How famous voices became a staple of Disney animation

Moana directors Ron Clements and John Musker reflect on how Robin Williams broke the mould in Aladdin.


Jesc Bunyard

Who is your favourite animated character? How about your favourite voice in a Disney film? A personal favourite is the booming, unmistakably silky tones of James Earl Jones as Mufasa in The Lion King. As soon as you hear it you know that this is the voice of a kind, strong father figure. His warm yet powerful baritone forms a sort of sonic blanket which instantly endears the character to us. It makes Mufasa’s death all the more sad and shocking: suddenly that voice has gone.

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker have been responsible for some of the best loved Disney animated features, including The Little Mermaid, Hercules and Aladdin. Their 1986 film The Great Mouse Detective features Vincent Price as the voice of the terrifying Professor Ratigan, yet it wasn’t until 1992 that Clements and Musker broke the mould by casting a true A-list celebrity in a lead role. “When we did Aladdin,” Clements reflects, “the idea of casting a big star like Robin Williams really hadn’t been done before. Angela Lansbury was a star in Beauty and the Beast, but not quite on the same level. Robin was a huge movie star; his career was arguably at its peak.”

Clements explains that he and Musker wrote the part of the Genie with Williams in mind: “We both thought that Robin would be perfect for that character. He was a famous person but he was also the only actor we had in mind, so the role was designed for him.” The Genie is one of Disney’s best loved characters, one that set the benchmark for voice acting. Regardless of an actor’s celebrity, however, Clements and Musker insist that they always strive to find the best voice for any given part: “We always want to find a great voice, someone that really fits that character and makes it come to life. That way you can inspire the animators and make the animation that much better.”

In the case of the Genie, Disney animators would go into the studio and sketch Robin Williams at work, as Musker recalls: “We would have animators generally attend the voice sessions. Sometimes we would videotape the actors when they were recording their voiceovers so that the animators could go back later and refer to their physical characteristics and performance.” Although it is not a prerequisite that an animated character must look like its actor counterpart, some resemblance can apparently aid the animation process.

Musker reveals that in Aladdin, similarities between the Genie and Williams had to be toned down, but there are breadcrumbs of Williams within the lines of the character: “Mannerisms and certain facial expressions have crept into characters or influenced the way they look. We did a very early version of the Genie that was very much influenced by Robin, and we realised it was too close to him. We wanted the character to be a big metamorphic guy, that’s bigger than life and bald headed and barrel chested. So his design was altered, although some of the facial features – the large jaw, the sharp nose and some expression around the eyes – retained just a hint of Robin.”

In their new film Moana, Clements and Musker didn’t directly draw anything from Dwayne Johnson’s physical appearance for the character Maui, but they did borrow a signature expression from his wrestling days: “Of course we took the people’s eyebrow, we put that in the animation as a shout out to Dwayne and a little in-joke to all his fans. He’s a big strong guy but other than that we didn’t take Dwayne’s expressions or features and fit them onto Maui’s face.”

Robin Williams’ Genie is that rare, perfect blend of charisma, comic timing and familiarity, a talented actor elevating Disney’s time-honoured animating skill. It’s no surprise that famous voices became a staple of mainstream animation after Aladdin. You recognise the fact that it is, quite clearly, Robin Williams, and yet his larger-than-life personality compliments without ever overshadowing the character or film. So, the next time you settle down with your favourite Disney film, remember to listen carefully to the famous voice behind your favourite character.

Published 30 Nov 2016

Tags: Disney Dwayne Johnson James Earl Jones John Musker Robin Williams Ron Clements Walt Disney

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