Ever wonder who Robin Williams was impersonating in Aladdin? Here’s your answer.
After over a decade locked within the Disney Vault, Aladdin has finally been unleashed in glorious HD on via a superbly remastered Blu-ray. We’ve been having a blast with the occasion here on Laser Time, what with our indispensable Aladdin factoids and arguments over video game superiority. But from the perspective of someone who’s watched Aladdin hundred of times on VHS, the Blu-ray of the movie looks absolutely unreal.
Aladdin hasn’t been released for over a decade, so even if you didn’t spend most of your viewings with a VCR, you’ve likely NEVER seen Aladdin so gloriously crisp, widescreen-y and vibrant before in your whole miserable life. That’s the thing about quality animation: It’s timeless. When done properly, it’s characters and situations should never age. That’s the case here, as almost everything about Aladdin will absolutely hold up forever. Almost. There’s one thing and one thing only that will give future generations of children pause and it’s largely due to Aladdin’s greatest asset: Robin Williams.
No, not because he’s dead, although that most definitely bums me out to this day. Aladdin is over two decades old, and back in 1992, Robin Williams was even older. The people he impersonated? Even older than that, so old almost all of them are now dead. While I’m aged enough to get many of Genie’s caricatures, there were definitely some that passed me by. And if you’re younger than me, I’ll bet you recognize even fewer. Now that’s truly sad to me. THAT I CAN’T ALLOW. Hang on to your turbans, kids: You’re about to get a Hollywood History Lesson! Below you’ll find each and every voice and person Robin Williams’ Genie impersonated in Disney’s 1992 classic Aladdin (in alphabetical order.)
1. Walter Brennan
People many not recognize Walter Brennan’s name, but I’ll go ahead and bet they’ve done an impression. Quick: Do an impression of a grizzled prospector, or maybe a toothless Old West coot! Without even thinking, most of you would undoubtedly slip into the same caricature Williams did during his brief transformation into an old man, assuring Agrabah onlookers that Prince Ali “faced the galloping hordes.”
After bit parts in The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, Brennan’s unique vocal cadence and thin, aging exterior generally saw him typecast as much older than he actually was. However, taking a page from the Wilford Brimley Playbook, this also meant that Brennan got to spend upwards of four decades playing “The Old Guy,” most famously in westerns like Rio Bravo and Red River. He even recorded songs in his wonderfully imitable persona! Brennan is such a badass, despite having died 40 years ago, he still won more Best Supporting Actor Oscars than any other human, living or dead. In fact, when it comes to the number of Academy Award wins for acting, Brennan is tied only with Daniel Day-Lewis and Jack Nicholson.
2. William F. Buckley Jr.
William F. Buckley Jr was a major influential figure in the conservative movement in America dating back to the 1960s. He founded the magazine National Review in 1955 and acted as its editor-in-chief until 1990, then hosted over 1000 episodes of the television show Firing Line from 1996 until 1999. Why would a notorious lefty like Robin Williams burst into not one, but TWO, Buckley caricatures in the original Aladdin?
Although born in New York, Buckley spoke in a highly pronounced transatlantic accent, to the point where most people today would assume he was English, then peppered his speeches with a vocabulary so needlessly dense and colorful it makes Dennis Miller look like a Patrick Starfish. As an almost walking/talking example of the stuffy professor character who’d get pushed into a pool in an ’80s sex comedy, Buckley’s persona was beyond ripe for parody, which is why Genie’s face takes his form while using four dollar words and a hoity-toity accent to describe the rules of basic wishery.
3. Cab Calloway
Often credited as the originator of Michael Jackson’s signature “Moonwalk”, Cab Calloway was a prolific jazz singer and band leader commonly associated with pioneering scatting (the song style not the… nevermind) and Harlem’s famous Cotton Club, considered by many to be the American epicenter of the rise of the jazz movement of the 1930s and ’40s.
While he’s hardly a household name for people my age, I definitely grew up watching more of Calloway’s performances than I’d ever realized. He performed his famous song “Minnie the Moocher” in the Betty Boop cartoon of the same name, he appeared on Sesame Street, he’s cameoed in The Blues Brothers, and yes, even acted as a guest judge on the second WrestleMania among a zillion other things until his death in 1994. I can’t say for sure if Williams is doing a direct impression of Calloway, but with Genie rocking his signature coattails and dance style, Aladdin’s animators certainly were.
4. Carol Channing
If you’re under the age of 30, you might only know Carol Channing as the ever positive, constantly smiling woman who occasionally appears at parades or on Hollywood Squares. However, while Channing’s campy style and uniquely sweet voice are memorable when guest starring on Sesame Street or The Nanny, her real claim to fame is being Broadway royalty. She’s a multi-Tony winning star who also originated the title role in Hello, Dolly! – its theme song would go on to be her signature song for her next 50 years of fame. No matter where you first say her, it’s pretty clear Williams adopted her famous cheerful cadence to briefly voice Genie’s hyper-courteous carpet stewardess.
5. Rodney Dangerfield
Rodney Dangerfield might very well be one of the most recognizable comedians of all-time, so shame on the three of you who didn’t know who this was! Dangerfield’s story is an interesting one, in that his stardom didn’t truly begin until he was almost 50, via an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (more on that in a second.)
Dangerfield remained a prolific stand-up comedian until his death in 2004, and he also starred in movies like Back to School, Ladybugs, and oddly enough, in animated for a year before Aladdin in the incredibly forgotten Rover Dangerfield. Either way, Dangerfield is largely famous for getting “no respect” and is considered by many to be a pioneer in the art of comedic self deprecation. Which probably is why Genie breaks the fourth wall and Dangerfields right into camera while losing a chess game to the magic carpet.
6. Robert De Niro
You probably don’t want to know this, but there are certainly arguments on the internet as to whether Robin Williams is impersonating Robert De Niro or just a garden variety New York Italian. If Williams was doing a De Niro impression, it’s odd the animators didn’t go whole hog and press his lips into a frown, squint his eyes, and add a familiar mole.
We could debate this all day, but there’s one thing I think we can all agree on: Williams is at least lightly referencing Travis Bickle, the character made famous by De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Even if it is only for a sentence or two.