Disney Channel Magazine - April / May 1995
The Secret of Aladdin's Lamp
Animator Eric Goldberg faced a daunting task: bring a bright blue genie to life for Disney's 31st animated classic.
By Amy Boothe Green
When animator Eric Goldberg left his successful U.K. commercial animation house, Pizazz, to join The Walt Disney Company in September 1990, he hoped his first assignment wouldn't be Beauty and the Beast. Its style wasn't his "forte."
"I love comedy," says Goldberg, breaking into a laugh that sounds suspiciously like Woody Woodpecker's, the first cartoon caracter he learned to draw at age four.
An award-winning animator who created more television commercials than he cares to remember, Goldberg was, however, interested in Aladdin. When Aladdin co-producers and co-writers Ron Clements and John Musker announced that they'd like him to design and animate the Genie, Goldberg was jazzed to say the least.
"There's such a character animator in my blood," Goldberg says. "No matter what I do, I get the biggest buzz out of really making a character alive. It's a force not to be denied."
When audiences were introduced to the Genie in 1992, Goldberg's creation was definitely a force to be reckoned with. Never in the history of Disney animation had there been a more dynamic character. A giant cloud of smoke that transformed itself into more than 60 characters--from Jack Nicholson to Arnold Schwarzenegger--the Genie was the driving force of Disney's 31st animated classic.
As the supervising animator, Goldberg's first task was hammering out the Genie's design. This proved a challenge, since Goldberg had different ideas in mind than did the producers: "They (Clements and Musker) wanted the Genie's physique to look like a beast of burden, like a guy with a barrel chest, like a fairly classical strong man. They were thinking much more anatomically.
"I wanted to go in a different direction; to make the lines more simplified. You get a sense of freedom and spirit from elegant curves that you wouldn't get if you were drawing all the anatomy."
Inspired by the styles of illustrator Al Hirschfield and veteran Disney animators Freddy Moore and Ward Kimball, Goldberg toyed with different designs.
We tried part-animal, part spirit. We tried fat characters. We tried lots of things," Goldberg recalls.
In the end, all agreed that the more curvacious the Genie, the less complicated and more believable he was.
Of course, while designing the Genie-of-the-Lamp, Eric Goldberg had drawn from another major source of inspiration: mega-talent Robin Williams.
From the beginning, Clements and Musker, who also created Disney's The Great Mouse Detective and The Little Mermaid, had Robin Williams in mind as the Genie. Yet Williams hesitated signing on the dotted line, at least until Goldberg whipped up some of his animation magic. The animator took Williams' old comedy records and animated the Genie to bits of his monologues.
Goldberg says, "There was a line in one of the bits where Robin says to the audience, 'Tonight, I want to talk to you about the serious problem of schizophrenia,'" Goldberg remembers. "In the animation, I had him grow another head, so he could argue with himself about it."
When Williams saw Goldberg's Genie, he was impressed, and asked for a pen.
A month later, Goldberg attended Robin Williams' first recording session at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in Marin County. During the four-hour session, Goldberg, Musker, and Clements had expected Williams to take detours in creative lunacy, but they didn't realize they'd get Williams' entire bag of celebrity impressions.
"We got everything," Goldberg says. "And aside from the fact that you had to pick all of us up from the recording room floor, we just thought, 'We're gonna have to use this stuff. It's too good not to.'"
Fellow animato Andreas Deja, who designed Aladdin villain Jafar, recalls that one day one of his assistants came running back--visibly upset--after looking at preliminary Aladdin drawings.
"Do you know what they're doing over there?" she cried. "Do you know what they're doing to the Genie? They're going to have him turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger."
"No, they're not," Deja said, looking up from his drawing board. "They wouldn't do that. You can't do that. You can't turn him into a contemporary actor."
"Well, they are. And all sorts of other things too. You won't believe it."
Deja didn't--so he ran over to the Aladdin offices, where Goldberg was indeed drawing some very strange things: a jut-jawed, electric blue Robin Williams-inspired Genie who bounced from one characterization to another.
"That's when it dawned on me," Deja says. "We're not going to do this one by the book."
And they didn't. In fact, the closer Aladdin came to completion, the further from Disney's romantic fairy tale tradition it went. Not only is Aladdin jammed with Goldberg's outrageous sight gags and Williams' one-liners, but it also employs MTV-era pacing, crazy quilt colors, and references to pop culture at every turn.
Amidst it all, at center-stage, floats the Genie, Goldberg's creation. With sheer creative genie-us, the animator created a character that mimics Williams' standup style so brilliantly that it not only tickles audience funny bones, but mesmerizes them with its fast-paced stream-of-conciousness visual comedy.
Goldberg says, "I felt we had a major responsibility in bringing this to the screen because if people knew it was Robin's voice, their expectations were going to be up there... they're going to to expect... 'this stuff better be funny,' and also with animation, people expect metamorphosis and humor, and funny things happening."
Expectations were more than filled. For example, in just one half-hour the Genie makes dozens of eyeblink metamorphoses--transformations so rapid that the audience dare not blink for fear of missing another rapid-fire sight gag. Not only was Aladdin a critical and financial hit, but Warner Brothers animation legend Chuck Jones, who numbers the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote among his creations, called Aladdin "the funniest feature ever made."
"We put a lot of passion into it (Aladdin)," Goldberg says, adding, "to have my name attached to a Disney film and know that it's going to go on for generations and generations, to walk into a theater and hear the house rock with laughter, I mean you just can't even compare that to anything."
About the author: A journalist specializing in film history, Amy Boothe Green is at work on a study of Hollywood's early years.
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