Disney's Got a Brand-New Baghdad

If Katzenberg is guardedly hopeful now, he was stone faced back in the fall of 1990 when Clements and Musker first went to him about hiring Williams. They were adamant that only he could make this animated undertaking work, but the tradition-conscious Katzenberg needed convincing. While plenty of well-known performers had lent their pipes to Disney characters (Angela Lansbury in Beast, Bette Midler in Oliver & Company), a top superstar voice-and the price tag that could go with it — was something new.

Williams had of course already proven a huge draw for Disney's Touchstone Pictures division in 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam and 1989's Dead Poets Society. He had also starred in an imaginative how-they-do-it short about animation for the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Orlando, Fla. But the studio had tried having a flamboyant comic (Rip Taylor) do the voice of a manic genie in its summer 1990 cartoon release, DuckTales: The Movie — Treasure of the Lost Lamp, and the film fizzled. Besides, Williams was signed to voice a prominent supporting character in another cartoon feature, FernGully: The Last Rainforest, for Fox. Would he really want to play a 'toon again so soon? And if so, could Disney make the collaboration different enough?

While Katzenberg waffled, Disney management asked for alternatives. The directors reluctantly came back with John Candy, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, John Goodman, and Albert Brooks, among others, but ''we had already written a whole script designed for Robin,'' says Clements. Eric Goldberg, the first animator assigned to Aladdin and the man behind the Genie's visual design, figured he might strengthen the Williams pitch by setting snippets of the star's old comedy-album routines to rough animation of the Genie. Musker remembers that the subject in one of the 30-second clips ''was schizophrenia. At one point Robin says, 'Let me rewind that,' and Eric animated the Genie's head turning into reels of tape.'' The clip sold Katzenberg. In early 1991, he invited Williams and his wife to see Goldberg's footage between preproduction meetings for Hook, in which Williams was to play Peter Pan. ''Robin laughed his ass off,'' Goldberg says. ''I was so proud.'' Hook's schedule came first, but Williams would do it.

Keen as Disney was on his participation, the company played hardball with Williams' contract. He reportedly worked for scale. Katzenberg says there were some disagreements over ''teeny, teeny, little things, inconsequential in anybody's measure,'' but no big money battles. Why, then, is Williams doing no interviews expressly for Aladdin?

Both Disney's and Williams' publicists say that his absence from the standard promotional duties was mutually planned ''from day one,'' in Katzenberg's words, because of the star's expected commitments to publicize his Fox Christmas release, Toys (an expensive film that Fox is counting on Williams to help sell), as well as to location shoots this fall in Scotland and Morocco for Being Human. His publicist confirms that Williams stipulated that Disney could not use his name in Aladdin publicity, including press kits that tout every other voice actor. Even a Disney gift book about the making of Aladdin contains not one mention of the comedian, referring to him only as ''the voice of the Genie'' or ''the actor signed to play the Genie.''

This agreed-upon silence about its movie's biggest star has not stopped the studio from mounting a Best Actor Oscar nomination campaign for Williams, a reward for which Katzenberg admits he's ''rubbing a magic lamp.'' ''We asked the Academy what we would have to do to change the rules,'' he says, and to his surprise, it turned out the rules don't exclude voice-only performances.

A nomination for Williams would of course ignore the sides of the Genie's characterization that were developed by head storyboard artist Ed Gombert and animator Goldberg, who, along with an 18-person ''Genie unit,'' added the visual component to Williams' manic monologues. Goldberg came to Disney in 1990 after producing animated commercials at his own studio in London for six years, and he proved especially adept at figuring out just how fleeting each shot could be and still register the Genie's mutations. His coanimators say Aladdin's snap has much to do with his ''un-Disney'' approach, but Goldberg is quick to say he ''couldn't have done it without Robin."

Williams was especially fertile extemporizing as still another character, the narrator whose comic sales pitch (''Look...combination hookah and coffeemaker!'') opens the movie. ''We brought Robin in, pulled the sheet off a bunch of props and let him go to town," says Goldberg. Sometimes he went a few towns too far. ''He pulls up a bra and comes out with, 'Look at this, a double slingshot!' Then he looks at it kind of pensively and says, 'I should have called her.' We almost used it.''

Happy as they were with Williams' performance, Clements and Musker soon began to wonder if they had an 800-pound Genie on their hands. Williams' energy was all but eclipsing poor Aladdin, whose journey to self-fulfillment was supposed to be the most engaging part of the story. The solution was to spread a bit of the Genie's attitude onto the unassuming lad who unleashes him — and the process became a fez-to-toe make-over.

''I think what Ariel and Belle did for Disney heroines, Aladdin will do for the heroes,'' says Glen Keane, lead animator for the character. ''I could never understand why Snow White and Sleeping Beauty fell for those princes. Those guys were cardboard symbols, and the love relationship was assumed. We wanted there to be a how to the princess falling in love.''

At first, though, Keane's character sketches looked boyishly cute, rather like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future. The refrain in story meetings became, ''What does Jasmine see in him?'' To hunk Aladdin up, the directors offed his shirt and upped his age from mid- to late teens. Keane also took Katzenberg's suggestion that he study Tom Cruise movies. ''There's a confidence with all of his attitudes and his poses,'' says Keane. Photos highlighting Cruise's eyebrows and straight-off-the-forehead nose, as well as shots of male Calvin Klein models, adorned the artists' bulletin boards for months, and Keane even used rap star Hammer's movements for inspiration, distilling their "total exuberance.''

The pumping up of Aladdin to Katzenberg's specifications became so thorough that by late last winter, 10 months into full-scale production, his appearance no longer matched some finished scenes. "Quite a bit of Aladdin had to be redone,'' says coproducer Amy Pell. Even so, those who look closely will catch shots that would have required too much time and money to fix, especially in the ''Friend Like Me'' number where Aladdin meets the Genie. ''We couldn't possibly redo all of it,'' Pell admits. ''Sometimes we redid the face and not the body proportions, depending on how fast it went by.'' Iago, the villain Jafar's cagey parrot sidekick, also underwent a transformation. ''Originally, Iago was the deadpan one, and Jafar was explosive and volatile,'' says the parrot's supervising draftsman, Will Finn. ''Jeffrey was the one who said, switch 'em around.'' Instantly, the vizier seemed more powerfully sinister, and the search began for a comic actor who could make the parrot a loudmouthed complement. Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci declined, but Finn was ecstatic when Disney signed Gilbert Gottfried. ''I love Gilbit,'' Finn says, breaking into the squinty-eyed Gottfried impression he admits his colleagues are sick of.

Gottfried's slangy routines helped Clements and Musker set Aladdin's contemporary mood early in the movie, since Iago appears long before the Genie, but they also added to the deadline headaches. Gottfried and Williams kept embellishing their dialogue in recording sessions — the animators match drawings to their words, not the other way around — slowly pushing Aladdin to the 90-minute mark, some 10 minutes longer, and thus millions more expensive, than a traditional Disney animated feature (the final price tag was reportedly $35 million). By midsummer, the running time forced the directors to cut a closing sequence that revealed the narrator as the Genie in disguise. ''People in previews saw Jasmine and Aladdin kiss and started getting up,'' explains Clements, so the narrator's dual identity went.