Behind the Genie

The Genie Is Free: Robin Williams’s Complicated Relationship With Disney

Robin Williams’s voice work as the Genie in Aladdin is indisputably iconic. But it also may have been the biggest professional headache of the late actor’s career.

Adam Larkey/Disney-ABC, via Getty

“Genie, you’re free.”

The perfect, heartbreaking tweet—it's unclear, but The Academy appears to be an original source—was circulated by millions Monday night following the news of the shocking passing of Robin Williams at the age of 63. Devastatingly poignant, the image that went viral was a still from the hit 1992 Disney animated feature Aladdin, in which Williams ebulliently voiced the charismatic Genie—a performance so spectacularly mad and entertaining that it won him a special Golden Globe award and pioneered the trend of hiring celebrities to voice animated characters.

The scene is from the end of the film, when Aladdin keeps true to his word and makes his third wish to free the Genie from his lamp. With tears in their eyes, the friends hug each other goodbye. It’s easy to understand how the image has come to encapsulate the perfect final goodbye between fans and the entertainer, who has moved us so deeply over the years, all the while battling what is said to be crippling depression. We’re glad he’s free of his demons, but we—especially the Disney-loving child in us—still feel robbed of our farewell embrace.

Disney itself paid tribute to Williams on its official Twitter account with a GIF of Genie, captioning it, “He was a true Disney Legend, a beloved member of our family, and he will be sorely missed.”

It’s the hug goodbye the House of Mouse needed to give, especially considering the complicated and, at least to this writer, surprisingly embattled history the company has had with Williams, all stemming from the joyous voice work he did for Aladdin.

Roughly a year after the release of Aladdin, Williams revealed in a Today show interview some less-than-magical feelings he had toward the animation juggernaut. According to Williams, he had made a bargain with the company to do the voice work at a scale rate—a mere $75,000 for the film (compare that to the $108,000 Mike Meyers made per minute for the fourth Shrek film)—as long as they did not use his performance as the Genie in marketing campaigns for the film.

“The one thing I said was I will do the voice. I’m doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition,” he said. “I want something for my children. One deal is, I just don’t want to sell anything—as in Burger King, as in toys, as in stuff.”

Naturally, the Genie did appear in copious amounts of marketing for the film, with Williams’s voice used in some commercials. According to the Los Angeles Times, sources at Disney thought Williams’s refusal to participate in marketing was “sour grapes” over being paid scale for the film. But Williams later explained that he wasn’t holding out for more money, but that hawking merchandise, “is the one thing I don’t do,” joking that it’s due to emotional scarring from seeing Mork & Mindy dolls “dismembered in trash cans.”

Kidding aside, Williams was publicly angry over the state of affairs. “You realize when you work for Disney why the mouse has only four fingers—because he can’t pick up a check,” he said at the time. He claimed that his work as Genie was a favor to company, which he considered the “Rolls-Royce of animation.” He said that he was under the impression that he’d be required for a day of work, but ended up having to record for weeks. Then, when his voice was used in marketing, he said “it was like a violation of a trust.”

Attempts to make good by sending Williams a Picasso painting did little to quell the actor’s anger. So when Disney produced a sequel to Aladdin, Dan Castellaneta voiced the Genie.

In 1994, however, Disney conjured up an unprecedented kind of magic: the company apologized to Williams. “Robin complained that we took advantage of his performance as the Genie in the film, exploiting him to promote some other businesses inside the company,” then studio chief Joe Roth said. “We had a specific understanding with Robin that we wouldn’t do that. (Nevertheless) we did that. We apologize for it.”

Furthermore, Roth copped to the studio’s adoption of Disney villain behavior during the whole affair, saying the company “may have been responsible” for portraying the dispute as a cash-grab on Williams’s part, when that was not the case at all. “There is no question in my mind that we need to apologize (to Williams)…for not defusing the issue in the media that (his motive) appeared to be about money,” Roth said. “I’ve known Robin for years and know that none of these issues are ever about money. They are simply about principle.”

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Williams was gracious enough to accept the apology, as he quickly hopped back into bed with the Mouse—which he had worked with on Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society before Aladdin—saying, “It’s like a country re-establishing diplomatic relations.” He signed on to star in the studio’s live-action film Jack and returned to voicing the Genie in the straight-to-video third Aladdin film, King of Thieves.

The discord with Disney wasn’t over, however. Williams worked with the company again for the 1999 film Bicentennial Man. But when the budget was cut by $20 million and the film flopped at the box office, Williams was said to be on the outs with the company again, meaning that when the Disney-character-filled video game Kingdom Hearts was being produced, Castellaneta once again filled in for the Oscar winner.

A decade later, however, the pendulum seemed to swing back again, because Williams agreed to be inducted as a Disney Legend in 2009, the mouse-ear equivalent of a Hall of Fame. In his official statement from the company current Disney CEO Robert Iger acknowledged that hallowed status, calling Williams a “true Disney legend.”

Why bring all this up now? Not to tarnish any fond memories anyone has of watching Williams’s irascible work in Aladdin or to grossly use Williams’s tragic death as occasion to demonize Disney. It’s because when that photo of Aladdin hugging Genie and wishing him goodbye circulated Monday night, it transported me to when I was a young kid delighting in the magic of his performance and re-igniting a curiosity about the man behind it.

Williams’s history with Disney isn’t despicable or mean or unfair. It’s merely fascinating. I don’t know how many times I watched my family’s VHS copy of Aladdin growing up, but I do know that we watched it so many times that we had to replace the tape, and that my siblings are still scarred from what I thought was the perfect imitation of his voice-throwing in “Friend Like Me,” which I performed it in the living room ad nauseum, always at no one’s request.

It’s what makes all of this superbly interesting. It’s what’s keeping me occupied as I work up the nerve to finally give Williams that proverbial hug goodbye, to set the Genie free.