Robin Williams was an icon who inspired generations of people. From early roles like Mork and Mindy (1978) and Popeye (1980) to his final role, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014), he brought laughter and joy to anyone who saw him perform. When it came to Disney, though, things weren’t exactly a laugh-a-minute. The comedian had a tumultuous relationship with the House of Mouse.
It began with a break from tradition. At the time, there was a stigma about live-action performers doing voice-over work for animation. When Williams agreed to voice the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, he was taking on a “lesser form” of acting– at least as it was seen in those days. Now, A-list stars line up and compete with each other to voice a major studio’s next big animation production. In those days, though, it was nearly taboo. He did it because he said he wanted to be a part of something his kids could enjoy.
When he signed on to the projects, he agreed to only $75,000, far less than his standard fee of $8 million. He only had one stipulation: he did not want his voice to be used for marketing or selling merchandise. Disney, however, disregarded his wishes. In an interview on The Today Show where tmhe was promoting Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams laid his beef with Disney bare. “The one thing I said was I will do the voice,” Williams revealed in the interview. “I’m doing it basically because I want to be part of this animation tradition. I want something for my children. One deal is, I just don’t want to sell anything — as in Burger King, as in toys, as in stuff,” he explained.
He went on to explain, “Then all of a sudden, they release an advertisement,” he continued. “One part was the movie, the second part was where they used the film to sell stuff. Not only did they use my voice, but they also took a character I did and overdubbed it to sell stuff. That was the one thing I said: ‘I don’t do that.’ That was the one thing where they crossed the line.”
When Josh Gad excitedly announced that he would appear as Olaf in Disney’s Once Upon a Studio Short alongside Genie using previously unheard Robin Williams audio, fans were more than a little concerned. Williams’ very public fallout with Disney made it clear he didn’t want his voice used. Fans were concerned Disney had violated the late comedian’s wishes in making the emotional short. Fans want to see Robin as Genie again, but not at the expense of violating his wishes.
Theories about how and why Disney would do this abounded. Fans took to social media to express their disappointment. This author will admit that this piece began life as a condemnation of the use of Williams’ voice. Williams fought his demons to make us happy, but in the end, he succumbed to depression and dementia in 2014 when he ended his own life by suicide. I felt strongly that it’s the duty of anyone who has ever been moved by a Robin Williams film (Dead Poets Society changed my young life) to protect and honor his wishes.
Josh Gad recently took to social media again about the short and seemingly cleared up the confusion about the inclusion of Robin Williams in the project. On Instagram, he said,
“My love for Robin Williams is literally unmatched, and I would never do anything unless I was guaranteed that it was with all of the proper sign-off and support. What Disney animation has done with the INCREDIBLE short #OnceUponATimeInAStudio is not only a love letter to my creative hero (and the reason I wanted to play Olaf in the first place), but to a 100-year legacy that is truly unmatched. Please, just enjoy the nice things.”
On Twitter, he responded to someone expressing disappointment over the inclusion of Robin Williams, saying that he knew Robin personally and would have never signed off on the project unless he knew that Disney had permission from Williams’ estate. He asked people to please not spread misinformation before getting facts.
Incorrect info here bud. Won’t say more but this was not done to my knowledge without the consent of family. Please don’t spread misinformation before getting facts. I knew Robin personally and would never agree to do anything, unless I knew that it had consent 🙏
— Josh Gad (@joshgad) June 12, 2023
Could Williams’ estate have approved the project? Certainly. We currently have no reason to doubt this. In fact, even Robin Williams himself made exceptions to his refusal to ever work with Disney again. Back when Disney’s Hollywood Studios was called Disney/MGM Studios, there was a fantastic attraction called “The Magic of Disney Animation.” It took guests inside a real working animation studio and allowed them to see Disney’s upcoming projects at work. Throughout the tour, guests were guided by a cartoon on a video monitor voiced by none other than Robin Williams! This project was done before the fallout, but William’s consented to let it remain after. If you’re curious or want a trip down memory lane, you can view it here.
For now, it seems like the outrage of Disney and Robin Williams fans was well-meaning but misplaced. There was no wrongdoing on Disney’s part when making Once Upon a Studio. Disney drew from their archives of more than 30 hours of unused Genie audio to recreate the character. You can see it in theaters in November. The short, which is being heralded as a love letter to Disney Animation, will ay before Disney’s newest animated feature, Wish.