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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.

Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home.

\f7 --From "Arabian Nights," lyrics by Howard Ashman & Alan Menken

As critical as Williams' participation turned out to be, "Aladdin's" irreverent tone had actually been set much earlier. It was the late Howard Ashman who first proposed a musical retelling of the magic lamp tale in early 1988 while he and partner Alan Menken were still working on their Academy Award-winning score for "Little Mermaid."

Ashman--who envisioned the story as a campy 1930s-style musical with a Cab Calloway-like Genie--wrote the initial 40-page treatment and, with Menken, six songs for "Aladdin," three of which remain in the finished version. (After Ashman's death in March, 1991, Broadway lyricist Tim Rice--co-author of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Evita"--joined with Menken to complete the film's musical score.)

But the real work of fleshing out the story fell to Clements and Musker. Animation directors routinely take two years or more to see their work come to fruition, an agonizingly slow process that involves hundreds of people and--before the actual animation process can even begin--months of character design, sessions with the stationary drawings called storyboards and voice casting. By April, 1991, with all that behind them, Clements and Musker thought "Aladdin" was ready to go. They were wrong.

"We had the entire movie on story reels and showed it to Jeffrey," Clements remembers, describing a rough-draft version of the movie in which all the storyboards are filmed and matched with the recorded dialogue. "And his reaction was, 'I think we've got to start over.' "

Although Katzenberg found the story filled with flaws, his biggest problem was with Aladdin himself, the street-hustling young hero who, with the Genie's magical assistance, wins the heart of the beautiful Princess Jasmine and does battle with the evil Jafar.

"Aladdin was the least interesting person in the movie," Katzenberg says, recalling his objections. "Whenever he was in a scene with Jasmine she so overwhelmed him with her personality and intelligence, it was like he wasn't even in the scene. He was transparent. You didn't care about him. Now, how do you have a movie called 'Aladdin' where Aladdin isn't worth caring about?"

What followed, as Clements recalls, was three months of "total chaos." With the first set of production deadlines looming, he and Musker had to tear their film apart, going--literally--back to the drawing board. A new team of writers (Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) was brought in to rework the script. Songs and some characters (including Aladdin's mother) were jettisoned, while others, particularly Aladdin, were dramatically redesigned.

"I originally was thinking of him like a Michael J. Fox character, short in stature but with a big ego and lots of dreams," says animator Glen Keane, an 18-year Disney veteran who acknowledges that his original drawing probably made the character look too young. Then, at Katzenberg's suggestion, Keane watched a videotape of Tom Cruise's performance in "Top Gun" and incorporated some of that character's attitude into the new, improved Aladdin.

"In all his poses, I noticed there was a confidence, a look in the eyebrows, that gives him intensity and at the same time a smile that has kind of an impish look, like he's got something up his sleeve," all of which Keane incorporated into his new drawings, not to mention a change in proportions to make Aladdin look about six inches taller.

The directors, meanwhile, were throwing out whole sequences, some of them involving costly computer animation, bringing them back and then throwing them out again, desperately trying to nail down a shooting script before the full animation staff went to work.

"It takes an animator a week to do maybe five seconds of animation," Clements says, explaining why it was critical to make decisions as early in the process as possible. "That's why we try to do most of our editing in the storyboard phase. Changing a sequence once it's been animated is hugely expensive."

And, for the character animators, gut-wrenching as well. Although they often work in anonymous isolation, the animators consider themselves performers as much as any live-action actor. "Absolutely, you've got to get inside your character, you've got to become it for a while," says Andreas Deja.

"But the advantage we have over actors is that, because we play it on paper, we don't have any limitations. In live-action films, only a beautiful girl can play a beautiful girl. But we are not limited by our height, our sex, or our weight. I can play Jafar, or a chicken or a monkey. I can be anything."

"People should take a look at these films," Keane says, "and realize these performances are just as legitimate as the ones by live-action actors. I think Robin Williams and Eric Goldberg should be nominated (together) for best supporting actor this year.

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