever created.
Aladdin was released in November 1992, becoming a huge hit with audiences and surpassing Beauty and the Beast as the highest-grossing animated Disney film at the domestic box office, holding onto that title until 1994 when The Lion King came out. It eventually became the biggest box office hit of 1992 and the reaction from film critics and animation fans was also highly positive with praise aimed at the art style, cast of characters, music, technical innovation and its sense of humor, which led to Rolling Stone Magazine calling the comedy in the movie accessible for both kids and adults, with much of the positive reception aimed squarely at Robin Williams and the hysterical scene-stealing antics of Genie. Chuck Jones even praised it as the funniest movie he had ever seen. And with that, we circle back to the beginning of the article. The Disney artists really did an admirable job stretching a muscle here that was highly original compared to their past films and in the process I think they not only made a film as entertaining as any film Disney ever made but a comedy that rivalled some of the best comedies Hollywood ever made.