Robin Williams in 'Aladdin': Disney animator remembers drawing Genie
Ed Sullivan. Jack Nicholson. Robert De Niro. Groucho Marx. Rodney Dangerfield. William F. Buckley. Peter Lorre. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arsenio Hall.
Those were just some of the impressions that Robin Williams performed in the guise of the almighty blue Genie in Aladdin. Perhaps another comedian could’ve supplied similarly outrageous voices, but no one could’ve infused that dynamic, shape-shifting character with so much heart and humor. For many fans of a certain age, Genie was the Robin Williams character that immediately popped into their heads when the sad news broke yesterday that the Oscar-winning actor had died tragically in California at the age of 63.
Eric Goldberg has only fond memories of working with Williams. He was recruited to Disney by Aladdin co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker and supervised the team of about eight animators who created the look of Genie. In recording sessions, he watched up close as Williams zoomed in every direction, taking Genie to inside-out hilarious places that the filmmakers never imagined. There’s a lot of Goldberg DNA in Genie, too—he does spot-on voice imitations of Williams’ character—but he marvels at the comic genius he witnessed and that lives forever in one of Disney’s most beloved classics.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was it easy to animate Robin Williams as Genie?
ERIC GOLDBERG: John and Ron have an amazing talent for being able to write in the voice of the actor they would like to cast. So they handed me the script and it was very clear they wanted Robin Williams to do this voice. They had written archetypes for him to be, like a game-show host, and evangelist, all these kinds of things Genie can turn into. But when we got Robin in the recording studio, out came all the celebrity impressions. So aside from busting a gut laughing, we just looked at each other and said, “We can’t not use this stuff. It’s just gold.”
But at that early stage, you didn’t even know whether you’d be able to land Williams. Didn’t they request some test animation first that incorporated some of Williams’ stand-up routines?
That’s correct. John and Ron said, “Pick a couple of sections from his comedy albums and animate a genie to them.” That’s essentially what I did. After I did these tests, I’m told, “Okay, Jeffrey Katzenberg is bringing Robin Williams in to see your tests,” and it’s like, “Oh my God. I’m in Hollywood now!”
Were you in the room when Williams watched the tests? I think I’d have had an out-of-body experience if I’d been in your place.
I cannot tell you what great joy it gave me to make Robin Williams laugh. I was such a huge fan. I think what probably sold him was the one where he says, “Tonight, let’s talk about the serious subject of schizophrenia—No, it doesn’t!—Shut up, let him talk!” [Scroll to 7:00 in clip below.] What I did is animate the Genie growing another head to argue with himself, and Robin just laughed. He could see the potential of what the character could be. I’m sure it wasn’t the only factor, but then he signed the dotted line.
After he signed on, was there a get-to-know-each-other period where everyone could get in the same room and hash out ideas?
Technically we only had Robin, I believe, for four four-hour [recording] sessions, so there wasn’t a lot of chatter. But one thing that I really felt very strongly, and I hope Robin felt it too—I think he did—we had a wavelength thing going, where he could do certain things and he knew that I would pick up on them. There’s certain sounds and certain voices and things like that. One of Robin’s riffs was the Genie didn’t believe that Aladdin was going to use his third wish to set him free, so he goes, “Uh-huh, yeah, right. Booo-wooop.” John and Ron didn’t know what “Booo-wooop” was. So I said, “Well that’s Robin’s shorthand for telling a lie. It’s Pinocchio’s nose growing. Can I turn the Genie’s head into Pinocchio?” We own the character. And so we did!
Did you attend those recording sessions? I imagine it can be helpful for an animator to see the actor’s physicality in action?
I attended most of the sessions, but I made a big mistake. On the very first session, John and Ron said, “Hey, do you want to sit on the stage and look at Robin’s mannerisms while he’s performing and you can utilize them in the animation?” So I’m out there on the stage and Robin just cut loose for about an hour and half. That was my undoing, because I’m sitting there, trying not to laugh and kill the recordings. Finally, he takes a break and I said, “Okay, I’m going behind the glass now.”
I don’t blame you. It must’ve been so amazing to see him bounce from tangent to tangent.
We had a script, and if you want to call a script a road-map, then Robin took a lot of detours. And we loved the detours. Robin had so much freedom, and [ad-libbing] was always encouraged. He always gave us such a huge amount to choose from. He would do a line as written, but he would do it as 20 different characters, and John and Ron and I would take those tracks back to the studio and really put the ones in that made us laugh the most and were the ones that we thought were best suited to the lines. So even though he gave us a W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, and a Peter Lorre on, “No substitutions, exchanges, and refunds,” we said, “Okay, the Groucho ones goes here.”
Sometimes when he would riff, he would only do a particular line that was hysterical once, and it would be part of this huge bed of lots of riffing. For example, when he was doing the bee while Aladdin is trying to get to know Princess Jasmine, and he’s whispering in Aladdin’s ear. Jasmine starts to go away and the Genie goes, “Stop her, stop her! Want me to sting her?” He only did that once and it was this big bed of all sorts of bee riffs that he was doing, and we just plucked that line out and put it right there. He was amazing. I can’t think of a man who was more suited to the animated medium than Robin Williams.
It must’ve been difficult to choose sometimes. Did some of your darlings end up on the cutting-room floor?
Oh, tons of them. Robin also played the narrator at the beginning of the film, and one of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s great ideas was to fill a box with stuff, put a cloth over it, and then when Robin’s in front of the mic, pull the cloth off and he riffs with whatever he picks up out of the box. And that’s exactly how we did that character. Some of his riffs, which are in the movie, are hilarious. And some of his riffs, which are not in the movie, are hilarious. One of the things he pulled out of the box was a bra, and he looks at it and goes, “Look at this, it’s a double slingshot,” “Look at this, it’s a double yarmulke.” And then he turns and he goes, “Mmm, I should’ve called her.” I took some subversive pleasure in realizing as we were working on it that nobody had ever seen this kind of humor in a Disney film before. You feel a little bit naughty, “Ooo, I wonder if we’re going to get away with this.”
Disney animation really hadn’t created a character like Genie before, and his introduction, when he first is released from the lamp, is so electric.
I wanted the audience to enjoy a great Robin Williams performance in animation form. I loved Robin in Good Morning, Vietnam and that first time he opens the mic and goes, “Gooooood moooorning, Vietnam!” I always think the introductions of characters are possibly the most important scenes in the film, and I think the Genie is no exception—he had to make an impression the first time he’s out of that lamp, and we pulled out all the stops. We put as much in as we possibly could. We tried things; we reworked things here and there. It wasn’t the first time out of the box. You’ve got to get a rhythm going. You know, Alan Menken wrote a beautiful score for Aladdin, and he wrote score for the Genie’s bits, too. But here’s what happened: When we got on the dubbing stage, Alan realized that the score fought Robin’s comedy rhythms. It was like two sets of rhythms that you were trying to listen to. So in many cases, we diminished that score when Robin was going to town—or just didn’t have it altogether—and instead let his voice provide the rhythm. Comedy is a very delicate thing a lot of the time, and a factor like that can make a huge difference as to whether or not you’re laughing.
The other thing that I think a lot of people forget, but certainly it was forefront in our minds, was that aside from Robin’s amazing pyrotechnical talent in terms of his voices, his impersonations, his characters, he’s also a very, very warm person. People ask me what the toughest thing about animating the Genie was, and I say, making people believe that he’s sincere. That he’s actually giving up something when he and Aladdin part at the end of the movie. There’s no way that character would’ve come off the same way without Robin’s warmth, absolutely no way. The human aspect that Robin brought to it really put in the stratosphere.
Making movies can be odd because they’re these periods of extreme intensity—but then it’s over. And you might not ever see the people you worked with so closely again. Did you ever cross paths with Robin again after Aladdin?
We did, a few times. One time that was lovely was when they invited me to a San Jose theater to introduce Fantasia 2000 a couple of times because my wife and I did two sequences [in the film]. So I introduced the film, and as it’s playing, I go out and take a break, and who’s walking towards me with his hand outstretched is Robin Williams, bless him. It was like we hadn’t really separated for very long. I think that’s the kind of warm guy that Robin was. He certainly put an awful lot of people at their ease.