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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.

As much as Katzenberg may not want to hear it, "Aladdin" directors John Clements and Ron Musker say they are very aware of the raised stakes awaiting their film's release on Friday, knowing that--in addition to the merchandising blitz--there will be a level of critical and box-office scrutiny that would have been unthinkable nine years ago when the pair worked on their first Disney film, "The Adventures of the Great Mouse Detective."

"They've become such event movies now," Musker says. "It's a little scary."

But, he points out, accompanying the increased pressure is a growing acceptance of animation as serious filmmaking, a validation of the craft he has loved since childhood. "They used to talk to people in animation like it was the poor stepsister," he says.

"They'd say, 'Why don't you get into live action, where the real glamour is?' Well, now animation has become the Tiffany division. We're the prestige pictures now."

When Clements and Musker, who had just finished writing and directing "The Little Mermaid," hired on nearly three years ago to write a screenplay for "Aladdin," they were drawn by the prospect of creating something with a very different tone from the classic Disney animated films of the past, something wilder, faster-paced and more contemporary. And when they started thinking about what kind of Genie they'd like to see, only one name came to mind.

"We always thought of Robin Williams as the Genie," Clements says. "And we wrote him that way from the start."

It was, at the time, a huge gamble, because there was no way to know whether Katzenberg would go for such a broadly comic interpretation or even if Williams would be interested in the part. To bolster their case, Clements and Musker had Eric Goldberg--hired away from Pizzazz Productions, a London animation house where he had specialized in high-energy comedic commercials--animate a routine from one of William's comedy albums.

"There was a line in one of the bits," Goldberg remembers, "where Robin says to the audience, 'Tonight, I want to talk to you about the very serious problem of schizophrenia.' In the animation, I had him grow another head, so he could argue with himself about it."

Katzenberg, previously unsure whether Williams' scattershot improvisations could work in the context of a Disney animated movie, was sold. He immediately called the actor, showed him the tape and introduced him to Goldberg. "This," Katzenberg said, "is the man who made you move." Williams, impressed, signed on.

Barely a month later, Williams would find himself in a recording booth at George Lucas' Skywalker recording studios in Marin County, armed only with a microphone and a script and the assurances from Clement and Musker that was he free to improvise as much as he wanted.

"We never thought that Robin would come in and just read the script as we'd written it," Musker says. "And he didn't."

What they got, in that initial four-hour recording session, was their first real indication of just how different "Aladdin" could be. Although they had written the script with William's free-form shtick in mind, they hadn't expected that he would careen into such a dizzying barrage of characters. One minute he was an evangelist screaming "Yay-esss! Hallelujah!" and the next he was Walter Cronkite. The first scene alone he tackled 25 times, in 25 different ways, stretching and bending premises to the point that scenes originally meant to last 30 seconds suddenly were 10 minutes long.

"Come on down. Look at this," Williams would say at one point, pretending to be a fast-talking merchant in a Middle Eastern bazaar. "Combination hookah and coffee maker. And it also makes julienne fries.

"And this? I have never seen one of these intact before. The famous Dead Sea Tupperware. Ahhh. Still good."

The script had been written to allow Williams to do a variety of character types. "That was always the idea," says Goldberg, who attended that initial recording session. "What we got from him, though, was his entire bag of celebrity (impressions). We got everything. And aside from the fact that you had to pick all of us up from the recording room floor, we just thought, 'We're gonna have to use this stuff. It's too good not to.' "

"Believe me, Robin Williams is more than a performer in this movie, he is a co-author," says Katzenberg, claiming not to be bothered by the fact that Williams declined to have his name mentioned in any of "Aladdin's" marketing materials, not even the production notes for the press, in which the name of every other performer (including comedian Gilbert Gottfried as a nasty parrot named Iago) is listed.

"We didn't hire him for his celebrity or his marquee value," Katzenberg says, pointing out that Williams has every right to reserve his promotional energies for another film, Barry Levinson's "Toys," coming out next month. "We hired him for his talent."

*

\o7 I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam.

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