ANAHEIM, California — Few films have been able to capture our imaginations quite like Aladdin. It introduced us to a whole new world of wonderment — a place with magic carpets and talking Genies.
On Saturday (August 15), the animated film's makers and cast gathered to reminisce at Disney’s D23 fan expo. For its time, Aladdin was a revolutionary tale. Not for its exotic setting or diverse character, but for its unabashed humor. What directors Ron Clements and John Musker were able to pull off — thanks, in large part, to their own genie, the late Robin Williams — was unparalleled.
Here are some surprising secrets from the makers of Disney's "Aladdin":
Ron and John turned down the opportunity to direct other Disney classics to take a chance on Aladdin.
Fresh off the huge success of The Little Mermaid, Clements and Musker — who are often referred to as Ron and John ("one word") — were really, really tired. So tired, in fact, that they had turned down offers to direct both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Instead, their interest peaked when they heard about Aladdin, a tale about a poor boy in the fictional sultanate of Agrabah.
(Fun fact: Ron and John are responsible for most of your favorite childhood tales: The Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, The Princess and the Frog, and the upcoming stunner, Moana.)
Aladdin was a risky move.
"It was considered a risky movie at the time," Musker said. "Disney had never down a story like this. The idea with Aladdin was to go in a different direction — to have a more irreverent tone. It was cut from a very different cloth than 'Beauty and the Beast.'"
Of course, that decision had a lot to do with the casting of Robin Williams as the voice of Genie. As for the film's runaway success? "I think Robin Williams had a lot to do with it," Musker said. "And Eric Goldberg."
Robin Williams wasn't initially sold on the idea.
Can you imagine Aladdin without Williams as the fast-talking, happy-go-lucky Genie?! Well, it almost happened. Williams was always Ron and John's first pick to voice the character, but the comedian needed some convincing. Enter iconic animator Eric Goldberg.
"Ron and John had me animate some of Robin's comedy riffs as the Genie," Goldberg said. Once Williams saw Goldberg's hilarious animations, he happily signed on to voice the Genie.
Williams's unconventional method of voice acting proved to be groundbreaking, resulting in one of the most iconic voice performances of all-time.
Many of the Genie's most memorable scenes were inspired by Williams.
"Robin gave us so much of that kind of stuff to work with," said Musker. For example, the scene in which the Genie's head turns into Pinocchio as his nose grows was inspired by the manic sound Williams made in the recording booth.
"We didn't want to keep the lightning in a bottle," Goldberg said, who said he wanted to animate all of Williams's riffs. "When Robin got in front of the mic for the first time, out came all of the celebrity impressions, and I knew we needed to keep them in there."
Those Disney Easter Eggs were all Goldberg's idea.
Aladdin was not only known for its humor, but also its meta references to other Disney films. Some of Disney's most iconic figures — and some the world hadn't even been introduced to yet — made their way into the film thanks to Goldberg.
When Genie is granting Aladdin's wish to be a prince, he pulls Sebastian — from Ron and John's The Little Mermaid — out of a recipe book for "King Crab." Alan Menken later added the riff from "Under the Sea" to make the moment even more meta. But Sebastian wasn't the only visitor. In the Sultan's pile of toys, you'll see the Beast from "Beauty and the Beast." A Goofy hat also makes its way into the film, as do the directors themselves.
The decision to also make Williams the narrator changed everything.
Williams's narration in the beginning of the film definitely sets the tone for what's to come. "Right off the bat, you know this is a different kind of movie," said Clements.
"For the very first scene of his introduction to the movie, we had 25 takes," Musker added. The directors supplied Williams with a box of props to use during the opening sequence — many of which made it into the film.
Jasmine was inspired by animator Mark Henn's sister.
"I was having a bit of artist's block," Henn recalled. He had just animated both Ariel and Belle and was having a hard time drawing inspiration for Jasmine.
A photo of his younger sister Beth, who styled her hair in a similar way to what we now know as Jasmine's iconic 'do, kickstarted his imagination.
Fun fact: Ron and Jon brought in Henn after they killed off Aladdin's mother, which ultimately increased Jasmine's screen time in the film.
Linda Larkin, the voice of Jasmine, didn't see anything ahead of recording her dialogue.
Oftentimes, voice actors will record the dialogue before any animation has been done because the animators like to be inspired by the actors performances, rather than the other way around.
So Larkin, a soft-spoken blonde from Minnesota, had seen nothing by storyboard images and the mold the team had made for Princess Jasmine, when she recorded her lines.
"Sometimes, I'd see her move in a certain way and say, 'That's something I'd do!'" Larkin said.
Scott Weinger's mom helped him land the role of Aladdin.
Weinger recorded his first audition tape with his mother, who voiced the role of the Genie. Ron and Jon were impressed with Weinger's performance — and completely blown away by his mother's commitment to the role of Genie.
At the time, Weinger thought he was just signing on to be a voice in a cartoon. "I had no idea what a big deal this movie was going to be," he said, noting that when he was cast, Disney had only released The Little Mermaid. "We had no idea that we were going to be apart of this entire Disney renaissance."
"My wife thinks it's amazing," he said. "She likes saying she's Aladdin's wife. My son is completely indifferent."
Brad Kane's first day in the recording booth was a memorable one.
Kane, the singing voice of Aladdin, was brought in after Weinger's several failed attempts at singing.
"When I went in there to record the first take, they told me I'd be singing in front of a 75-piece orchestra," Kane said. Kane would later record the film's most iconic song, "A Whole New World" with Lea Salonga.
Fun fact: Kane has only sang "A Whole New World" twice — once with Salonga during the initial recording of the song and once with his wife on their wedding day. "It's such a special song, and it's such a beautiful experience, you want to keep it special," he said.
Williams's had so many wonderful outtakes, Goldberg put together something special for the Blu-ray release.
As a very special tribute to the late comedian, Goldberg personally sifted through all of Williams's outtakes and animated a few of his favorites for the upcoming Blu-ray release of Aladdin, available October 13.
Goldberg storyboarded a whole new sequence using Williams's hilarious outtakes, which have never been heard before, and some of the storyboards were screened for the D23 crowd.
"Robin was one of the most generous performers," the animator said. The toughest part of bringing the Genie to life, for Goldberg, was to "make sure people knew the Genie was sincere." And that, he said, was all Robin. "Robin was so warm."
Like the song says, we ain't never had a friend like him.