LOS ANGELES, Nov 27, (RTRS): Before Disney’s animated blockbuster “Aladdin” had its premiere in Japan, directors Ron Clements and John Musker were told not to worry if the audience didn’t laugh.
And it wasn’t because the Japanese performer who dubbed Robin Williams’ shape-shifting Genie didn’t capture the actor’s brilliant off-the-wall comedic performance.
“They tell you ahead of time, ‘don’t worry because the audience won’t laugh, because a Japanese audience doesn’t laugh,”’ noted Clements. “They just sit respectfully.”
But they did laugh at Genie, who turns into everybody from Ed Sullivan to William F. Buckley to former talk show host Arsenio Hall.
“Probably the biggest laugh in the whole screening was when he turned into Arsenio Hall and did his ‘Woof, woof, woof’ with his arm,” said Clements. “I was asking somebody afterward about that and why it got such a big laugh. They said ‘Oh, we loved it when the Genie turned into Julia Roberts from ‘Pretty Woman.’ In ‘Pretty Woman,’ Julia Roberts is doing an Arsenio Hall impression. They didn’t know who Arsenio Hall was, but they knew about Julia Roberts.”
And it didn’t seem to bother them, noted Musker, “that the Genie had a mustache when he became Julia Roberts.”
“Aladdin” was released 25 years ago on Nov 25 — the fourth film to come out of the Disney animation renaissance that kicked off with “The Little Mermaid” in 1989. It became the No. 1 film of 1992, earning $217 million domestically and $504 million internationally. Alan Menken and Tim Rice’s “A Whole New World” earned the best song Oscar and Menken won a second Academy Award for his score.
Disney subsequently released two direct-to-video sequels. “Aladdin” also spawned a TV series and a hit Broadway musical which is still going strong after three years. And Guy Ritchie is currently shooting a live-action remake with Will Smith as the wisecracking Genie.
According to animation historian Jerry Beck, “Aladdin” is the film where the “Disney renaissance, the new interest in animation, the talents behind the screen, everything came together.” Not “The Little Mermaid?” Or “Beauty and the Beast?” Or “The Lion King?” “No, I think it was ‘Aladdin,’” says Beck.
Beck noted, looking back at 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” which was directed by Clements and Musker, and 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast,” which was the first animated film to earn a best picture Oscar nomination, that “as well as they were made, there are still a few scenes, a few shots, crowd sequences” where things are “just a little off” in his opinion. “When they hit ‘Aladdin,’ they hit a new level of what I call perfection that hadn’t been at Disney since Disney passed away.”
In short, he said, “Aladdin” is “perfect in every direction — production values, the use of the computer, character animation, the look of the background characters, the animation of the smallest things in it and, of course, the element of storytelling. It has all of the emotions. As much as we all remember it for the laughs and Robin Williams and the Genie sequences, it has a great story.” Beck says, “You wouldn’t laugh as hard at Robin Williams if the story wasn’t so solid.”
Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman were simultaneously working on the songs for “The Little Mermaid” — they would win the best song Oscar for “Under the Sea” — and the idea for “Aladdin.”
But Ashman’s original idea for “Aladdin” was soon shelved.
In Ashman’s initial version, Aladdin was a member of a street gang and his mother was an integral part of the plot.
“There’s also a very irreverent tone that we took,” said Menken. “A lot of that remained, but it was even more irreverent. I think it made a little nervous. Did they want to go that irreverent with an Arab-themed story? In any case, we moved to ‘Beauty and the Beast.”’
Enter Clements and Musker, who most recently directed the 2016 hit Disney animated film “Moana.”
After finishing “The Little Mermaid,” then-chairman of Disney studios Jeffrey Katzenberg offered them three projects.
“One of them was ‘Swan Lake’,” said Clements. “We sort of thought ‘Swan Lake’ was too close to ‘Mermaid.’ The other idea was called ‘King of the Jungle.’ That was something about lions in Africa and didn’t feel like anyone really would be interested in seeing a film about lions! So we turned that down.”
And the third film was ‘Aladdin.”’
Because they were familiar with Ashman’s version, “We liked the whole idea of doing ‘Aladdin,’’’ said Clements.
“We did our version where we lost the street gang. We kept the Genie’s song and the Arabian night song. We had the idea of doing the Genie as a Robin Williams-type character. He was kind of a Fats Waller character in Howard’s version and that is is what he is now in the play.”
The idea of using Williams was not only because of his brilliant comedic mind, said Musker, but also to “find an animation hook. We wanted to find something that we felt you can only do in animation that you would never be able to do as well as live action. The idea of a shape-changing Genie with a very mercurial comedic tone, with Robin doing his mercurial voice with the idea that he could turn into anything, seemed like that would just be really fun to do in animation.”
Clements and Musker were shocked when, in April 1991, just 19 months before “Aladdin” was set to open, Katzenberg asked them to start over. He wasn’t happy with the directors’ script or the story reel and wanted them to, among other things, “86 the mother.” That day became known as “Black Friday.” The production, though, still had to make its planned release date of Nov 25, 1992.
“We scrambled,” said Musker. “One of the first things that happened is we were in production and people were going to be coming from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ imminently, so we auditioned some writers to help us out. The writers who we really seemed to click with were Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who ultimately went on to do ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’”
“The writers,” said Musker, “hit the ground running while we were still trying to keep the movie going. They pushed some of Jasmine’s independence and the ‘Roman Holiday’ aspect of the story where she leaves and goes into the marketplace. We used to have unlimited wishes that Aladdin had and they thought it would raise the stakes if he only had three wishes.”
Ashman never knew of the “Black Friday” issue because he died of AIDs-related complications in March, 1991 at the age of 40. Three of the songs he and Menken wrote, the Oscar-nominated “Friend Like Me,” “Arabian Nights” and “Prince Ali,” remain in the finished film.