Hard to imagine now, but when “Aladdin” came out 25 years ago (on Nov. 25, 1992), Disney brass saw the movie as a big risk.
They’d never done a cartoon feature based on a non-Western folk tale, with a male lead who was more than just a reactive handsome prince — and with a female lead who chafed at being a princess. This was a Disney first at the time also because the story was told in a largely comical tone, full of contemporary pop-culture references, built around a performance by an A-list star unaccustomed to doing voice over work.
Of course, they needn’t have worried. “Aladdin” went on to become the top-grossing movie of 1992. It spawned the studio’s first direct-to-video sequels, a Broadway musical, and a forthcoming 2019 live-action reboot. And with Robin Williams’s Genie, it changed the way animated movies were cast.
Even so, “Aladdin” might have turned out very differently; the original plot, score, characters, and casting ideas underwent radical changes partway through the production. Even after its release, controversy prompted further changes. Here, then, are the secrets of the lamp, including the truth behind Williams’ feud with Disney over the movie, the hidden Easter eggs, and more. Read on and enter a whole new world.
1. The initial idea to turn the “Aladdin” legend into a Disney cartoon began with Howard Ashman, the lyricist behind “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” As early as 1987, he’d written a 40-page treatment. Disney let the idea linger in development limbo until “Little Mermaid” co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements decided they wanted to make it their next project. Ashman died in early 1991 and never saw this project come to fruition.
2. The idea of filling the musical with big-band swing-style numbers also started with Ashman’s initial conception of the Genie. “The Genie was a black hipster,” said composer Alan Menken. “We wrote him a Fats Waller kind of number.” The character mutated over time, but “that style just remained.”
4. To win Williams over, animator Eric Goldberg made a test reel of the Genie performing some of Williams’ stand-up comedy. One bit that referenced schizophrenia saw the Genie grow a second head and argue with himself. Williams cracked up and signed on.
5. Goldberg, the first animator on the project, set the movie’s style by modeling the characters after the work of Al Hirschfeld, the legendary caricaturist whose flowing, swirling portraits of Broadway stars decorated the New York Times for generations. “We already had some curvy, Hollywood-Arabian-style backgrounds,” Goldberg said. “I wanted a curvy, rounded look that would help these characters fit into their environment. My first source of inspiration was Al Hirschfeld because he has such an elegant way of handling bare line, just down to its essence, and making it so expressive.”
6. If you really want to see where many of the elements in “Aladdin” came from, watch the 1940 live-action fantasy film “The Thief of Baghdad.” Like that movie, “Aladdin” features a flying carpet, a volatile genie, a toy-loving sultan, and a villain named Jafar who looks a lot like the British film’s Conrad Veidt — along with many other similarities in character names, costumes, and set design.
8. Scott Weinger, perhaps best known for playing D.J.’s boyfriend Steve on “Full House,” won the role of Aladdin by sending in a tape of him reading the part opposite his mom as the Genie. But Weinger did only the spoken dialogue; Aladdin’s singing voice came from Brad Kane. “I couldn’t form complex sentences,” joked Kane, “and Scott couldn’t carry a tune.”
10. Studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg had become accustomed to micromanaging Disney’s animated productions. “I’m the hoop they have to toss the ball through,” he explained. “It’s my job to make sure everything is great, not good. I wish I could do this on our live-action movies.” One day, which the animators came to call “Black Friday,” Katzenberg told them “Aladdin” wasn’t working, and that the entire script would have to be rewritten — this with the movie’s release date still locked in and just 19 months away. Among his recommendations: Get rid of Aladdin’s mother (“She’s a zero,” he said) and his other human sidekicks, make Jafar’s parrot sidekick, Iago, less stuffy, and lose some of Menken’s songs (of the 14 he composed, only six ended up in the movie).
12. As Jafar’s foil, sidekick Iago was originally written as a snooty British butler-type character. With the decision to make him more of a tough, streetwise New York-type, the filmmakers considered casting Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci. Inspired by Gilbert Gottfried’s performance in “Beverly Hills Cop II,” they ultimately offered the role to the screechy-voiced comic. Gottfried claimed he tried reading the part as initially envisioned. “The first time I did it, I sounded like George Sanders,” he said. But he joked that he’d been hired to bring “Aladdin” some Jewish flavor. “Disney called me up and said, ‘The picture is getting too gentile! Help us!’ In fact, it was Walt who called me, which made it even more frightening.”
14. For the opening scene, with Williams voicing the peddler of bizarre artifacts who narrates the story, Katzenberg had the idea to give Williams a covered box of random props and have him improvise based on whatever he pulled out from the box.
16. The tight production schedule had the animators doing three films at once, spending about a year of intense focus on “Aladdin” while also preparing “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.” “As you end the picture, that’s when everyone gets sick,” recalled animator Andreas Deja, who oversaw the work on Jafar. “There was one girl who was pregnant during the picture, and when she handed in her last scene, she turned around, and her water broke.”
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20. The Academy nominated “Aladdin” for five Oscars, including Sound and Sound Editing, and two for Best Original Song (“Friend Like Me” and “A Whole New World”). It won two trophies, for “Whole New World” and for Menken’s instrumental score.
22. Later, Williams would insist that the issue was a breach of contract. He’d stipulated that his likeness (as the Genie) shouldn’t appear on more than 25 percent of the area of the poster art, in part because he didn’t want to oversell his supporting role, and in part because he didn’t want to steal attention away from his live-action release “Toys” coming out the following month. He’d also refused to allow his voice to be used in commercials for merchandising tie-ins. Disney violated both of those provisions, as the studio finally admitted in an apology to the actor after Katzenberg left in 1994.
24. Williams could riff and improvise endlessly. “The first time he would do the scene it would be a minute long,” said “Aladdin” co-director Ron Clements. “By the time he got to the 25th take, it would be, like, ten minutes.” Most of that material was unusable, but for the 2015 Blu-ray release, Goldberg animated some of his favorite Williams outtakes and included them as extras.