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‘Aladdin’ Turns 25: Creators on the Real Beginning of the Disney Renaissance

Before Disney’s animated blockbuster “Aladdin” had its premiere in Japan, directors Ron Clements and John Musker were told not to worry if the audience didn’t laugh.

And it wasn’t because the Japanese performer who dubbed Robin Williams’ shape-shifting Genie didn’t capture the actor’s brilliant off-the-wall comedic performance.

“They tell you ahead of time, ‘don’t worry because the audience won’t laugh, because a Japanese audience doesn’t laugh,”’ noted Clements. “They just sit respectfully.”

But they did laugh at Genie, who turns into everybody from Ed Sullivan to William F. Buckley to former talk show host Arsenio Hall.

“Probably the biggest laugh in the whole screening was when he turned into Arsenio Hall and did his ‘Woof, woof, woof’ with his arm,” said Clements. “I was asking somebody afterward about that and why it got such a big laugh. They said ‘Oh, we loved it when the Genie turned into Julia Roberts from ‘Pretty Woman.’ In ‘Pretty Woman,’ Julia Roberts is doing an Arsenio Hall impression. They didn’t know who Arsenio Hall was, but they knew about Julia Roberts.”

And it didn’t seem to bother them, noted Musker, “that the Genie had a mustache when he became Julia Roberts.”

Aladdin” was released 25 years ago on Nov. 25 — the fourth film to come out of the Disney animation renaissance that kicked off with “The Little Mermaid” in 1989. It became the No. 1 film of 1992, earning $217 million domestically and $504 million internationally. Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s “A Whole New World” earned the best song Oscar and Menken won a second Academy Award for his score.

Disney subsequently released two direct-to-video sequels. “Aladdin” also spawned a TV series and a hit Broadway musical which is still going strong after three years. And Guy Ritchie is currently shooting a live-action remake with Will Smith as the wisecracking Genie.

According to animation historian Jerry Beck, “Aladdin” is the film where the “Disney renaissance, the new interest in animation, the talents behind the screen, everything came together.” Not “The Little Mermaid?” Or “Beauty and the Beast?” Or “The Lion King?” “No, I think it was ‘Aladdin,’” says Beck.

Beck noted, looking back at 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” which was directed by Clements and Musker, and 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which was the first animated film to earn a best picture Oscar nomination, that “as well as they were made, there are still a few scenes, a few shots, crowd sequences” where things are “just a little off” in his opinion. “When they hit ‘Aladdin,’ they hit a new level of what I call perfection that hadn’t been at Disney since Disney passed away.”

Quincy Jones, left, and Lena Horne, far right, presented the best original song Oscar to “Aladdin” composers Alan Menken and Tim Rice

In short, he said, “Aladdin” is “perfect in every direction — production values, the use of the computer, character animation, the look of the background characters, the animation of the smallest things in it and, of course, the element of storytelling. It has all of the emotions. As much as we all remember it for the laughs and Robin Williams and the Genie sequences, it has a great story.” Beck says, “You wouldn’t laugh as hard at Robin Williams if the story wasn’t so solid.”

Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman were simultaneously working on the songs for “The Little Mermaid” — they would win the best song Oscar for “Under the Sea” — and the idea for “Aladdin.”

But Ashman’s original idea for “Aladdin” was soon shelved.

In Ashman’s initial version, Aladdin was a member of a street gang and his mother was an integral part of the plot.

“There’s also a very irreverent tone that we took,” said Menken. “A lot of that remained, but it was even more irreverent. I think it made [Disney] a little nervous. Did they want to go that irreverent with an Arab-themed story? In any case, we moved to ‘Beauty and the Beast.”’

Enter Clements and Musker, who most recently directed the 2016 hit Disney animated film “Moana.”

After finishing “The Little Mermaid,” then-chairman of Disney studios Jeffrey Katzenberg offered them three projects.

“One of them was ‘Swan Lake,’’’ said Clements. “We sort of thought ‘Swan Lake’ was too close to ‘Mermaid.’ The other idea was called ‘King of the Jungle.’ That was something about lions in Africa and didn’t feel like anyone really would be interested in seeing a film about lions! So we turned that down. And the third film was ‘Aladdin.”’

Because they were familiar with Ashman’s version, “We liked the whole idea of doing ‘Aladdin,’’’ said Clements.

“We did our version where we lost the street gang. We kept the Genie’s song and the Arabian night song. We had the idea of doing the Genie as a Robin Williams-type character. He was kind of a Fats Waller character in Howard’s version and that is is what he is now in the play.”

The idea of using Williams was not only because of his brilliant comedic mind, said Musker, but also to “find an animation hook. We wanted to find something that we felt you can only do in animation that you would never be able to do as well as live action. The idea of a shape-changing Genie with a very mercurial comedic tone, with Robin doing his mercurial voice with the idea that he could turn into anything, seemed like that would just be really fun to do in animation.”

Clements and Musker were shocked when, in April 1991, just 19 months before “Aladdin” was set to open, Katzenberg asked them to start over. He wasn’t happy with the directors’ script or the story reel and wanted them to, among other things, “86 the mother.” That day became known as “Black Friday.” The production, though, still had to make its planned release date of Nov. 25, 1992.

“We scrambled,” said Musker. “One of the first things that happened is we were in production and people were going to be coming from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ imminently, so we auditioned some writers to help us out. The writers who we really seemed to click with were Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who ultimately went on to do ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’”

“The writers,” said Musker, “hit the ground running while we were still trying to keep the movie going. They pushed some of Jasmine’s independence and the ‘Roman Holiday’ aspect of the story where she leaves and goes into the marketplace. We used to have unlimited wishes that Aladdin had and they thought it would raise the stakes if he only had three wishes.”

Ashman never knew of the “Black Friday” issue because he died of AIDs-related complications in March, 1991 at the age of 40. Three of the songs he and Menken wrote, the Oscar-nominated “Friend Like Me,” “Arabian Nights” and “Prince Ali,” remain in the finished film.

“Prince Ali,” said Menken, was their final collaboration. “The writing of that started on a hospital bed. I had a little portable keyboard which I brought to the hospital and stuck it on his bed and we worked.”

Emotionally, added Menken, “there’s an incompleteness about not being able to share [the success] with your collaborator. Howard passed away not having seen ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ much less knowing it would be a success.”

Rice, who had collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on such musicals as “Evita,” was brought in from London to meet with Menken.

“I was very excited about working with Tim,” Menken said. “But, of course, there were a lot of questions about how this collaboration would work and could we do work that would be at the level of and also match the style of the work that Howard and I were doing.”

Before Menken flew to London to begin his collaboration with Rice, he went into his studio and wrote three pieces of music with dummy lyrics. “I could give him a good indication of exactly what I thought the songs would be like. He was great about that. Then I flew over and we wrote ‘One Jump Ahead,’ ‘A Whole New World” and a song called ‘Why Me?,’ which didn’t end up being used, but it was really good.”

“Aladdin” doesn’t look like any other Disney animated film. It was Genie supervising animator Eric Goldberg who came up with the idea of giving the film the look of famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who was best known for his black-and-white portraits of Broadway stars and other celebrities.

“Angular had been the style when I was doing commercials in London,” said Goldberg. “I was kind of getting tired of angular. But the other thing, the main influence, was looking at Richard Vander Wende’s early production design paintings of Agrabah, which I called Hollywood Arabian where the S curves are very exaggerated. I thought, okay what kind of of characters fit in a curvy environment? Curvy characters!  Therefore, Al Hirschfeld. I’m the one who kind of brought the Hirschfield thing to bear.”

Goldberg noted that “I think for the first time in our generation, we co-designed our cast together. All supervising animators and John and Ron got in a room and we put up all of our drawings and we started to define the universe. If you think of the Genie and [the parrot] Iago at the wackiest end of the universe and Aladdin and Jasmine as the straight end of that universal, they all had Hirschfeldian styling. It means they could all live in the same frame together.”

Williams was in the midst of making “Hook” when he was supplying the voice for the Genie.

“We only had Robin for four four-hour sessions,” noted Goldberg. And Williams usually did his recordings after a full day on the set of “Hook.” Still, “he gave us 150%. Contrary to what a lot of people think, Robin didn’t bounce off the walls all the time.”

Goldberg remembers observing Williams eat a sandwich and watch TV. “You could see the mental Rolodex filing away for future use. Then when the mic opened up, bam! He let it all out and gave us so much material we were spoiled for choice. I considered him a very, very generous performer that way. I like to think if the script was a road map, Robin took a lot of detours. But we loved the detours.”

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