From Animation World Magazine
The Little Mermaid, the film that revitalized Disney’s feature animation division became a CBS Saturday morning series in 1992. In the meantime, the company had entered the red-hot syndication market in a big way, with a daily two-hour block of original animation known as “The Disney Afternoon.” The Afternoon’s enormous programming appetite (a new series replaced the block’s oldest show every September) led the studio to commission a TV version of its latest theatrical feature, Aladdin —before the film’s release.
Disney assigned Tad Stones and Alan Zaslove to produce the series and shepherd its transition from a self-contained movie to an ongoing series. Stones and Zaslove were already major contributors to the Afternoon — Zaslove was one of the driving forces behind Duck Tales and the two had worked as a team on Chip and Dale’s Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck. “It was probably Jeffrey Katzenberg’s idea to turn the movie into a series, or it could’ve been him together with Gary Krisel, the head of the TV animation division,” recalls Stones. “We’d already done shows based on classic Disney characters and the Mermaid series was a success, so it wasn’t a big jump.
“The big problem was that the original movie had a happy ending. If kids want to see more of it, they don’t mean a married Aladdin who lives in a palace — they want to see more of the street rat. They want to see the genie, but he left at the end of the movie —how do we bring him back?”
Genie did return but Robin Williams didn’t. Dan Castellaneta took over the part in both Jafar and the weekly series. “We told Dan not to do a Robin Williams impression,” Stones explains. “He basically split the difference and found a Williams-ish type voice that was gangbusters on its own. Dan’s another comedic genius, and an improvisational genius.
“Now even though the genie was phenomenally popular, I thought the best character in the movie was Gilbert Gottfried’s Iago. He was actually smarter than Jafar — the bird had all the ideas. I thought that would be a great character to have in the series. So we came up with a convoluted story that explained everything and that ended up being The Return of Jafar.“
At the time, syndicated half-hour cartoons often premiered with a multi-part story to get kids in the habit of watching the show every day. According to Stones, Disney designed theirs to run as a feature that the stations could promote as a ‘family movie special’ on the Friday night before the series’ premiere. “The fact that it got turned into a video owes a lot to Paul Felix, one of our layout artists who later went onto features as a concept artist and production designer. He was sketching out different ideas for the movie, one of which was a band of thieves galloping across the desert toward this little crack in a mountain, which was their hideout. Alan was really inspired by those sketches and basically had the storyboard person work right off them to capture that feeling.
“The sequence went to [the Disney animation studio in] Australia, and that studio had just gotten a relatively new animator who loved horses. Now there was already some talk about releasing this as a video, even though Jeffrey Katzenberg and supposedly even Michael Eisner were worried about diluting the cachet of Disney animated features. But when we screened this very romantic footage for Jeffrey with Ashman’s Arabian Nights playing under it, he turned around and said ‘Guys, this looking pretty good.’ At the time he was used to features taking years and years, and he was like, ‘How did you pull this off?’
Zaslove remembers Katzenberg “calling things out without stopping” at the screening. “‘Change this, this character isn’t working,’ not major things. He thought on his feet and his notes were very impressive. He was very positive on the whole picture, so much so that Gary slapped my back afterwards, which was very unusual for Gary.”
“Basically, the stars aligned,” Stones reflects. “The thieves on horseback sequence opened the movie, and sometimes I think that if a weaker studio had animated the first half of the picture it would never have been released on video, and there might not be a direct-to-video business at Disney.”
The Return of Jafar cost a microscopic $3 to $3.5 million to produce — a sliver of the theatrical Aladdin‘s budget. By some accounts the video earned over $100 million in the U.S. alone, and a new Disney genre was born. With a larger budget to work with and a home video release already in mind, Stones began work on the second sequel Aladdin and the King of Thieves by assigning the movie’s sequences to Disney’s overseas studios based on their strengths. “Japanese animation is more about action and composition, not characterization. Traditionally, its characters hit a strong pose that give a feeling, then their mouths move. This time I made gave all the personality stuff to Australia and sent the big effects scenes to Japan. The overall quality level of the film is much, much better as a result.”
Jafar may have returned in the first sequel, but Williams ended a well-publicized spat with Disney for a second go-round as the genie in Thieves. According to Stones, “Robin doesn’t sell stuff and he felt his character was too heavily merchandised. A McDonald’s commercial that was built completely around the genie was the last straw.” Disney tried to mend fences with an original Picasso as a gift to Williams, inspiring his famous gibe, “That’s me by the side of the road, holding the sign ‘Will work for art’.” Ultimately, it took little more than an apology and some encouragement from Katzenberg’s successor Joe Roth to convince Williams to take on the part once again.
“Robin saw some of the finished Thieves footage and immediately began riffing on it. He took stuff we thought was funny with Dan to an entirely new level that had us rolling on the floor,” Stones reminisced. “Then the problem was how do we structure this raw material into the movie? My solution was to cut it as if it were music, taking a longer gag, then a short one, then short-short-short, then longer… That gave us a framework, which we then storyboarded and animated. We re-did at least 2/3 of the entire movie with Robin. I don’t think Dan was hurt by it. He’s a professional actor — how would you expect the company to do anything else?"