The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
Imagine being the person who has to dig through hours upon hours of tape of Robin Williams riffing. Someone had to: When Williams played the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, the highest-grossing film of 1992, he did a whole lot of improvising, and he spent a long time doing it. Aladdin directors Ron Clements and John Musker had a reported 16 hours of tape of Robin Williams doing Robin Williams things. Eric Goldberg, the lead animator of the Genie character, had to sift through it all and pick out Williams’ best bits. Goldberg was a fan, so he was happy to do the job. This is fortunate. For many of us, this is a real ninth-circle-of-hell type of situation.
As an actual finished film, Aladdin runs a tight 90 minutes, and the Genie doesn’t even show up for the first half hour. And yet Aladdin still feels like it has 16 hours of Robin Williams riffing. It’s that kind of performance. Williams remains inexhaustibly on throughout. He does impersonations that the kids of 1992 might recognize: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arsenio Hall, maybe Rodney Dangerfield. He does impressions that the kids of 1992 would absolutely not recognize: William F. Buckley, Ed Sullivan, Ethel Merman. He inhales the painted scenery. Just hearing him is exhausting.
Williams’ endlessly schticky performance in Aladdin is exactly what Disney wanted. At the time, he was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. He’d riffed his way through Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987, and he’d been nominated for an Oscar for it. He’d been nominated again as the inspiring English teacher in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society in 1989 and as the homeless man searching for the Holy Grail in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King in 1990. Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society had both been tremendous hits for the Disney-owned Touchstone Pictures. The Fisher King, which wasn’t exactly accessible, had at least made its money back.
In 1991, Steven Spielberg tapped Williams to play Peter Pan in his big-budget dream project Hook, a truly terrible movie. Hook made money, but it didn’t do the kind of business that TriStar had hoped for, partly because the movie opened a mere two weeks after Disney’s Beauty And The Beast. Beauty And The Beast was a genuine phenomenon, a box office juggernaut that also sold millions in merch and soundtrack albums and became the first animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. Beauty And The Beast had done all this without the benefit of movie stars. (The most famous actor in the cast was probably Angela Lansbury, who was in the middle of her 12-year run on Murder, She Wrote and who played the teapot.) Beauty And The Beast didn’t need stars. The film itself was the star.
For decades, animated films didn’t need movie stars. Instead, the movies relied on voice actors, versatile and talented specialists who could do just about anything and whose faces were utterly unknown to the viewing public. Every once in a while, you might get someone at least identifiable, like Louis Prima in The Jungle Book or Roger Miller in Robin Hood. But for the most part, movie stars were the people on camera, and voice actors did the unglamorous work of giving life to moving drawings.
That border blurred a bit in the ’80s, as known character actors took cartoon roles. Mickey Rooney starred in 1981’s The Fox And The Hound and 1985’s The Care Bears Movie, though he was decades past his child-star heyday. Kurt Russell was in The Fox And The Hound, too, but he was only just getting past his own child-star years. Dom DeLuise, Madeline Kahn, and Christopher Plummer all had supporting roles in An American Tail. Billy Joel was in Oliver & Company. Vincent Price was in The Great Mouse Detective.
But before Aladdin, the only animated film that also really worked as a star vehicle was probably 1989’s All Dogs Go To Heaven, a movie from the Disney defector Don Bluth. Burt Reynolds, not exactly in the prime of his career, played Charlie, the movie’s canine hero, and Bluth did everything in his power to make Charlie look as much as possible like Burt Reynolds. Reynolds sang. There was room for improvement here.
When All Dogs Go To Heaven came out, Disney’s animation division was struggling, and Bluth was presenting the studio with its first real commercial competition in that arena. The same day that All Dogs Go To Heaven came to theaters, Disney released The Little Mermaid, the movie that kicked off the hugely lucrative Disney renaissance and gave the company a new luster. (The most famous actor in the Little Mermaid cast: Buddy Hackett as a seagull.) After the twin successes of The Little Mermaid and Beauty And The Beast, Disney animation could presumably do whatever it wanted. And what Disney animation wanted to do was use the two directors of The Little Mermaid to adapt a centuries-old Arabic folk tale into a big, brash Hollywood musical built around a manically improvising Robin Williams.
It makes its own kind of sense. Earlier in 1992, Williams had played a bat named Batty in the eco-themed cartoon flop FernGully: The Last Rainforest, and that hadn’t really worked. (Williams did 14 hours of riffing for that one.) But Disney’s animators had the speed and the imagination to turn all of Williams’ bits into psychedelic visual gags, making his jokes literal and adding to the sensory-overload feeling of Aladdin. They’d give parents something to chuckle at while sitting through a kids’ movie. And Williams had gone to Juilliard; he was enough of a ham and a showman that he’d actually sing all of his character’s songs.
At first, Williams didn’t want to do it. He had his own big holiday fantasy coming out in 1992, the Barry Levinson reunion Toys. (Toys would come out a few weeks after Aladdin, and it would bomb catastrophically.) Williams also didn’t like the idea of having his character turned into a Happy Meal toy. But Eric Goldberg made a test animation, using the Genie to visualize some of Williams’ stand-up bits, and Williams loved it. He signed on to play the Genie for Screen Actors Guild scale, taking only $75,000 instead of the millions he could’ve made. But Williams had conditions. To avoid creating competition with Toys, he asked that his name not appear in promotions for Aladdin. Furthermore, he requested his voice not be used in the merchandising and the marketing of the film. Disney agreed and then promptly broke those promises. The Aladdin marketing was pretty much entirely Genie-based, and every kid in America knew that the Genie was Williams. Williams would remain furious at the studio for years.
The rest of the Aladdin cast was virtually unknown. The only other remotely famous actor was the great stand-up Gilbert Gottfried, who’d just had a hit in 1990’s Problem Child and who ended up in Aladdin because the film’s directors thought Gottfried was funny in his Beverly Hills Cop II cameo. Scott Weinger, the young actor who played Aladdin, was mostly known as Candace Cameron’s boyfriend on Full House. Frank Welker, cast as the monkey Abu, is a voice-acting legend who had played Megatron, Baby Kermit, and Slimer.
In fact, other than all matters involving the Genie, Aladdin is a fairly old-school Disney spectacle, full of flash and color and music and adventure. There’s a bit of CGI in things like the Cave Of Wonder escape scene, and that CGI has not held up well. Mostly, though, Aladdin is classic-style hand-drawn animation, with characters distorted and stylized to fit the mood. Virtually every major character, including the villain, has a cute animal sidekick. (Aladdin himself really has two, since the magic carpet essentially functions as one.) Many of the non-Genie jokes are elaborate vaudevillian pratfalls.
The Genie, on the other hand, exists within the film as an agent of chaos. Robin Williams fires off constant references to cultural artifacts that don’t exist in the film’s reality. He breaks the fourth wall. He references other Disney characters and sometimes turns into them. At one point, he reads directly from the Aladdin script. He might be the first Disney character who realizes he’s in a Disney movie.
Watching it today, the Genie might be the aspect of Aladdin that’s aged the worst—or, considering that this is a movie with an almost entirely white cast that takes place in the Middle East and that’s full of stereotypes, almost the worst. God bless the dead, but I’ve always found Robin Williams’ stand-up to be empty and oppressive, like a nervous guy at a party who demands constant attention. A whole lot of it is just different ethnic accents, which is weird. A whole lot more is that Family Guy style—you laugh because you recognize a reference, not because there’s anything inherently funny about it. Williams is enough of an actor to slow down and sell the emotional beats of Aladdin, but even then, he comes off as glib. When Williams is firing on all cylinders, I mostly just get overwhelmed and uncomfortable. He’s good at singing the songs, though.
The songs in Aladdin fucking slap. Before directors Ron Clements and John Musker came aboard, Aladdin was a passion project for the lyricist Howard Ashman. Disney had hired Ashman and his writing partner, Alan Menken, to work on The Little Mermaid on the strength of their Little Shop Of Horrors musical; they’d win Oscars for both that Hans Christian Andersen adaptation and its follow-up, Beauty And The Beast. But Ashman died from AIDS-related heart failure at 40, just after finishing Beauty And The Beast. Ashman and Menken had written over a dozen songs for Aladdin, but Disney only kept three of them, and the composer would complete the musical after being paired with Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator Tim Rice.
Even given that tragic history, Menken is in his zone on Aladdin. The songs are fast and fun and clever and energetic, and the showstopping ballad “A Whole New World,” a Menken/Rice collaboration, is an honest-to-god banger—the only song from a Disney musical that’s ever hit No. 1 in the U.S. Menken, Ashman, and Rice all won Oscars for their work on Aladdin. Menken remains a Disney company man now. Just last week, his work on the Disney Channel show Tangled made Menken only the 16th person ever to lock down the full EGOT. (Rice was the 15th.)
Those songs remain the best things about Aladdin, but there’s a lot to like about the film. Animator Glen Keane based Aladdin himself on Tom Cruise in Top Gun; he’s the rare cartoon hero who’s legitimately hot. Princess Jasmine fits within the ooky-as-hell Disney-princess lineage, but she’s also the smartest and most principled character in the movie, and she exists at least partly as a rebuke to past princess archetypes. The action is fun, the physical comedy is funny, the animals are cute, the colors are bright, the plot hums along at a brisk pace, and the movie is over before anyone has a chance to consider the greater meaning of anything. (Movies should limit themselves to a 90-minute runtime way more often.) It’s hard to picture how Aladdin might work if it didn’t have Robin Williams in full meta-frenzy, throwing air quotes over everything. I think it might be a better film, though.
Last year, Disney remade Aladdin as a CGI-heavy live-action exhibition. The new version was thoroughly pointless. It used people of color rather than white voice actors to tell its story, but it did its cast no favors by throwing them into an ugly, anonymous by-the-numbers blockbuster with action scenes and musical numbers that couldn’t hope to match the energy of the original. (Guy Ritchie directed, and it must be one of the purest paycheck jobs in recent cinematic history.) But the remake did do one thing that really improved on the original: It used Will Smith—who, admittedly, was made to look absurd. Smith gave the Genie the gravity of a real movie-star presence at its center. Just like Williams, Smith does plenty of riffing, but he balances it out by making the Genie into something resembling an actual character, not just a wild ball of tics. Too bad about the singing, though.
In casting Robin Williams and essentially building the original Aladdin around him, though, Disney got the results it wanted. Aladdin became the highest-grossing animated film in history, the first to earn more than $200 million. The movie-star gambit worked. A decade after Jeffrey Katzenberg oversaw the restoration of Disney’s animation prowess via Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, he was piling as many big stars as possible into the Shrek movies. Professional voice actors were no longer getting leading film roles. Paradoxically, with franchises running wild these days, animated film might be the sector of the business where big-name stars matter the most. Since Aladdin, it’s been a whole new world.
The runner-up: Many of the biggest live-action films of 1992 were nearly as cartoonish as Aladdin: Home Alone 2: Lost In New York, Batman Returns, Lethal Weapon 3. At the same time, well-made adult dramas like A Few Good Men, A League Of Their Own, and the deeply sleazy but entertaining Basic Instinct could do serious blockbuster business. My favorite of the year’s big hits is one that maintains that cartoon lunacy without insulting the intelligence of anyone watching.
Penelope Spheeris’ Wayne’s World, No. 8 movie at the 1992 box office, is a perfect work of art, a piece of affectionate absurdism that plays with its own internal logic and its audience’s expectations. Wayne and Garth break the fourth wall as often as the Genie, but when they do it, it’s not just an elbow to the ribs; it’s an invitation into a weird and fun little world. Spheeris pulls all this off while also telling a story about the underdog purity and termite art and the perils of getting paid to do what you love. It’s a beautiful, impossible little miracle.
Next time: Steven Spielberg, having one hell of a career year, adapts Jurassic Park, showcasing groundbreaking special-effects craft and indulging his audience’s desire for both wonder and viscera.