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COVER STORY : What Would Walt Say? : The credits read Disney, but 'Aladdin' is a brand-new 'toon, an irreverent high-stakes gamble that veers sharply from tradition

November 08, 1992|JOE RHODES | Joe Rhodes is a free-lance writer based in Los Angeles.

It was the spring of 1991 and Andreas Deja, working feverishly to finish his work as a supervising animator on "Beauty and the Beast," didn't have much time for rumors. He was, after all, facing a wall of deadlines, immersed in the most expensive (and ultimately most successful) animated feature the Walt Disney Studios had ever produced. And yet, high as expectations were for "Beast," the real buzz on the lot seemed to be about Disney's next animation project. Everyone was already talking about "Aladdin."

"We'd all heard they were trying some really different things over there," remembers Deja, who, once he finished his work on the self-absorbed Gaston in "Beast," was himself scheduled to start working on "Aladdin," designing the film's chief villain, the Sultan's treacherous adviser Jafar. He remembers the day that one of his assistants, back from looking at some of the preliminary "Aladdin" drawings, came running into Deja's office, visibly upset.

"Do you know what they're doing over there?" she said, agitated. "Do you know what they're doing to the Genie? They're going to have him turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger. "

"No, they're not," Deja said, looking up from his drawing board. "They wouldn't do that. You can't do that. You can't turn him into a contemporary actor."

"Well, they are. And all sorts of other things too. You won't believe it."

Deja didn't, so he ran over to the "Aladdin" offices, where animator Eric Goldberg was indeed drawing some very strange things--a jut-jawed, electric blue Robin Williams-inspired Genie who speed-bounced from one characterization to another, everything from a game show host to a fey fashion designer to a snooty French waiter and, yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not to mention Arsenio Hall, Groucho Marx, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Ethel Merman and, for a moment, one of Disney's own beloved characters.

"That's when it dawned on me," Deja says. "We're not going to be doing this one by the book."

The "No Lookie-Loos Allowed" signs--Disney-speak for "Keep Out"--had been posted outside the theater on Dopey Drive, a warning to anyone wandering around this part of the Walt Disney Studios' Burbank lot that important, top-secret work was going on inside. And, indeed, there was.

"Go back to where the elephant climbs the tree," Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was saying, sitting in the middle of the theater, wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and surrounded by half a dozen people with legal pads and pens, all of them poised to write down whatever he said as he critiqued, in excruciating detail, "Aladdin's" sound mix.

"There. Right there." Katzenberg had found the scene he was looking for, when the Genie transforms a monkey into an elephant that, understandably confused, tries to scamper up a coconut tree. It was the accompanying sound effect--something resembling a twirling penny whistle--that he didn't like.

"It's a cheap shot," Katzenberg said. "Too 'toony. Much too cartoony. We can do better than that." The pens dutifully hit the paper, even as Katzenberg moved on to the next scene and noticed that there weren't enough pounding noises as the same elephant climbed a set of palace stairs.

"Boom!" Katzenberg shouted, demonstrating just where the sound of thunderous footsteps ought to be. "And Boom! Right there. Boom! Boom! Boom!"

That a studio chief would be involved in a session like this is a pretty good indication of just how important the renaissance of animated features has become to the Disney empire. Any doubts that the studio could return to the glory days of "Snow White" and "Fantasia" were blown away by last year's stunning commercial and critical success of "Beauty and the Beast," which, in addition to becoming the first animated film ever to earn an Academy Award best picture nomination, took in more than $140 million.

"We hate talking about this," Katzenberg says in an interview, "because I'm convinced that if we ever allow the business of these movies to take center stage it will corrupt the pureness of what takes place (in the animation department). As soon as we start worrying about whether the next movie will make more than the last one, then I believe that's the beginning of the end.

"Now, you'll send me off talking about what's wrong with Hollywood today, where most of the time it's not about making good movies, not about pursuing the most creative path or taking the greatest risk, but only about making more money. And that's why movies, for the most part, are so much less ambitious than they used to be. But so far that pollution has not made its way into animation."

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