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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 really bothered me at the Academy Awards last year when there were all those comments about 'real actors.' I remember thinking, 'Well, what am I?' My performance is just as legitimate as anyone else's. That's still me up there on the screen."

By October, 1991, the changes were enough to Katzenberg's satisfaction that production could proceed, although Clements and Musker grew accustomed to having the studio chairman looking over their shoulder at every turn, suggesting as recently as three weeks ago that they might want to consider taking out a few jokes in the film's final reel.

"Jeffrey believes," says Musker, "that until the paint is dry, changes can always be made."

The closer "Aladdin" came to completion, the further from Disney's romantic fairy tale tradition it went. Not only was it jammed with Williams' one-liners and Goldberg's outrageous sight gags, but it also had an MTV-era pacing, crazy-quilt colors and pop culture references at every turn.

"As clear as it was that 'Beauty and the Beast' was a very traditional romantic fairy tale, the ambition of this movie was to go as far to the other side of the arena as possible," Katzenberg says. "You have to understand 'Aladdin' was what it was long before 'Beauty' was in a movie theater. 'King of the Jungle' (Disney's 1993 release) and 'Pocahontas' (the 1994 release) are already what they are. 'Aladdin' could go out and do $10 or $10 jillion. It can't change the course of where those movies are going. The die is cast."

As much as he reveres the Disney animated classics of the past, Katzenberg says stylistic left turns such as "Aladdin" are essential if the animation division, with well over 700 artists, is to remain vital. Requiring a new generation of animators to remain within the confines of "traditional" Disney animation, he says, would have been suicidal.

"Eight years ago, tradition here was a bad thing," he says, referring to when he took over the studio. "There was no room for eccentricities, no room for expression. Everything was by rote, and the result was that nobody wanted to come here. We were down to 160 people, and none of the real talented artists from anywhere in the world were really very interested in working at Disney, because it was so dogmatic. So one of our fundamental challenges has been about keeping our artists engaged, about challenging them creatively.

"Because if Disney is to be a thriving, growing, evolving creative entity, these movies more than anything else are what carry the heritage forward. They represent the essence of what Disney is, was and will be. And if we stopped making them we would simply be a monument as opposed to being alive. That's why it's not about money. If we lost money on these movies they would still be our highest priority."

"If this works," says Goldberg, who as a co-director has already started pre-production on "Pocahontas," "it means we will have the license to start making each of these films as different as they can be, and not just adhere to what had been done in the past. I guess we're going to find out whether audiences are willing to accept (from Disney) an interesting smorgasbord rather than the same meal, well-cooked, all the time."

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