Cennamology Chief Editor
Robin Williams may have been known best for the mark he left in the realm of comedy, but one other area revolutionized by his influence was that of animated films.
Those of us who grew up in the 1990s most likely first heard Robin Williams as the voice of the genie in "Aladdin," which was released in November 1992, and became one of the biggest hits in what is now known as the Disney Renaissance. People went to the theater not just to see the story of Aladdin, but also to see Robin Williams' performance as the genie.
This was the first of what is now a common practice in the marketing of animated films - having a cast with the star power to bring the fans of already established actors to the theater. This expanded the audience of animated films to include not just little kids, but to also bring teenagers, adults (without children), and all other age groups to see a film genre that was once considered purely "kids' stuff."
A statement from the directors of "Aladdin" given after Williams' death says that they "wrote the part with him in mind, but his performance, complete with his brilliant, improvised flights of fancy, took us and the character far beyond what we had imagined. Robin's genie defied space, time, and physics, and so did Robin's talent."
As the directors said, the role of the genie was written for Robin Williams. Writing characters with certain actors in mind has been done since the arts of film and theater began, but it was not too common in animation until the early 1990s. Prior to that, Disney cast pretty much the same people in most of their movies - the company had a permanent staff of voice actors. For example, the great Sterling Holloway provided the voice of Winnie the Pooh, the Cheshire Cat, Kaa from "The Jungle Book," Mr. Stork from "Dumbo," and many others. Williams was Disney's first real success in writing animated characters with the actors in mind, instead of writing characters and assigning the voice actor who best fits the character afterwards.
Disney owes a great deal of its recent box office success to Robin Williams. Because of the genie's success, Disney has continued to put a lot of star power behind their movies. One reason that "Frozen" became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time was because of people, young and old, buying tickets to see Idina Menzel belt out the powerful "Let It Go," on the big screen. Without the success of Williams as the genie, the music of "Frozen" may never have been composed, as actors who have had success in live action and Broadway would have never thought to explore the field of animated voiceover. And, let's face it, no Idina would mean no Elsa.
My favorite post-2000 Disney movie is "Wreck it Ralph," with one of the highlights of the movie being Sarah Silverman's performance of Vanellope von Schweetz, a role that was clearly written with her in mind, similar to how the genie was written for Williams. Disney's casting of Williams, and later Silverman, allowed both of these quirky comedians to be what they so often were - cartoons.
Williams' influence in animation was not restricted to Disney either. Eddie Murphy's performance of Donkey in the DreamWorks hit "Shrek" will probably end up being remembered as his greatest role (it certainly won't be "Meet Dave"), and any viewer who has seen both movies can tell that Murphy was certainly influenced by Williams' genie. Both roles arguably show that the character trait of "annoying" can make a character more likable instead of less.
Williams was not the first celebrity Disney cast in an animated movie. It was first attempted in 1977, when Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor were cast as the lead characters in "The Rescuers." While it is not a bad movie (although the sequel "The Rescuers Down Under," is far superior to the original), Newhart and Gabor's performances were not groundbreaking because the movie and the performances was standard fare for Disney at the time. Heck, the lead characters are mice, an animal that Disney has put in their movies more than any other member of the animal kingdom.
Newhart and Gabor were given a script and read it into the microphone - the roles making the actors, instead of the actors making the roles. Williams as the genie as the other way around. The performance was largely improvised, and he had the ability to do whatever he damn well pleased - whether it be references that made no sense given the movie's time period (and have it help instead of hurt), mile-a-minute monologues, and softer moments that made the genie feel like a father figure, Williams made the role as he went along.
Robin Williams as the genie changed animated movies forever - proving the animated voiceover is a lot more than just sitting in front of a microphone reading a script. He showed that animated characters are roles that require just as much energy and effort as any live action role. Because of this, the genie will always be remembered as one of Williams' finest performances.