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Aladdin Behind-the-Scenes Special Event

As much as I hate to admit it, Disney has been there for some major milestones in my movie-going life. I saw my first 3-D movie at Disneyland when I was six, the first movie I ever cried at, was Beauty and the Beast, and Blue (distributed by Disney-owned Miramax) was my introduction to the world of independent film. These days, I live in Orange County, home to "The Happiest Place on Earth" as well as California Adventure (the most superfluous place on earth) and it was in "Downtown Disney" that I attended a special event to promote the release of Aladdin on DVD.

It wasn't so long ago that Disney was the master of all things animation. Once upon a time, no one had heard of Pixar or Miyazaki, and the latest and greatest thing in animation was a little mermaid named Ariel. Then came the classic Beauty and the Beast which was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture (it won for best original score). It was under these circumstances that the creative team behind The Little Mermaid began a new feature-length animation project about a street urchin with a heart of gold and a boisterous blue genie.

The event in Anaheim brought together many of the key players in the creation of Aladdin and was presented as sort of an "Inside the Actor's Studio," moderated by film critic Leonard Maltin. The audience was composed of animation students from Cal Arts, and the whole occasion was filmed for inclusion as a special feature on the DVD.

Everyone gathered in the Hyperion Theater where the stage was dressed for the ongoing play: "Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular!" Eleven tall chairs were set up in a semi-circle and we waited for almost half an hour while PA's and techies futzed with the lights and the cameras. At last, Leonard Maltin appeared, welcomed everyone, introduced the event, and then the director called for a cut and everything had to be done over again. Take two was deemed acceptable and soon co-directors/ producers Ron Clements, John Musker, and Amy Pell were brought to the stage.

(L-R) Ron Clements, John Musker, Amy Pell
and Leonard Maltin

©Disney. All Rights Reserved.
Ron Clements, John Musker, and Amy Pell
Musker immediately won over the audience of students by asking, "So, you're animation students? 2-D or 3-D?" The students cheered for "2-D" and Musker grinned with approval. Clements was the talker of the group. He began by describing the original version of the film in which Aladdin has a very close relationship with his mother and, "was more of a Michael J. Fox than a Tom Cruise." Clements described how the first version of the film was assembled using storyboards and a scratch soundtrack and presented to Disney exec. Jeffery Katzenberg who hated it. Katzenberg asked the creators to start over.

Reluctantly, the producers scrapped the sub-plot with Aladdin's mother and decided Aladdin needed to grow up a little bit. They reconceived him as more of a Robin Hood type, and beefed up his musculature so he, "seemed like the kind of guy Jasmine would go for." In the end, they said, the version we have today is 1/3 the original story, 1/3 re-worked story, and 1/3 entirely new.

The trio also discussed the risks of pushing Aladdin as a comedy (as opposed to just a feel-good story), and described what it was like to work with Robin Williams. To hear them talk about it, one imagines Williams showing up to the recording session, putting on the headphones and just rambling for four hours straight without a break or a breath. Later, the best riffs from a session would be assembled and voila, instant Genie.

Alan Menken
I was amazed by the next person brought to the stage, huge name in musical animation: Alan Menken's resume includes songs and/or music for Little Shop of Horrors, Beauty and the Beast, Hunchback, Pocahontas, Hercules and the forthcoming Home on the Range. The man is full of energy and his appearance changed the atmosphere from that of a lecture hall to a to a vibrant talk show.

As it turns out, Aladdin had its earliest beginnings as a series of songs written by Menken and the late Howard Ashman (who passed away before the film was completed). Menken describes Ashman's original vision for the film which included a ballad called, "Proud of Your Boy." After Ashman passed away, "Proud of Your Boy" was cut from the film and replaced with "A Whole New World," (written by Menken and Tim Rice, who came in after Ashman's death to finish the film). Menken went on to describe the process of assembling songs for the film including a certain song intended, "to make the animators go wild." Menken ended his segment with an impassioned description of why he considers animated films like Aladdin to be an original, American art form.

(L-R) Randy Cartwright, Will Finn, Andreas Deja,
Eric Goldberg and Leonard Maltin.

©Disney. All Rights Reserved.
The Animation Team (most of them)
Leonard Maltin introduced the group of animators as, "The four horsemen of the Notre Dame football team." He then had to explain the reference in detail.

Randy Cartwright, Will Finn, Eric Goldberg, and Andreas Deja were the supervising animators for the magic carpet, Iago the parrot, the Genie and Jafar (respectively). It was instantly clear that this charming and geeky bunch had as much (or perhaps more) to do with the personalities and success of the characters as the actors who did the voices. The most interesting of all the characters was not, in fact, the Genie: it was the magic carpet. As it turns out, Magic Carpet was the first major use of computers in animation. The texture of the carpet was mapped on to the traditional paper animation using computers to give it a more realistic look than hand-drawing could have provided. Animator Randy Cartwright described it as a "revolutionary character" and "a bridge between drawn and computer-generated animation." Computers were also used in conjunction with the carpet during the "cave scene."

During the break between the discussion with the animators and the introduction of the voice of Aladdin, actor Scott Weinger, someone pulled a small doll from their coat pocket and waved it at the audience. Jokes were made that it was an "Eisner VooDoo Doll."

The Voice of Aladdin and the Surprise Guest

(L-R) Scott Weinger, Gilbert Gottfried
and Leonard Maltin

©Disney. All Rights Reserved.
Actor Scott Weinger seemed like a nice enough guy, but, let's face it, he hasn't gone on to do much since and we were all waiting for the surprise guest. No surprise guest had been mentioned, but we all knew it was coming. Would it be Robin Williams? Would it?!?

Then, up in one of the set pieces, a parrot appeared and squawked in the voice of the Aflac duck, "Hey, up here!" A moment later, a short and squinty-eyed man stalked on to the stage, "How many times did you try Robin Williams before you called me?" Gilbert Gottfried demanded. At this point, the evening ceased to be about Aladdin and focused more on Gottfried taking pot-shots at Leonard Maltin. To be fair, Maltin was unfairly painting the picture that Aladdin somehow launched Gottfried's career (launched it to where? Glad bag commercials?). So when Gottfried said to Maltin, "I really admire your work Mister Landis," I had to laugh out loud.

As someone with a moderate knowledge of how animated films are made, I found this event to be moderately interesting. Depending on how the session is edited, I think it would make for a nice 30-minute discourse on the process of making a feature-length animated film. It would be interesting enough for someone who is interested in the making of animated films, but won't necessarily have much to offer for a fan of the film. What was missing from the evening, were accompanying visuals. I expect that the DVD will include a gallery of the original sketches of Aladdin, Jafar, et al, and that would add a lot to what was, essentially, a lot of talk about a visual medium. I also found it odd that there was no mention of Jasmine. Neither the voice of Jasmine, Linda Larkin, nor the supervising animator, Mark Henn, were present.

The Platinum Edition DVD of Aladdin is due to be released on October 5th of this year. Special features are slated to include: an edited version of the event I attended, a "restored" version of the film, and the deleted musical number, "Proud of Your Boy."

-Megan A. Denny


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