The Genie. Popeye. A friend to animation. Robin Williams forever changed comedy – but he also changed the way we listen to animation voice over.
Genie (in Disney’s 1992 Aladdin) was a tour-de-force vocal performance by Williams (and visually by animator Eric Goldberg) but it was an important landmark in two ways. First, it was the first to break the structured script-driven vocal performance (compare it to Williams earlier recorded V.O. in Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, also from 1992). Allowed to break free and improvise upon the written dialogue, Williams created a character that will live forever – and be forever tied to his unique genius.
It also began a practice that continues today – to allow the actors to go off script during the recording sessions – a practice that has enhanced the performers and their performances all for the better ever since.
Williams also brought star power to the animated film. For good or ill, before the Genie, no one came to a cartoon feature to specifically hear Robby Benson as The Beast. Oh there were Hollywood movie stars in past animated features (Judy Garland in Gay Purr-ree; Bette Milder in Oliver and Company, et al), but people came out to hear Robin Williams as the Genie.
And he did it without star billng (remember that?). It was practically an open secret he was in the film. Talk about "stealing the show". Robin Williams was also a real friend the the animation community. He supported several independent films (including a few by Faith Hubley) and was honored to present the honorary Oscars to animation legends Chuck Jones and Walter Lantz.
UPDATE: The following statements from John Musker, Ron Clements and Eric Goldberg were just released by Disney Studios:
John Musker and Ron Clements, directors, "Aladdin":
"We had the thrill and privilege of directing Robin Williams in Aladdin. We 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. Like the genie it was immeasurable, thrilling, a cosmic explosion of wit and warmth. Robin brought magic into our lives, to his animator/other half, Eric Goldberg, and to the scores of artists who brought the genie to such vivid life on the screen. But, most of all, Robin’s magic touched millions of viewers who laughed and were moved by him. We will cherish the memory of this ever-giving man who made every life he touched, including our own, better."
From Eric Goldberg, supervising animator of "Genie" in "Aladdin":"I am beyond devastated. I cannot express how influential and important Robin was, and will continue to be, to me and countless other animation artists. Robin gave those of us who worked on the Genie so much humor, inspiration, and just sheer delight, that we were always spoiled for choice whenever we came back from a recording session. Like the Genie, Robin’s immense talent could not be contained in the lamp. I think we all knew, as the world does now, if there was ever a person who was tailor-made for the medium of animation, it was Robin."We have lost not just a great voice, though. We have lost a warm, human, miraculous person whose numerous and amazing talents will continue to inspire people for generations upon generations."
Robin Williams is gone but will never be forgotten. As a memorial, below are some animated highlights from his animation career (yes, and including a clip from his live action role of Popeye – probably the only A-list actor who could have pulled that off). Rest in Peace, Mr. Williams – and thank you.
Below: An animation sequence from Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) where Williams played a cartoon voice over actor. Directed by Chuck Jones.
Below: An animation sequence from Fern Gully (1992) where Williams played "Batty Koda". Directed by Bill Kroyer.
Below: An animation sequence from Happy Feet Two (2011) where Williams played "Ramon". Directed by George Miller, Gary Eck, and David Peers
Below: Theme Park film Back To Neverland (1989) where Williams appears in both live action and animation. Directed by Jerry Rees
Below: And yeah, Williams even voiced Mork on Saturday morning cartoons.
Below: In Robert Altman’s Popeye (1980)
Below: As the Genie in a series of interstitials for ABC Saturday mornings, "Great Minds".
Below: Giving the honorary Oscar to Chuck Jones in 1996
Below: Giving the honorary Oscar to Walter Lantz in 1979