Disney’s genie act has Robin Williams speak on centenary short

Among the cast of hundreds of our favourite characters featured in Disney’s historic short to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the late comedy great Robin Williams’ Genie has magically come out of the bottle for Once Upon a Studio.

Without the use of artificial intelligence (AI), the directors Dan Abraham and Trent Correy – who spent eight months working on the secret project to honour the studio’s legacy – dug through the archives and found unused voice lines from Williams from the original 1992 film, Aladdin.

During those sessions, Williams, who died in 2014, recorded close to 30 hours of dialogue, both what was written in the script and, as was expected, his clever improvisations.

But, 20 years later, the pair had to dig deep and wish upon a few stars to get the Genie back on the storyboard for this eight-minute short.

For starters, back in the 1990s, there was a short-lived public feud that soured the relationship between Williams and the Walt Disney Company after the film’s release over the use of Williams’ voice in merchandising (which he had refused to sign off on).

They also needed the approval of Williams’ estate, and were no doubt conscious of his family’s, especially his daughter Zelda’s, stance on AI.

“We tried to take them on the journey with us to say, ‘We’ve got this very special short that we’re doing’,’’ producer Bradford Simonsen told Variety.

A favourite genie

“Robin as the Genie means so much to so many people and we would really love to involve him. So Dan listened to the out-takes from the original recording and he found those little bites that we could use,’’ Simonsen said.

“We went back to the estate and said, ‘This is what we hope to do’. Eric [Goldberg], who originally animated the Genie is on the show, and he’s going to be part of it’.

“ … it was wonderful to see that happen.’’

And it did, with the Genie joining forces with Olaf from Frozen for their sequence, along with 542 other favourite characters making the cut.

Heroes, villains, princesses …

Disney says Once Upon a Studio incorporates 543 Disney characters from 85 feature-length and short films.

The group of artists, led by Eric Goldberg and Andrew Feliciano, worked to bring characters such as Snow White, Genie, Ariel, Belle, Peter Pan, Wendy, Elsa and Anna from Frozen, Winnie the Pooh and Chernabog back to life.

“It needed to feel that … so the audience response would be visceral,’’ Simonsen said.

“We used our animation research library where we pulled out model sheets for the animators to work from. We had … Goldberg who has the studio history, and we did tests to make sure it was all working together in the scenes,’’ Simonsen said.

About 40 original voice guests returned to the studio for sessions and were handed storyboards on the spot because it was so secret.

If you’re a Disney fan, it has come off in spectacularly nostalgic fashion.

With so much to pack into a short, and less than 10 minutes to pull it off, there had to be some heavy-hitting magic alongside a very simple storyline.

It all starts with Disney legend Burny Mattinson (who had worked at Disney for 70 years on films including Lady and the Tramp and One Hundred and One Dalmatians), leaving the building at the end of a long day.

Mickey Mouse kicks it off

Suddenly, Mickey Mouse jumps out of a painting, then he grabs Minnie and over the next seven minutes they reawaken hundreds of characters who leap and squeeze out of portraits on the walls to gather together for a group studio portrait photo to mark Disney’s 100th anniversary.

About the three-minute mark, action switches from Donald Duck holding the elevator for Flash Slothmore to “Frosty” [aka Olaf] sitting in an office doing some sketches.

Suddenly, the genie bursts out of his sketchbook, hurtling the little snowman with a carrot for a nose across the room and breaking him into pieces.

“I haven’t see a fall like that since Rome,’’ booms Williams’ real voice as he waves his big hands and pulls Olaf back together.

“Ahhhhh … much better.’’

Some might say it was the 15-second moment (halfway through the film) where Mickey takes his hat off and acknowledges a portrait of Walt Disney where the floodgates open.

The music slows, the collective nod to the studio, its artists, animators, the technology over 100 years is suddenly brought to the fore.

In fact, it’s really the whole eight minutes.

Robin Williams (with Disney CEO Bob Iger and Mickey Mouse) was acknowledged for his work on Aladdin, Good Morning, Vietnam and Dead Poets Society in 2009. Photo: Getty

Williams missed

The world of movies and television still misses the brilliance of the late actor and comedic genius Williams, who died suddenly seven years ago at age 63.

It was revealed he had taken his own life (attributed to his struggle with Lewy body dementia) on August 11, 2014, at his home in California.

A hugely diverse catalogue of work was squeezed into nearly four decades, from iconic TV roles in Mork & Mindy, playing a radio DJ in Good Morning, Vietnam, a teacher in Dead Poets Society to the much-loved, cross-dressing nanny in Mrs Doubtfire, which still delights and amuses audiences of all ages 28 years later.

Williams began his career as a stand-up comedian in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1970s before securing the iconic role of an extraterrestrial from the planet Ork in Mork & Mindy.

Nominated for four Academy Awards, winning Best Supporting Actor for Good Will Hunting, Williams also made the Night at the Museum trilogy, Jumanji and The Fisher King.

He also received six Golden Globe Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, two Emmys and five Grammy Awards.

AI not allowed

Although he was one of the great improvisation characters of all time, the one thing his family didn’t consent to was AI recreating his voice.

Most recently, his daughter, actor and director Zelda Williams, 34, shared a message to her Instagram Stories referencing the use of AI.

According to screen shots obtained by Entertainment Weekly, she wrote she had “witnessed for YEARS how many people want to train these models to create/recreate actors who cannot consent, like dad”.

“This isn’t theoretical, it is very, very real.

“I’ve already heard AI used to get his ‘voice’ to say whatever people want and while I find it personally disturbing, the ramifications go far beyond my own feelings.

“Living actors deserve a chance to create characters with their choices, to voice cartoons, to put their HUMAN effort and time into the pursuit of performance.’’

And thanks to Disney’s archives, the genie is out of the bottle, for real.

Once Upon a Studio is streaming now on Disney+

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