By Disney Betraying Robin Williams In 'Aladdin,' It Altered Animation Forever
By: Domonique Cox-Salberg
Robin Williams most recognized and beloved role, Genie, also happens to mark the time Disney screwed him over and simultaneously changed animation forever. Indeed, an interesting incident and time within Disney history, a lot went down, and there is a lot to cover. Let’s get to it.
The Character Actor vs. The Star
Back in the day and for much of the time, actors who did voice-overs in animation were done by character actors/non-celebrities. The movies were sold on almost every component but their celebrity voice talent. Then, jump to the early 2000s, in terms of pure volume that trailed after Shrek (2001) was released, the ogre led movie absolutely influenced heavily marketed celebrity voice talent within animated features to follow. Saying this to point out that Shrek may have categorized the trend, but it did not start it—that undecided credit goes to Aladdin. Ironically, the marketing star, Robin Williams, was not in on it, nor did he want this to happen.
Quick jump to the following sections:
- The Celeb Voice-over Phenomenon
- Robin Williams
- Robin Williams vs. Disney
- The Ferngully Debacle
- The Aftermath & Modern Animation
- Why Aladdin’s Genie is Memorable & Conclusion
Williams did not want Aladdin marketed off the back of his celebrity (more specifically his voice). The fact that Disney chose to market the movie and its affiliated merchandise in any way created a severe rift between Williams and the studio. He went so far as to say he would never work with the Walt Disney Company ever again. It lasted for years, all because Disney could not help themselves and chose to ignore Robin’s request to not have his voice used as a marketing tool for Aladdin.
The Celeb Voice-over Phenomenon
But before we break down the specifics of the full story, the history of voice acting is integral to the imminent Disney duping of Robin Williams that would transpire decades later. Before, animated features were rarely the arena for A-list actors and more the territory for relatively unknown character and voice actors. Think the classics like 1937s Snow White (Adriana Caselotti), 1950s Cinderella (Ilene Woods), or unforgettable villain Maleficent played by character actress Eleanor Audley, where to this day, only hardcore Disney fans know their names. Nonetheless, sometimes the occasional A-lister was sprinkled in from time to time.
Like, how Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings had John Hurt, or All Dogs Go to Heaven with Burt Reynolds. Though there is one example right before Aladdin that used their star power and saw a bigger profit because of it, and that would be Oliver & Company (1988). Made for $31 million—a much bigger budget than usual for a feature like this—it earned $121 million at the box office proving star power does get more attention, especially from adult-moviegoers.
All this to say and spotlight how these roles were typically reserved for lesser-known talent. Before the days when aggressively pushing the cast as a feature of the film was common, these examples helped to transcend the actor/feature relationship within animation. However, what officially solidified the influence of celebrity-driven animated features came when Robin Williams joined Aladdin’s cast.
Robin Williams became famous as a stand-up comedian and received acclaim for his improv work and starring role in television’s Mork and Mindy, which would soon catch the eye of Disney producer Jeffrey Katzenberg. He felt that Williams’ comedic improvisation skills had potential and decided to take a chance on him, as Williams initially struggled to succeed in film with several box office failures, by offering him a role. Later down the line, with many more successful parts and two Best Actor Oscar nominations under his belt—partly thanks to Katzenberg—sparked new life into his movie career to become an A-list profitable star.
Their relationship is imperative to what ensued at Disney since part of why Williams took the Genie role was as a favor to Katzenberg from his help in getting him career-defining roles, like Dead Poets Society (1989). Therefore, in 1991 while Robin Williams was filming Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), Katzenberg asked him if he could come to the Disney Studio to give his input on a project (Aladdin).
Though, Katzenberg and the Aladdin directors Ron Clement and John Musker already wanted Williams for the role as they wrote it specifically for him, and felt that their movie would not be made if they did not have him. And even though by this time Williams is an A-lister and can draw in adults, the studio wanting him was not predicated initially on that. His cartoonish, frantic personality was inspiring. So not only was the part written for him—but they pitched Aladdin as a Robin Williams vehicle before the actor had ever been approached.
“Yeah, we wrote this part with Robin in mind. We didn’t know if he would do it…We were totally walking down the plank. If he said no, we were going to be in big trouble because the whole concept for Aladdin was built around Robin.” -John Musker
Robin Williams vs. Disney
So, obviously, Williams signed on after first being hesitant. His relationship with Jeffrey Katzenberg helped, as discussed before, and the film’s supervising animator Eric Goldberg created sample reel of the Genie. It was set to one of Williams’ old standup routines called “Reality, What a Concept.” Williams is said to have “laughed his ass off” and then sighed up immediately. Check out a small part from the reel that sealed the deal below.
His salary was set at 70,000, and the following caveat: He specifically requested that Disney use his name in 25% or less of the movie’s promotional and marketing material. He made these concessions because he was worried this would cannibalize the audience for the upcoming film and passion project, Toys, set to be released a few months after Aladdin. Which, it did just that as Aladdin’s box office crushed Toys. Even more imperative, Williams had this concern from an ethical standpoint: He did not want his voice to be used to sell merchandise.
Williams stated in a Los Angeles Times article back in 1994, “I love animation, and Disney is the Rolls-Royce of animation. But I told them, ‘Don’t use my voice to sell merchandise,’ and they agreed to that. When Disney went ahead and used his voice in their marketing Williams said, he felt “it was like a violation of a trust.”
In the beginning, Disney did stick to their agreement, although in a roundabout way. If we look at the original poster, there is no mention of Williams or the Genie, just a slogan and fancy backlit lamp. Nevertheless, Disney quickly found a cunning way to work that understanding of the 25% marketing caveat. They found a way to work it in their favor while being technically, somewhat, within reason. Except, where they indeed crossed the line, happened when they brought Aladdin marketing to Burger King, dolls, commercials, and more.
The Ferngully Debacle
We can assume Disney went back on their promise because of the now revealed, petty aims of Katzenberg to actively sabotage Ferngully: The Last Rainforest—another animated production Williams was signed on to before Aladdin. Said Ferngully writer, Diana Young to Variety, 2017: “Twice we rented facilities, they gazumped us by paying more. When we found space in the brewery, Disney tried to buy it.” Then, according to the screenwriter Jim Cox, “Robin was steaming, like, ‘It’s my voice! You can’t stop me.”
Williams gave Disney a big screw you, I’m sticking with Ferngully, which caused Disney to throw it right back and renege on their promise for marketing. Hence, it began the now-infamous feud between Williams and the Walt Disney Company. Headlines followed, like, “The Genie Has a Gripe With Disney,” Williams started publicly denouncing Disney, as the House of Mouse continued to use the Genie to make money.
Williams said, “The one thing I said was I will do the voice. I’m doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition.” I want something for my children. One deal is, I just don’t want to sell anything—as in burger King, as in toys, as in stuff.” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 1993.
“Not only did they use my voice, they took a character I did and overdubbed it to sell stuff. That was the one thing I said: ‘I don’t do that.’ That was the one thing where they crossed the line.”
A source at the studio repudiated the actor’s comments in the same Los Angeles Times article from 1993 stating below:
“Every single piece of marketing material involving Robin Williams was run by Marsha (the actor’s wife) and Robin Williams,” the source said. “We did not use his voice in any way that he did not contractually agree to. He agreed to the deal, and then when the movie turned out to be a big hit, he didn’t like the deal he had made.”
The bridge was burned…but not forever. Yes, we can blame the feud for Disney’s no-budget hot mess, The Return of Jafar, as Williams declined to reprise the role of Genie. Nevertheless, years later, Disney fired Katzenberg, replaced him with his successor Jim Roth who issued a heartfelt public apology to Williams. Thus, reeling him in to voice the Genie for other Aladdin projects and non-animated flicks.
The Aftermath & Modern Animation
So, the crowning irony of the Disney hoodwinking is not that Williams’ involvement in Aladdin started the trend of celebrity voice acting as a marketing strategy (which he certainly did), but that it is something he firmly was against. He would never want what happened to him, become the new thing to do within animation. But it did, and often—with no sign of slowing down. Even among the most unfavorable examples of this practice, some illuminating lessons were learned from Aladdin’s success. We saw it in The Lion King to a small degree and Pocahontas, where Disney cast one of the world’s biggest stars at that time, Mel Gibson, as John Smith.
What spawned were endless Genie wannabes featuring extremely profitable people like famous comedian Eddie Murphy in Mulan as the side-kick dragon, Mushu. It was an invented character for the 1998 movie—and Murphy’s star power—as it was not part of the original Hua Mulan legend. They almost always are in the side-kick role, and of course, played by well-known comedians, Rosie O’Donnell in Tarzan, Danny DeVito in Hercules, and more. Some were successful, and others were not, like the egregious and just odd casting of Meg Ryan as a spirited 18-year-old amnesiac in Anastasia and pretty much everyone else cast in that movie.
Nonetheless, the apex of this trend of getting adult interest in children’s entertainment by way of celebrity voice talent comes from Jeffrey Katzenberg’s ill-handling of post-Disney successes by ripping off other works and inserting more stars into the roles. Like the legit copy of Pixar’s and Disney’s, A Bugs Life, with the shameless DreamWorks Antz. The cast had freaking Woody Allen, Sylvester Stalone, Sharon Stone, Gene Hackmen, and more. And like with Ferngully, Katzenberg actively tried to sabotage Bugs and did everything he could to get Antz released before it.
Lastly, now that the whole feud has been revealed, Shrek’s significance in all of this is much clearer. It is the ultimate outlier. Why? Well, because the Shrek creators decided to amplify their celebrity marketing like no other before, openly mocking Disney, as well as the addition of countless adult humor and pop-culture references with no ounce of subtlety to really drive this idea home. There are countless examples not as enjoyable as Shrek, despite its faults, which show most of the budget went to the star-studded cast than a good story and visuals. The Emoji Movie is most indicative of this trend gone horribly wrong.
Why Aladdin’s Genie is Memorable & Conclusion
Although, vital to mention, Disney did find their way back and began casting based on a role instead of writing roles for a celebrity, as with the awesomely rendered, Tangled. Now moving away from casting simply for gimmick/corporate cash grab, they have moved back into a creative choice that cleverly plays into the character’s strengths and the actor inhabiting the role. Although, the movies that followed due to the Robin Williams Disney feud opened up a new standard that caused a significant animation shift.
His one performance (and strife) led the way for other animated films to incorporate entertainers with more star power and the consideration of molding roles for a particular actor. More the idea that the role and the actor shaped one another. For better or worse.
In Robin’s case, it proved at the end of the day, sincerity is the greatest factor when it comes to art. He made us feel like we truly never had a friend like him.