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In the hall of great Disney characters, there will always be a spot reserved for Aladdin's Genie. There is no other character from the studio so defined by the voice behind it. Robin Williams breathed life into the Genie, in fact, he was the Genie. It was probably the first time that many in my generation were aware that there were real faces behind the animated characters we saw on screen. It was not the first time Disney enlisted a major star, but it was really the first time that the character was made to fit the voice, not the other way around.
The Genie doesn't come into Aladdin (1992) until a half hour or so into the movie. Before that, the film is centered on our titular hero, a street rat hoping to prove that he's much more than that. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the same duo behind The Little Mermaid, Aladdin moves briskly along through its first act. The vibrant animation style, so obviously inspired by Al Hirschfeld, is electric compared to the more stately fairy tales Disney produced. Even among the other Disney Renaissance movies, Aladdin is a free-wheeling joyride for its entire too-short 90 minutes.
Sure, all Disney movies are a team effort and we wouldn't have Aladdin at all were it not for lyricist Howard Ashman. He had the idea to make a musical version of the Arabian Nights story. Although he died during production, his faith in music and story pushed the studio to finish the film. Ashman did write “Friend Like Me,” the Genie's signature song, before his death. Tim Rice was brought in to write the remaining lyrics with composer Alan Menken.
But Williams’ Genie was the real heart of the movie, the glue that holds it together. Without Genie, Aladdin doesn’t learn the important lesson of the movie - that being yourself is the best person you can be. Don’t try to hide your true self. That’s how Williams lived himself and how we’ll remember him.
Williams brought a rarity to Disney films - stand-up comedy humor. There’s jokes tossed in there you might miss on first viewing. There’s impressions that go over your head when you’re a kid. Hell, for a whole generation of kids, Aladdin was probably the first time we heard lines from Taxi Driver. How were we supposed to know Ed Sullivan or Groucho Marx? We didn’t recognize Rodney Dangerfield. We just got that it was funny.
Disney tried a few more times to get comics into their movies. We suffered through Eddie Murphy’s anachronistic dragon in Mulan and the irreverent humor of David Spade in The Emperor’s New Groove. But none of them stand up to Williams’ Genie, the perfect match made in heaven of star and character. He gave us a character that we all wanted to be friends with and we will never have another one like him.
image courtesy of INFevents.com