When I was in elementary school, the junior choir sang “A Whole New World” at the Christmas concert. That was in 1994 (it could have been 1995, my memory of the time is a little hazy). The Disney magic from The Little Mermaid, which I clearly remember my parents taking to my sister and I to see in theatres, to Beauty and the Beast, which my grandmother was told to buy two copies of since the VHS tape would run raw from repeated viewings, had certainly continued to Aladdin.
A few of Howard Ashman’s songs survived from his early work on the film. “Arabian Nights,” “Prince Ali” and “Friend Like Me” were all Ashman’s songs. But it was a new lyricist, Tim Rice, who wrote the now iconic “A Whole New World” and the somewhat less iconic but still fun “One Jump Ahead,” which does a great job of setting up Aladdin’s character.
Sadly, many of Ashman’s songs wound up on the cutting room floor due to changes in the story. In the original treatment, Aladdin had three friends and the story was a fast-paced comic adventure about a young man trying to prove himself to his parents. The story didn’t work, though, especially as a musical. When John Musker and Ron Clements took over directing — fresh off their success with The Little Mermaid — they re-worked the plot to be about a young man searching for self respect and love, leaving many of the story-based songs no longer usable.
But with Ashman writing a very different movie than what was ultimately produced, character design proved to be a challenge for the studio. Aladdin was originally written to be as young as 12 or 13 and initial screen test animation presented him as a very boyish character. As he was aged, he started to look a little bit like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, something that was entirely inappropriate for the tone of the film. Jeffrey Katzenberg asked that he be buffed up, made a little more manly looking, and gave supervising animator Glen Keane scenes from Tom Cruise movies and pictures of Calvin Klein models to study.
The result is an Aladdin with boyish charm, but the manly confidence to jump around the marketplace credibly and fall in love without looking creepy.
And it was this character development that adds some modern credibility to Aladdin the way Belle did for Beauty and the Beast. Belle had a reason to fall for her Beast: he grew as a person, learned to love and she had a strong sense of self to pursue her dreams. Disney needed a male figure that could do the same thing. As Keane told Entertainment Weekly during promotion for the film, “I could never understand why Snow White and Sleeping Beauty fell for those princes. Those guys were cardboard symbols, and the love relationship was assumed. We wanted there to be a how to the princess falling in love.”
And so the studio fell back on Walt’s original mantra: Great stories, with unforgettable characters.
Unforgettable characters they got with their Genie. Hiring Robin Williams is always a gamble. As his 2002 Broadway performance proved, when he is unleashed with a microphone, you’re never sure what’s going to come out. So was the case with his performance as Genie.
He also voiced the merchant in the film’s opening sequence, much of which was ad-libbed and left a sizeable chunk of the original recording unusable in a Disney film. There was so much ad-libbing throughout the film that the directors began to worry they had an “800-pound genie” on their hands who was overshadowing Aladdin and many of the other characters. The solution was not to tone it down, but to increase the sass level across the stage. Aladdin was given more sharp retorts, Iago moved from calm to exaggerated and even Carpet has some sharp moments.
Robin Williams had a much bigger impact on the studio than just Genie, though.
Williams was coming off filming Hook and was getting ready to join Fox to film Toys. As a top-billed cast member of the latter film, he volunteered to do the voice of Genie at union rates — only $70,000 for the entire film — on the condition that his image and name not be used too heavily to market the film so that it would not outshine or compete with his other project.
Disney agreed to the deal, but when it came time to promote, the company reneged. Genie became a central push for marketers leading up to the theatrical release, taking huge prominence in posters and television spots. Williams was, to say the least, displeased. He withdrew all support for Disney, refused to do special features, help promote the film or even appear in the sequel. In both the sequel, Return of Jafar, and the television show, the role of Genie was instead voiced by Dan Castelanetta. It was only after Katzenberg left the studio and his replacement publicly apologized for past wrongs that Williams returned and lent his voice to Genie again in the direct-to-video second sequel Aladdin and the King of Thieves, replacing recordings already completed by Castelanetta.
But despite all the development drama, Aladdin was an enormous success. The New York Times said Aladdin was “the studio’s latest effort to send the standards for animated children’s films into the stratosphere.”
It went on to criticize, justifiably, Princess Jasmine, whose only goal is to find a husband, while Aladdin seems concerned with get-rich-quick schemes and getting the girl, decidedly teenage imaginations at work. But with the musical score and the bevy of minor characters adding heart to the film, all is forgiven.
Audiences couldn’t throw their money at the studio fast enough. On a $28-million budget, Aladdin became the highest earning film of 1992, easily beating out competitors Home Alone 2, Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon 3, A Few Good Men and Sister Act. World-wide, Aladdin has since grossed more than $500-million.
Aladdin was not a pinnacle of high-artistry and excellent work. The CAPS system worked seamlessly, and the 3-D animation was impressive, but stood out more than it should have. The characters were memorable and the humour perfect for both kids and adults. It was profitable on an enormous scale. The next project on the horizon would do its best to blend the artistry possible in Beauty and the Beast with the profitability of Aladdin, and would largely succeed: The Lion King was only a year and a half away from public eyes.