The Disney Renaissance was already underway by the time Aladdin arrived in theaters in 1992, following the successes of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. In hindsight, it seems as if the animated film was destined to be a hit (as it introduced audiences to a whole new world, natch). But, as the directors and cast told E! News in a series of exclusive interviews conducted in New York City over the course of two days, success was not guaranteed. "We were going for an out and out comedy, which was different from Mermaid and different from Beauty and the Beast," director John Musker explained. "It was kind of risky in that way."
"Aladdin really started with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken," director Ron Clements said, referring to the iconic composers. At the time, Ashman had a three-picture deal with Walt Disney Animation Studios, and with Menken's help, he wrote a 40-page treatment. "They wrote about five or six songs for that version," Musker said. "I think Howard was even thinking of maybe of directing it…but then when he saw how tough that was…that didn't seem as appealing to him."
Screenwriters began developing scripts based on Ashman's treatment just as Clements and Musker were finishing The Little Mermaid. When that project wrapped, Aladdin was "one of the projects that they came to us and said, 'We want you guys to do another movie," Musker said. They passed on Swan Lake, as well as "one about a lion in Africa called King of the Jungle. We thought, 'Who the hell would want to see that?'" Clements and Musker settled on an Arabian adventure, allowing Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff to get to work on the animated film that would later be known as The Lion King. "Aladdin was third and it was based on Howard's idea, but it had moved away from it," Musker recalled.
Still, he said, "We thought it was a really appealing idea."
At that point, the film had lost its musical elements entirely. Linda Woolverton, who wrote the screenplay for Beauty and the Beast, tried a version where they were out in the desert. "We liked that," Musker said. But other treatments "didn't have the animal sidekicks that we had." The directors wasted no time making changes. "Abu was like an older person that was a friend of Aladdin's or something," he said. "We were like, 'It's animation. Let's make this a monkey!'"
Clements and Musker realized early on that music would play an integral part in shaping the story. "We knew the score because we had heard it a lot even when we were working on Mermaid. We wanted to do it as a musical, and our version included some of the songs that Howard had written, but not all of the songs," Clements told E! News. "It included 'Arabian Nights,' which is in the movie, and 'Friend Like Me.' Those were there. We loved those songs."
The directors, who worked with screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, labored over the script for what seemed like ages. One character in particular, the Genie, was written with one voice actor in mind: Robin Williams. Had the comedic actor said no, they would have been in "big trouble," Musker said. "There was a point in the process and it wasn't going well," he said, and studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg "came in and said, 'Who's your second choice? Make a list of options. We went, 'We've got John Candy, Steve Martin…'" According to Musker, the role belonged to Williams and Williams alone. "They worked it out enough that Robin continued. I think there was a bit of an impasse there, but they smoothed it out enough that Robin did it."
It's a good thing Clements and Musker stood their ground.
"Sometimes other films propagate the wrong idea that in animation, people do the voices after the animation. Actually, it's the opposite. You record the voices first, so it's kind of an ideal medium for improvisation, because you can really wing it on tape," Musker said. "Then we can whittle it down, and regroup it and build new ins and outs." Because the voice actors didn't often work with together, he added, "They'd be left totally confused by what Robin would do."
"We did do one session with Aladdin and Jasmine with Robin, and they were just like, 'When do I jump in? How do I do it?' The lines were not anything near what was on the script. But, he would do it as written and he did it far flung," Musker said. "But because he had done it as written, he knew what the story points were, so Robin was pretty amazing at doing improvs that still supported story points."
Linda Larkin, who voiced Princess Jasmine, said she remembered "begging" the directors to let her record with Williams. "I only had one scene where we had dialogue together, so they could have recorded me separately…but they wanted to do it with him, because that's better for the film, too. It was the best day of my life, that day—up to that point!" Like many people, Larkin had grown up watching the comic. "When I read the script, I was like, 'This character sounds like Robin Williams.' And when I found out Robin Williams was playing the part, I was like, 'I can't believe I'm going to be in a movie with Robin Williams!'…It was super cool, and he really is a true force. You walk into the room and he immediately makes you feel comfortable. Then, when you record with him, he takes you to places that you probably couldn't go on your own."
There was another comedian in the cast, Gilbert Gottfried, who voiced the parrot Iago. "I don't know how many times I've heard people go, 'Oh, God! I remember being there when Robin Williams and Gilbert Gottfried would be at the mics and that was insanity.' We never worked together once! We never ever ran into each other in the hallway," he said. "I knew Robin from the comedy clubs. We would bump into each other all the time. A number of times we would go on the stage together and start improvising. But, I never ran into him making this movie."
Though they recorded separately, Gottfried had heard that Williams "cracked up" at one of the lines he had ad-libbed. "We gotta get outta here! We gotta get out! I gotta start packing, Your Highness! Only essentials, we gotta travel light. Bring the guns, the weapons, the knives..." Iago told Jafar. "And, uh, how about this picture? I don't know, I think I'm making a weird face in it."
"He liked that," Gottfried told E! News. "He started cracking up."
Scott Weinger, who voiced Aladdin, described Williams as his "ultimate hero."
Indeed, Williams brought something to the table that no one else could.
"For everything that was in the movie, there are maybe 20 or 30 things that aren't in the movie. He enjoyed doing it, and it was sort of like you couldn't stop him," Musker said. "I don't think I've ever experienced that with a voice actor where we would feel like, 'We've got so much good stuff. We don't need any more.' Williams would sometimes "start out a little low-key," but once he was in the zone, he said, "You just couldn't turn it off. It was really amazing to watch."
Though Williams died in August 2014, his memory lives on forever in the animated character that only he could embody. "The Genie was Robin. He's like a stand-up comic that was bottled in a lamp. Even the way Robin was in real life—in fact the tragedy of Robin, really—was all this stuff was almost confined in this earthly body, and he just had so much to give and almost not enough outlets to give it to," Musker told E! News. "There was slightly melancholy aspect to it."
Casting Aladdin and Princess Jasmine was no easy task, either.
"My mom said, 'You have an audition today for some cartoon,'" Weinger said of not knowing what to expect. "And then finally, my best friend, who coincidentally was an animation freak, clued me in. He was like, 'Wait a minute.' This is a really big deal. These are the same guys who made The Little Mermaid.' And that's when I started to figure out what I was dealing with."
For the titular role, they didn't have a particular talent in mind. In fact, Aladdin was inspired by an iconic '80s character. "We actually thought it was a Michael J. Fox type, at the time, from Back to the Future—kind of cheeky underdog," Musker said. "We kind of wrote with that in mind."
Larkin, meanwhile, described her voice test as "just a regular audition."
"I didn't even read the whole script before I came in. I had no idea what I was getting into, and it took months for me to get the job. I kept having to go back and back. When I got it, I was relieved. 'Oh, finally! That was taking forever. I got that job.' I was thinking, 'What's next?' It wasn't such a big deal," she said. "I knew it was cool, because it was animation and not a lot of people got to do that, but I didn't know if it was a big feature film I was doing, or a little kids film I was doing."
"We didn't know how huge this era of films was going to be. Beauty and the Beast hadn't come out yet. The Little Mermaid had just come out, so we didn't know if that was a one-off or if that was going to be its own little special, great movie," Larkin continued. During production, when Beauty and the Beast arrived, "We were like, 'Oh, we're part of something huge here,'" she said. "We came out a year later and broke every box office record in history. It was incredible."
When Gottfried auditioned to voice the role of Iago, "I went in and I read for it. They didn't ask for me," he explained. "They had a bunch of people. I heard they also were interested in either Danny DeVito or Joe Pesci, so basically the call was out for a short, unattractive Jew or Italian."
For an animated character that no one would see? "Go figure!" he laughed.
Jonathan Freeman, the only actor to voice Jafar since the film was released in 1992, went about it the old fashioned way. "I didn't have some crazy plan where I went to an astrologer or consulted a crystal ball and said, 'I want that role,'" he said. He had auditioned for one of Ashman and Menken's Broadway shows, and though he didn't get that role, he later starred in the Off-Broadway production of In a Pig's Valise with Nathan Lane. That musical's casting director, Albert Tavares, happened to be the casting director for Aladdin. A few phone calls were made, an audition tape was sent in, and voila! Freeman earned the part.
"As a kid, I was always attracted to the villain characters—not because I wanted to be mean or I was a nasty kid or anything, but I was attracted to their scale, their operatic size. I was attracted to their refined mannerisms," Freeman said. "I just liked to watch those characters. The other characters were kind of like, 'Eh.' It's really about Maleficent. It's really about Stromboli. It's really about them. I loved those characters. I always thought if I was going to do an animated musical—if I would ever be lucky enough to ever get into one, if—I would like to play a villain."
Tavares died just three months shy of the film's release. "I remember Albert Tavares very fondly for remembering me and bringing me in," Freeman said.
When Aladdin hit theaters in November, it was an instant smash.
"When I was a kid and I was working on the movie, I was sort of alone. I did some sessions with the other actors, but you don't see the hundreds of people slaving away to make this. You don't see the orchestra, you know what I mean?" said Weinger, who was 17 when the flick became a hit. "So for me, it wasn't until I saw the movie that I realized what a massive endeavor it was."
Musker also recalled a conversation he had with film executive Peter Schneider, who relayed a prescient message. "Peter said, 'Yeah, Steven Spielberg says this is going to make $100 million.' I guess Steven liked the movie! And you go, 'I don't know. Will it?' We were the audience for the movie," he said in reference to Clements. "We really weren't thinking, 'This will be a hit.'"
In fact, Aladdin would go on to earn five times what Spielberg predicted.
In the decades that followed, many of the voice actors continued to reprise their roles via video games, park attractions, toys and more. "You never get tired of being a princess," Larkin told E! News. "Jasmine got tired of being a princess, but Linda never got tired of being a princess!"
"You know what I think about, that's so weird?" Gottfried wondered. "Had Aladdin been made like a year or so later, with the exception of Robin Williams, it may have been a whole different cast, because a year or so later you would have been going, 'OK, we're thinking Tom Cruise for Aladdin. Is Tom Cruise a big enough name? We're not really sure. Maybe Julia Roberts is the princess. I guess either Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks is the parrot.'"
In spite of the criticisms it's received over the years, Larkin said she's proud to be part of such an iconic piece of film history. "Somebody asked me if Jasmine's a good role model for girls, because they said, 'Well, you know, all she wants to do is get married.' I said, 'Wait a second. That's not true. Jasmine says to a generation of little kids about marriage that the law is wrong. She risks everything—her safety, her comfort, everything she knows—and goes out and finds a way to change the marriage law. And this generation of kids who saw that movie in 1992 grew up and did that in real life! I'm like, 'Yeah, she's a good role model!' Really good! Whether it's connected or not, that person that the writers created that I got to portray, I'm so proud of her. And I feel like she was ahead of her time."
For Weinger, he's been able to experience Aladdin all over again through the eyes of his little boy. "My son, he always knew that Aladdin was part of our life somehow. Like, there was Aladdin junk around the house. Whenever I would try to get him to watch it, he just didn't want to. I think he was like, 'I can tell this is a really big deal to you and I don't want anything to do with it. You're freaking me out, dad!' Then, finally, he's old enough now to understand the process and that it was a voice that I did," he said. When Disney heard that Weinger's son had never seen the film, the studio hosted a special screening for the actor's son and his friends. "His mind was blown. His friends' minds were blown," he said. "For me, it was very gratifying."
Weinger made a speech prior to the screening, and he mentioned his son and his friends by name. "They were all, 'We're famous now! We're famous!' It was really cool. It's funny because for me, I literally sat there in the same room just watching them watch the movie. They loved it," he said. "They gave my son a little Aladdin lamp to keep, and I heard him say to one of his friends, 'They let me keep this because I'm Aladdin's son.' My head exploded. It was amazing! It was one of the highlights of this whole experience—and there were a lot of highlights."
Can't get enough Disney? Meet Clements and Musker's newest princess, Moana:
Walt Disney Pictures' Aladdin: Diamond Edition is available now on digital, Disney Movies Anywhere and Blu-ray/DVD combo pack.