It’s impossible to write about Robin Williams — someone who I never met, and now, sadly, never will — without feeling a little bit cheap. A little bit hollow. A little bit like grasping for straws to add my voice to a conversation about a man whose death is leaving a much greater hole in the lives of his friends and family than my own.
But still. Trying to come up with the right words to say when anybody on your peripheral dies, like Williams did of an apparent suicide on August 11, is a part of life — even if those words are shouted into the strange void that is the Internet, for lord knows who to hear.
And what became clear on Monday night, through the endless stream of lengthy Facebook messages, poignant Tweets, and hilarious throwback Instagram pictures from Williams’ (I hope) happier days, was that there is currently an entire generation of people mourning the loss of their Genie. Because for us, more than any other role he took on, Robin Williams was the Genie.
This doesn’t mean that Williams didn’t offer a lifetime of wonderful, career-defining performances, like in “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “The Fisher King,” “The Birdcage,” “Good Will Hunting,” and the oft-quoted “O Captain! My Captain!” tearjerker “Dead Poet’s Society.” He was wonderful in all of those movies, and that’s not even mentioning the less critically acclaimed, but equally memorable to both parents and kids who watched movies in the ’90s, hits like “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Jumanji.”
But it’s telling that when The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (you know, The Oscar people) decided to send out a tweet in remembrance of Williams, they eschewed referencing the film that actually won Williams his Academy Award in favor of this nostalgic tearjerker, which as of press time had garnered over 270k retweets:
Genie, you're free. pic.twitter.com/WjA9QuuldD
— The Academy (@TheAcademy) August 12, 2014
“Genie, you’re free.”
The message in this tweet references the fact that a troubled soul has been let go, sure, but it also reminds us why we fell so hard and fast for Williams as the Genie to begin with. “Aladdin” was a movie about many things, but for kids, the difficult journey to being who you are and escaping society’s (read: adults’) many prisons was the number one thing that stood out, whether we realized it at the time or not.
And while Aladdin struggled with the pressures of molding himself into something he was not, the Genie was a marvel — exuberant, kind, silly, and completely uninhibited in a way that so many of us wish we could be. Williams brought out his infectiously silly comedic style in a many of his films, but it was his Genie — where he could truly explore the crazy depths of his imagination without the constraints of playing an actual human being — that endeared this man to millions upon millions of kids.
Williams could literally do whatever he wanted with the role — as is proven by the below behind-the-scenes video — and the joy that he felt in doing so, in making so many kids laugh, was felt in every frame. Whether he was blowing our minds by doing spastic, mile-a-minute impressions or comforting us (via Aladdin) by telling us that everything we wanted to be was okay, the Genie was the giant blue father figure slash comedian slash spiritual leader that pretty much every kid has ever wanted, and his hugs were simply out of the this world.
“One of the great thrills of my life was actually watching Robin Williams laugh at my animation,” the Genie’s supervising animator Eric Goldberg says in the video, (which was unearthed by Climate Desk’s James West). “I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that. What we didn’t expect was how much Robin was going to give us.”
“[The Genie’s story] really was the most emotional part of the story in many ways, and that was what was cool about Robin,” producer John Musker added. “He would really invest in the emotional thing as well as the gags.”
The combination of the two — the dad jokes on speed and the desire for complete freedom that lives in every kid — is what made the Genie an icon, and it’s impossible to imagine anybody but Williams bringing this magical character to life. And above all, it’s knowing that our Genie didn’t get the happy, lamp-free ending he got in the film that’s making this whole thing hurt so bad. That no one could help the man behind the voice the way his character helped us is a crushing blow, and one that will certainly make future viewings of the film feel a little bit different.
But at least we can remember him how he was. Check out what Aladdin and Iago (Scott Weinger and Gilbert Gottfried) had to say below, as well as the aforementioned video (Williams’ portion begins around 06:38), and let us know your memories about the Genie and Williams himself in the comments.
Farewell to my childhood hero and my Genie. The world won't be the same without him.
— Scott Weinger (@ScottWeinger) August 11, 2014
From the Parrot to the Genie…#RIPRobinWilliams
— Gilbert Gottfried (@RealGilbert) August 12, 2014