Mister Cinecal

Mister Cinecal

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

How Robin Williams and the Genie Changed Western Animation

If you’ll allow me to add one more drop to the ocean of condolences and grief for Robin Williams then I’ll say that I was saddened to hear of his passing and that he was a big part of my childhood. For a child of the 90s, that nearly goes without saying. Williams had already had a long and successful career before I was even born, but his output in that decade, the good and bad, has clearly had a lasting effect on my generation. The positive words flooding the Internet last night and this morning underlines the tragedy of his death, as a person so loved and valued could be made to feel the opposite by the disease of depression. 

The legacy of Robin Williams is far-reaching across film, television and stand-up comedy and it would be difficult for me to write about it all so I thought I would zero in on one particular aspect of it: his role as the Genie in Aladdin and the massive impact it continues to have on American animated films. After struggling critically and financially for most of the 1970s and 80s, Disney Animation was in the midst of a huge upswing at the time, with the back-to-back hits of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (the latter even gaining an Academy Award nomination, unheard of for animated films at the time and cut off by the glass ceiling of a separate category for animated films today) and the onus was on Aladdin to continue what was called the Disney Renaissance.

John Musker and Ron Clements, the directors of Aladdin, specifically wrote the part of Genie for Williams when they were brought onto the project. Prior to this, casting big-name stars to do voice work just wasn’t done. The most famous star of Beauty and the Beast was Angela Lansbury and Orson Welles doing a voice on the 1986 Transformers movie was a disdained performance from a man without long to live (“I played the voice of a toy. Some terrible robot toys from Japan that changed from one thing to another. The Japanese have funded a full-length animated cartoon about the doings of these toys, which is all bad outer-space stuff. I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I'm destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen.”) Animation is already expensive enough as it is, why pay through the nose for a megastar when you’re only going to get their voice? You only have to look at how easy it is to wreck Spider-Man’s mask when he’s in a film to see how eager studios are to get every penny of their money’s worth out of a name actor.

Williams himself was reluctant to take the role, until Musker and Clements created a reel of animation of the Genie over audio of his stand-up and presented it to him. Williams was highly entertained and agreed to do the part. As for the stumbling block of big fees, this was not a problem, as Williams did the voice work for union scale rates, the lowest pay that a studio could legally pay an actor. He did this on the condition that his name wasn’t a big part of the promotion of the film, not wanting it to overshadow another film of his coming out at the same time, Toys another collaboration with and passion project of Good Morning Vietnam director Barry Levinson. Williams even specified that the Genie did not take up more than 25% of the space on the poster. Did Disney stick to this promise?

Not exactly. 

Disney knew what they had on their hands with Williams and hyped his character above all other aspects of the film. In their defence, it makes sense in promoting something to emphasise its best asset and the reaction of audiences would certainly vindicate that the strongest asset Aladdin had was Williams. In stark contrast to a bored Welles monotoning his conflict with Something-or-other, Williams’s trademark hyperactivity and rapid-fire gags energise his performance even though his face can’t be seen, with the animation of the character feeding directly off the vocal performance. ‘Friend Like Me’, the introductory musical number of the Genie is a fantastic Disney scene, combining dynamic animation and excellently crafted music from Disney’s golden goose Alan Menken with a big, loud performance from Williams. From this moment on the Genie character is the standout of the film. While Disney had had funny sidekick characters before and clearly valued them in their new run of films (Sebastian the crab for example), the Genie character was a strong character in his own right. While Aladdin and Jasmine felt a lack of freedom in their life circumstances, the Genie was literally trapped, a character full of life and individuality condemned to serving others. The creators have admitted that the relationship between Genie and Aladdin was as important if not more so than between him and his princess and the strong storytelling highly resonated with critics and, more importantly, audiences. Aladdin had a 22 week run and was the most successful film of the year, in no small part thanks to the hype around Williams’ performance.

While Aladdin was cleaning up at the box-office, the people at Pixar were finishing the script to their debut feature-length film, Toy Story and began to seek out Tom Hanks and later, Tim Allen, to do voice work. Disney-backed or not, would they have been able to get arguably the biggest star in Hollywood at the time without the precedent of success from Aladdin? The low rate Robin Williams worked for opened the door for huge fees being paid to actors like Hanks to do voice work themselves.While famous names doing voices was unusual for traditional animation, Toy Story, which established digital animation as highly lucrative and began the Pixar conveyor belt of acclaim, had the famous names from the start. They established a precedent. Their rival animation studio, DreamWorks, would take the concept and run with it, under the control of the same man who went back on his promises to Williams at Disney.

Williams had a bitter falling out with Disney after they featured his character so heavily in promotion and would not work with them again. Williams only ended up on good terms with the company when the president, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was fired and his replacement personally apologised. A number of conflicts Katzenberg was having at the top of the company led to his departure and when he left, he helped found DreamWorks. Katzenberg believed in the formula that worked so well in turning Disney’s fortunes around with films like Aladdin and DreamWorks Animation made heavy use of the Celebrity Cast+Pop Culture Reference format from the very beginning. Williams style of comedy was silly and funny to appeal to children, while his references appealed to adults, and the mission to have “something for the adults” has been an enduring goal of animated films ever since, DreamWorks ones in particular. They had surprising financial success in Antz before really taking off with Shrek, which made over 400 million and showed that DreamWorks could compete with (and at this time, out match) Disney. DreamWorks was so enamoured with casting famous people that they even modelled their animated characters after the people voicing them, with frequently horrifying results:

While Williams brought so much enthusiasm and effort to his voice work on the Genie, voice acting is frequently treated as an easy pay cheque by Hollywood actors, leading to a lot of unnecessary stunt casting and flat performances. Actual career voice actors have spoken of their frustration at being edged out of their jobs by actors trained in a different discipline and celebrities and, for some reason, Martin Scorsese. Williams himself did that very thing extremely directly, after patching things up with Disney he rerecorded all the lines for the Genie in direct-to-video Aladdin and the King of Thieves, rerecording lines that Dan Castellaneta had already finished entirely. The many attempts at creating a breakout wisecracking character like the Genie in animated films are frequently very grating. But likes Williams himself, when it works, it works very well. You can see how Genie style characters are such a big part of animated films today and how using actors of his calibre helped to establish the two big names in computer animation today and contributed to the upswing in Disney's fortunes. Considering how hugely lucrative animated films are in Hollywood today, it should be remembered how large a role Williams played in establishing them and the influence he continues to have in how they are made. For good and bad he really helped change Western Animation forever.

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