A few weeks ago, Lindsay Ellis released a fascinating YouTube video on the origins of celebrity voice work in animated films, which can largely be traced back to Robin Williams’ role in Aladdin, at least in the way that celebrities are used now in animated films. At the center of that story, however, is how Disney f**cked over Robin Williams. Much of the account can also be gleaned in this 2014 BoingBoing piece, or the original L.A. Times article from 1993.
The gist of the dispute is this: The writers behind Aladdin basically wrote the film with Williams in mind as the genie, and William agreed to do the film for scale (a meager $75,000) on the condition that Disney would not excessively market the character, because Robin Williams did not want to be in the business of selling toys and other merchandise, a tradition that dated back to his Mork & Mindy days (he put the kibosh on Mork action figures). Naturally, Disney being Disney, it quickly reneged on that deal and sold Genie toys at Burger King, among many other merchandising opportunities.
“We had a deal,” the actor said on the NBC show. “The one thing I said was I will do the voice. I’m doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition. I want something for my children. One deal is, I just don’t want to sell anything—as in Burger King, as in toys, as in stuff.”
Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg didn’t abide by the agreement in other ways, too. To wit:
Just after “Aladdin” opened, Williams was driving through downtown Los Angeles and was shocked to see that many of the city’s bus shelters featured huge blue posters of the Genie. No other characters from “Aladdin” were featured in these enormous public advertisements. Just the Genie.
When Williams called Katzenberg to complain about the bus shelter posters, Jeffrey apologized profusely. “Obviously, there must have been some sort of mix-up,” the then-Disney Studio head said. “I’ll have them removed immediately.”
So all 300 of the LA area “Aladdin” bus shelter posters were recalled and destroyed. It was only later that Williams learned that thousands of these huge blue Genie posters had been created and had been installed in bus shelters all over the country, where they remained up for the entire time “Aladdin” was in theaters. Only the big blue Genie bus shelter posters that were in areas where Williams was likely to see them had been removed.
In her video, Ellis suggests that Disney felt little obligation to live up to their end of the bargain, because Williams had also agreed to do voice work on a competing animated film, Ferngully, which Williams had signed on before Aladdin had ever come along. Katzenberg tried to get Williams to pull out of Ferngully, but Williams refused, so Disney attempted to sabotage Ferngully.
There was a lot of acrimony regarding Disney’s decision to go back on Williams deal, and Robin voiced his displeasure, vowing never to do another Disney film again and telling film critic Gene Shalit, “You realize now when you work for Disney why the mouse has only four fingers—because he can’t pick up a check.” Disney characterized it as “sour grapes,” suggesting that Williams was just pissed that he agreed to make a movie that made over $500 million at the box office for scale. Nevertheless, Disney tried to patch things up with Williams by sending him an original Picasso painting, valued at $5 million.
It didn’t work, in part, because Williams lost it because Katzenberg also used Robin to promote Aladdin during awards season. In fact, when Williams ultimately won the Golden Globe, he thanked Jeffrey “Katzenbug” and asked during the ceremony if “the special achievement award” he received was a “coupon I can turn in to get a real award?”
In any respect, Williams refused to lend his voice to the next two Aladdin video sequels (he was replaced by Dan Castellaneta). He did, however, decide to return to Disney for the final sequel, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, but only after Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney and was replaced by Joe Roth, with whom Williams had a good relationship. Even still, Williams wouldn’t agree until Joe Roth held a press conference in 1996 publicly apologizing to Williams on behalf of Disney.
The two companies had a fruitful relationship for a few years, but after Disney botched Bicentennial Man in 1999 and Joe Roth left, the relationship between the studio and the actor soured again. He made only one more film for Disney, Old Dogs, and that was more than a decade later. (Nevertheless, Williams was inducted into the Disney Hall of Fame).
There is an interesting addendum to the feud, which — in some small way — may be how Williams got back at Disney: Apparently, there was enough footage left on the cutting room floor from 1991’s Aladdin to make another installment of the franchise. However, Robin Williams’ will specifically would not allow it.
A former Disney executive revealed that enough of the actor’s lines from the original 1991 recording sessions wound up on the cutting-room floor for the company to use them and make a fourth installment of the “Aladdin” franchise, according to the Times of London.
Unfortunately, Disney had to ditch the plans when they discovered Williams’ will prevents them from using his name, taped performances or voice recordings for 25 years after his death.
In the meantime, if you want to know the full origins of the celeb voiceover phenomenon, here’s Ellis’ terrific video on the subject.
Meanwhile, here are an assortment of those Robin Williams outtakes from Aladdin.