With the new version of Aladdin now riding atop the box office charts, let's step back in time and revisit how the animated feature was put together. From the book "Mouse In Orbit" ...
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... Director John Musker recalled:
"Ron Clements and I had a movie we wanted to make called We're Back, that we thought could be really fun. But [the studio] told us, 'You know the rights are tied up? Spielberg has them, it's his kids' favorite book.'
"So we had to do something else. The studio said it had three ideas we might be interested in. One of them was Swan Lake, doing that as a musical. The other thing was King of the Jungle, about lions in Africa. (We said, 'Who's going to go see a movie about THAT?!') And the third one was Aladdin which Howard Ashman had pitched to the studio before we ever got on it.
"Howard had written a treatment, had written songs. They had developed a script based on that treatment, but they didn't like that script. ... But we liked Howard's stuff and said we'd like to do Aladdin.
Disney Feature management had started using "story directors", who were usually veteran board artists, on the features. Ed Gombert, who had worked as a supervising animator and a storyboard artist ... and also had a puckish sense of humor ... was tapped for the position.
"They asked if I wanted to be head of story and I jumped at it. One of the first things I did was [magic] carpet exploration. We didn't have any real story to start doing yet, so I started exploring what kinds of attitudes you get get out of a rectangle. When I pitched all these ideas, I challenged myself to think of as many attitudes as I could. I snuck one in; at the time, Roseanne Barr had sung the national anthem at a ball game and everyone was booing. And she flipped off the audience and grabbed her crotch. Somewhere in that collection of drawings is the carpet grabbing its crotch and flipping off the audience. Even Ron and John said, 'Gee, we never thought of the carpet as more than just an 'S' curve.'"
As director Ron Clements recalled, he and co-director Musker commenced working from Howard Ashman's original treatment:
"There were aspects of the story we had a different take on, but there were aspects of the story we liked a lot. We did a new version ... but we wanted to keep as many of Howard's songs as we could. ... One of the big changes was Aladdin [being] part of a street gang, so we didn't use that. So some of the songs went, though they were really fun songs. And Howard's Genie was more of a Cab Calloway Genie, which is reflected in the Genie song that's still in the movie.
"Our idea was to take advantage of animation, so the new Genie would be shape-changing and you would have Robin Williams do the [character] because he was a vocal shape-shifter, and with all his improv you could do something really fun that you could only do with animation. So that was kind of our animation hook: Robin Williams as the Genie.
"Jeffrey was not as high on our Aladdin version as he was with our Mermaid script. Even though he had some problems, he let us go with it ... and we boarded it and met with Howard again, and Howard wrote some new songs: "Prince Ali" and a Jafar villain song, which is probably the darkest song he ever wrote."
Despite Jeffrey Katzenberg's reservations, the Aladdin team cast voices, put the entire story up on reels, completed scratch tracks for Howard Ashman's songs. And in the spring of 1991, they presented the fruits of their labors to the head of the Disney studio.
"That screening for Jeffrey of our first version of Aladdin was disastrous. He hated it, just hated it. Robin Williams was in that version but Jeffrey said, 'You've got to start over, this isn't working at all.'
"That was a more extreme reaction than we expected, though we felt the story had problems and some of the things didn't work. In that first version, Aladdin had a mother but the whole relationship of Aladdin and his mother was not working well.
"We had talked about needing to cut the mother, but Jeffrey was more blunt: 'The Mom's a ZERO! Eighty-six the Mom!'"
Without a mother in the story, the song that everyone liked, "Proud of Your Boy", was not salvageable. And Howard Ashman couldn't pen a replacement, because s short time before the screening for Jeffrey, he died.
"That song went away," John Musker said. "Aladdin became an orphan, he became kind of older. He went from being Michael J. Fox to Tom Cruise."
Ed Gombert recalled:
"We went through two sets of story crews. The first crew put the whole film up, which was a unique experience, getting it up before Jeffrey pronounced yay or nay, thumbs up or thumbs down.
"Jeffrey said, 'We're not going to make this movie.' And we had to figure out how we were going to fix it. I walked back into the building, and I just walked around and saw all the storyboards all over the place and it just felt like a thousand tons weighing on me, that we had to change all of those drawings. It was just so obvious how much work was ahead of us."
Jeffrey Katzenberg was adamant that Aladdin had to be torn down and rebuilt from its foundation. He was also insistent that the release date for the feature would not be changing. It had been scheduled to come out in the last quarter of '92, and that release window didn't budge.
"That was a crisis, Ron Clements said. "Beauty and the Beast" would be finishing animation in three months, and all the animators would be coming on to our movie. And if we didn't have anything for them to work on, they would just be sitting. What saved us was the songs. We still had the Genie song and the Prince Ali song and we could put those in production. So while we're trying to get the rest of the movie figured out, those two songs went into production."
According to Gombert, however, there were other hurdles and water hazards to get over, none of them simple:
"It became obvious that Ron and John were not going to be able to write Aladdin and direct Aladdin. As soon as the crew gets put on [a production], directors are too busy to do any writing. So we interviewed three sets of writers. And the first two, professional Hollywood writers, were kind of distant and preferred to think things over and get back to us. But when Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio were in the room, they were animation buffs just like we were, and familiar with all the old M-G-M cartoons and stuff like that. And they jumped in and started throwing around ideas, exactly the way animation works best."
So now there were writers on board who meshed with the story crew and had animation mindsets to boot, but as Gombert pointed out, there remained a story to be licked, one that the boss found woefully lacking. Ed Gombert continued:
"In the original pass, there were three sections to the opening: there was the introduction of Aladdin and his mother, and he was given a carpet to get some money, and he goes to sell that carpet but he loses it. He gets chased by police, and ends up in the princess's garden and then gets chased again and wanders off and sings a song about his future.
"It became clear that we needed to combine these three concepts into one sequence. Ted, Terry and I thought of this the same day, I just got the idea out of my mouth first. Ron and John were skeptical, so I went home over the weekend and took one of Alan Menken's original songs and my wife reworked some lyrics for me, based on the storyboard I was doing. I basically boarded how I saw the introduction of Aladdin while he's singing and being chased, trying to tie it all up in one great thing. And the next Monday I pitched it to Ron and John and one of the executives.
"I sat down prior to the meeting, timed out my pitch, and said 'This will cut two minutes out of the picture,' getting us two minutes closer to the Genie, which is the one thing we were constantly being told: 'It's taking too long to get to the Genie!" We gotta get to the Genie sooner!'
"Jeffrey said, 'Let's see what Ed's got,' and I played back the Menken song while trying to shout the new lyrics over the top of it while pitching Aladdin being chased. And when it was done Jeffrey said: 'That's it. This is great.'"
But the schedule was getting tighter and tighter. Both directors were aware that their movie had to be in theaters within a year-and-a-half, so speed and focus were dire necessities.
Ed Gombert and the story artists re-boarded a large part of the picture in the space of a few weeks. Burny Mattinson, a veteran of sixty-plus years at the studio who worked closely with Mr. Gombert on Aladdin, recalled:
"Ed's success is, he works to hone [scenes and sequences] down to their essence. Ed and I did that often on Aladdin. We'd put up a storyboard, and he'd say 'What do you think?' And I would say, 'Well, this [drawing] is good' and put a sticker on it. 'And this drawing down here.'
"And we'd sit back and look at it and think, 'Okay, how can we put all these good things together, and take all those other things out?' We would cut [the board] down by three quarters or half, and that sequence would come alive. It was a great way to work.'"
"Working on Aladdin was strenuous. When it was over, all I wanted to do was relax. I was asked if I wanted to co-direct Pocahontas. I just said, 'No way!' I was just too tired to even think about it. Being on an animated feature's story development a year-and-a-half seems to be my limit. It takes you six months to learn the characters and the story ... and then another six months where you're doing your best work, and then a final six months were you're just being beaten to death, changing things and changing things."
... Creating the Original Aladdin, Part II, tomorrow ...