Arsenio Hall. Rodney Dangerfield. Carol Channing. Impressions of these celebrities might not be immediately recognized in 2017. But 25 years ago, in 1992…well, they still weren’t obvious to everyone, but Disney’s Aladdin didn’t care. Robin Williams‘ Genie morphed into no less than 15 hosts, comedians, and actors in the animated movie. You’d think not knowing the inspiration for the Genie’s multiple forms would detract from the film, and while it is weird for Disney to date an otherwise timeless story with pop culture references, you never lose enjoyment if you don’t get the Genie’s gags.When I first saw the film as a kid, I certainly didn’t understand most of the Genie’s transformations. I remember knowing the Arsenio Hall one but not many others. I’m sure I just laughed when everyone else did, but not understanding what amounted to a few minutes of the movie didn’t phase me—then or now. Looking back, I understand it was Disney reaching out a hand to all the adults accompanying their kids to the theater and saying, “Hey, we have jokes for you, too.”
Robin Williams’ transcendent joy sells the impressions regardless of who they’re based upon. His effervescence goes straight from the recording booth mic to the screen to your smile. The Genie remains electric and bubbly over multiple rewatches, and I never bat an eye trying to figure out who he’s mimicking. The quips are so fast-paced that you’re onto the next one before you have time to ponder, “Wait, was that Jack Nicholson or someone else?”
The animator for Genie, Eric Goldberg, did some heavy lifting to sell the jokes. Williams dropped in hours of improv when he recorded the Genie’s lines, including a lot of celebrity impressions. Goldberg said they didn’t want to just leave all that material in audio only form, so they brought several of them into the movie. Goldberg’s animation work boosts the delivery, so that even if you don’t know who Ed Sullivan is, the context of the scene helps you understand the Genie’s imitating a television host. And that’s enough.
Those factors are more important than the quips being timely. For example, the Aladdin productions adapted for stage shows in Disney Parks and the Disney Cruise Line change the Genie’s references on a regular basis to reflect modern times, and you know what? I understand even less of those. And without the animation to allow Genie to change form and without Williams (which is a high standard to meet), the jokes fall flat.
The combination of Williams’ genius and energy and the talented animators have made the Genie’s cracks endure for 25 years; it will do so for many more.
Did you recognize the Genie’s celebrity impressions when you first saw the film? How about now? Jump out of a lamp and into the comments to let me know your favorites.
Images: Disney, Giphy
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