Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Robin Williams vowed never to work for Disney again over a dispute over the size of the genie on the Aladdin movie poster.
Disney’s 1992 film, Aladdin, was a massive blockbuster and a good deal of the success was likely attributable to actor Robin Williams’ inspired performance as the Genie in the film. However, as it turned out, while the film itself was magical, Williams’ experience with Walt Disney Pictures was much less so, to the point where he vowed to not work for Disney again after what he claimed were violations of some interesting conditions he placed upon him performing in the movie, including the size of his character on the posters for the film.
Read on to see what the deal was!
The story of Robin Williams’ problems with Disney contain a whole lot of “he said/they said,” so it’s a difficult case to try to break the situation down. First off. what everyone can agree on is that at one point Robin Williams was very, very happy with Disney’s movie business. It was while working for Disney’s Touchstone Studios that Williams revived his then-faltering movie stardom in 1987 with the hit film, Good Morning, Vietnam, which also netted Williams his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
He then followed that up with ANOTHER hit film for Disney (also through their Touchstone Studios brand), and ANOTHER Oscar Nomination for Best Actor with 1989’s Dead Poets Society.
So by the early 1990s, he and the folks at Disney were quite happy with each other. So it was with this in mind, along with the fact that he just has his third child in 1991 (after his first child in 1983 and his second in 1989) and wanted to work on a project that his kids would enjoy, that Williams agreed to voice the Genie in Disney’s new film, Aladdin.
Here’s where one of the first bit of “depends on how you look at it” issue comes up. When Williams’ side of the story is told, the fact that he voiced the Genie for essentially scale (rather than his normal high salary in the millions of dollars, so he only got $70,000 for doing the character) is offered up as “Williams did the role for scale as a personal favor to Disney because of the success of his previous films for Disney.” However, while it’s true that Williams took scale, that was also fairly typical for the time when it came to celebrities lending their voices to cartoon characters in Disney films. They usually worked for roughly scale (Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, for instance, both made scale for Toy Story three years later). I imagine that things are different now (for instance, Hanks and Allen made a whole lot more for the Toy Story sequels) but at the time, celebrities routinely took scale for their performances in Disney animated films.
However, there were certainly mitigating factors in the Williams situation. When he signed on for the role, he thought it was going to be a small character in the film, but after Williams came in to lay down his lines, he ended up improvising so much extra material that the animators expanded the role of the Genie to make room for Williams’ improvised jokes. So that brings us to the major issue for Williams. He asked (and Disney executives agreed) that they not use his voice to promote the film and he also asked that his character not be used excessively to promote the film. To wit, the request was “not more than 25% of the promotional poster for the picture.” This was due to the fact that Williams had a new picture coming out around the same time for another studio, Toys, and he did not want to be competing with his own work, especially as one film would be “his” film while the other was a glorified cameo.
Disney attempted to comply with the poster requirement, but simply by reducing the size of all the OTHER characters in the poster so that the Genie was still the focus of the poster.
As for the voice thing, well, Disney just flat out decided to ignore that request (to stress, it was always a request and not a legal contract). They did not use Williams’ NAME in commercials, so it wasn’t “Aladdin starring Robin Williams!” but they definitely used his voice in the commercials (prominently so, from the dozen or so commercials I’ve viewed from the time of the movie’s release) and used the character to sell toys and fast food tie-ins (also something Williams wanted to avoid) without Williams making any additional money (as Williams quipped at the time, “The only reason Mickey Mouse has three fingers is because he can’t pick up a check.” It did not help, I am sure, that Toys was a flop while Aladdin was a blockbuster hit. Disney attempted to assuage Williams a bit by sending him a Pablo Picasso painting worth over $1 million at the time, but by this time, Williams was past the point of being soothed. He was done with the Mouse, as it were. So when Aladdin 2 came out, Dan Castellaneta voiced the genie.
Fox executive Joe Roth tried pitching Williams a project early in 1993 that was partially financed by Disney, but Williams turned it down because of the Disney connection. Ultimately, Roth and Williams DID get together on a film, the blockbuster Mrs. Doubtfire.
Soon afterward, Roth moved to Disney to replace the departing Jeffrey Katzenberg (who had recently left Disney to form Dreamworks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen) and organized a public apology to Williams. So, even though Castellaneta has already finished recording his lines for the 3rd Aladdin film, Williams agreed to return to the role and dubbed over Castellaneta’s dialogue.
And Williams returned to Disney to star in the 1996 live action film, Jack.
Amusingly enough, Williams later got into ANOTHER argument with Disney over financing of a film, and as a result, he was not involved in doing the Genie’s voice for other projects, such as the Kingdom Hearts video game.
Although, once again, Williams appears to have kissed and made up with Disney, as he was named a “Disney Legend” in 2009.
Time really DOES heal all wounds, eh?
The legend is…
STATUS: True (although obviously there was more to it than just the size of the Genie on the poster)
Thanks to Jesse Kornbluth’s excellent 1993 feature on Williams for New York Magazine for a lot of the information for this piece!
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