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15 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Aladdin

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Nearly a quarter-century after its original release, Aladdin—Disney's Oscar-winning animated film from 1992—is getting a 21st-century upgrade with its much anticipated Blu-ray and digital edition. Read on to discover a whole new world of dazzling things you might not have known about this beloved Disney classic.

1. TO LAND ROBIN WILLIAMS, THE ANIMATORS CREATED TEST SEQUENCES OF THE GENIE PERFORMING THE COMEDIAN'S STAND-UP ROUTINES.

Eric Goldberg led the team of animators who were in charge of creating Genie. When he was first handed the script by co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, Goldberg was also told to dig up some old Robin Williams comedy albums. “John and Ron said, 'Pick a couple of sections from his comedy albums and animate a genie to them,'" Goldberg told Entertainment Weekly. "That’s essentially what I did." Williams came in to see the test, and, Goldberg says, "I think what probably sold him was the one where he says, 'Tonight, let’s talk about the serious subject of schizophrenia—No, it doesn’t!—Shut up, let him talk!' What I did is animate the Genie growing another head to argue with himself, and Robin just laughed. He could see the potential of what the character could be. I’m sure it wasn’t the only factor, but then he signed the dotted line."

2. THE PRODUCERS HAD BACK-UP CHOICES IF WILLIAMS DECLINED THE ROLE.

Disney, via disneyscreencaps.com

Though the role of Genie was written specifically for Williams, then-studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg had many reasons to doubt that they’d be able to sign him: Money, timing, contracts, and, of course, landing an A-lister for a voiceover role. He insisted the team come up with alternative choices. Had Williams declined, Genie could have been voiced by John Candy, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, John Goodman, or Albert Brooks.

3. ALADDIN MARKED THE END OF VOICE ACTORS IN DISNEY MUSICALS NEEDING TO BE MAGNIFICENT SINGERS.

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Linda Larkin was the voice of Princess Jasmine. However, she never sang a single note attributed to the princess; that was done by singer Lea Salonga. Aladdin marked one of the first times a voice actor in a Disney musical didn’t also have to be a magnificent singer. Larkin says that this was the result of the film being built around Robin Williams, who was such a powerful force that Disney's priority was finding strong actors who could keep pace with him. "They came to me and asked, 'Do you sing?'" Larkin recalled. "And I said, 'I do … but not like a princess!' And they said, 'No problem, we’ll find a singer to match your voice.' And they did. And to me it’s such an amazing match to my voice that it’s almost seamless when they go from dialogue to the song and back to dialogue. And you see what happened … from that point forward that opened up the world of Disney animation to everybody. They no longer needed actors who sang.” 

4. The character of Aladdin was meant to do for Disney Princes what Ariel and Belle had done for Princesses...

Disney, via disneyscreencaps.com

Disney in the '90s knew that their traditional princes, though charming, were much too bland for modern audiences. According to Glen Keane, lead animator for the character of Aladdin, ''I could never understand why Snow White and Sleeping Beauty fell for those princes. Those guys were cardboard symbols, and the love relationship was assumed. We wanted there to be a how to the princess falling in love.'' So they set about doing something Disney hadn’t really done before: Making a prince who was cunning, bold, funny and lovable, not just handsome.

5. But Aladdin still had to be really handsome. Enter Tom Cruise.

Disney, via disneyscreencaps.com

At first, animators sort of modeled Aladdin after Michael J. Fox, but found the end result too cutesy. So they upped his age to late teens, took off his shirt, and watched Tom Cruise movies. ''There's a confidence with all of his attitudes and his poses,” Keane said of Tom Cruise. Once Aladdin could reflect that sort of sexy cockiness, it was more believable that he’d be the sort of boy Jasmine might risk everything for.

6. Gilbert Gottfried wasn’t the first choice for Iago.

Disney, via disneyscreencaps.com

The role of the sarcastic evil parrot was first offered to Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci, but they both declined. 

7. The boy who voiced Aladdin was the boyfriend of D.J. on Full House.

Seventeen-year-old Scott Weinger was sure he’d blown the voiceover audition when his voice cracked on the first song. Luckily, he had no idea he was auditioning for Disney’s next powerhouse feature, or he would have been much more worried. In the end, it didn’t matter. Disney thought his voice personified the cocky street urchin perfectly (Aladdin's singing voice, however, would be performed by Brad Kane). At the same time he was voicing Aladdin he was also playing Steve Hale, D.J.’s boyfriend, on Full House. The series made a bizarre nod to Weinger’s dual roles when the Full House girls visit Disneyland (as seen in the clip above).

8. The genie’s lines were recorded up to 20 different ways.

Disney, via disneyscreencaps.com

Williams was only available for a handful of recording sessions, so he'd give a rapid-fire delivery of each line as written—in as many different styles as he could create. “Robin had so much freedom, and [ad-libbing] was always encouraged," Goldberg told Entertainment Weekly. "He always gave us such a huge amount to choose from. He would do a line as written, but he would do it as 20 different characters, and John and Ron and I would take those tracks back to the studio and really put the ones in that made us laugh the most and were the ones that we thought were best suited to the lines. So even though he gave us a W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, and a Peter Lorre on 'No substitutions, exchanges, and refunds,' we said, 'OK, the Groucho one goes here.'”

9. JEFFREY KATZENBERG USED A SECRET BOX TO INSPIRE WILLIAMS' PORTRAYAL OF THE PEDDLER. 

At the beginning of the film, the Peddler—also voiced by Williams—tries to interest the audience in his wares. The products weren’t in the script; they were in a box. Says Goldberg, “One of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s great ideas was to fill a box with stuff, put a cloth over it, and then when Robin’s in front of the mic, pull the cloth off and he riffs with whatever he picks up out of the box. And that’s exactly how we did that character.”

10. The illustrators tried make the characters look unrealistic on purpose.

Disney, via disneyscreencaps.com

In Aladdin’s predecessor, Beauty and the Beast, immense effort was devoted to making the characters' faces, bodies, and movements as realistic as possible. Supervising animator Andreas Deja, who drew Gaston in Beauty and Jafar in Aladdin, told the Los Angeles Times that "We now refer to some of our earlier efforts as 'chiseled realism': On Gaston's face, we established a lot of planes on his cheekbones and chin to achieve that realism.” They did away with that approach for the magical world of Aladdin and used simple two dimensional shapes as references for all the characters. "Aladdin is composed of two interlocking triangles formed by his chest and his pants; Jasmine is sort of pear-shaped, Jafar is basically a T—a very skinny body with these broad shoulders," Deja said. "I kept that T shape in mind while I was animating: making sure it came through kept me from cluttering up the drawings."

11. That unrealistic fashion was inspired by great artist and caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.

Disney, via disneyscreencaps.com

You know Al Hirschfeld’s work, even if you don’t think you do; he famously created exaggerated line drawings of everyone from Charlie Chaplin to the The Rolling Stones. Aladdin supervising animator Eric Goldberg wanted to recreate Hirschfeld’s use of clean flow lines. "I look on Hirschfeld's work as a pinnacle of boiling a subject down to its essence, so that you get a clear, defined statement of a personality,” he said.

Hirschfeld was alive to see the honor bestowed, but he took no credit. "I'm very flattered that the animators say they were influenced by my use of line," he said. "But art isn't a 50-yard dash—it's more like a relay: You keep handing it on to somebody else, and there's no beginning or end to it. I didn't invent the line: That simplification that communicates to a viewer goes back to the cave drawings at Altamira." See Hirschfeld’s take on Goldberg’s take on Hirschfeld here.

12. Not all of the song lyrics on the video release were the same as in the theatrical release.

Disney, via disneyscreencaps.com

The first song of the film, “Arabian Nights” has the Peddler describing Arabia. The original lyrics were, “Oh, I come from a land/From a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam/Where they cut off your ear/If they don't like your face/It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.”

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee took offense to the brutality implied in the song, as well as many other aspects of the movie. Disney conceded to change only the song lyrics, with the permission of the original writers. The verse became: “Oh, I come from a land/From a faraway place/Where the caravan camels roam/Where it's flat and immense/And the heat is intense/It's barbaric, but hey, it's home.” Disney also noted that the barbarism mentioned was alluding to the climate, not the people of Arabia. The AAADC wasn’t impressed.

Don Bustany, who was president of the Los Angeles chapter of AAADC in 1993, said the song change was "nowhere near adequate, considering the racism depicted in Aladdin. There still remains the very sleazy, burlesque character in the prologue and the scene where a merchant is going to cut off the hand of Princess Jasmine because she took an apple from his stand to give to a hungry child.” Albert Mokhiber, president of the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, expressed disappointment that Disney officials refused to meet with the committee. “Certainly I think it would be different if the situation involved African-Americans or Jewish-Americans," he said.

13. The Return of Jafar was Disney’s first ever attempt at marketing a straight-to-video sequel.

Disney used the success of Aladdin to see if consumers would buy a sequel that was never intended to play in theaters. In 1994 they released The Return of Jafar, and by 1996 it had sold 10 million units, putting it in the top 20 video releases of all time. Williams didn’t do the voice for Genie, and for the most part critics thought it was terrible (it holds a 27 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes). But its financial success paved the way for direct-to-video sequels for almost every popular Disney feature ever made. 

14. Williams’s famous feud with Disney had nothing to do with money.

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When Williams refused to do the voice of Genie for the first sequel (replaced by Dan “Homer Simpson” Castellaneta), rumors flew as to his motivations. Disney “insiders” suggested he was insulted to have been paid “scale” ($75,000 for a project that grossed $650 million within four years). But Williams didn’t care about the money. He stated that he’d done the movie for the pride of being part of the history of animation, and for his own small children. The problem was breach of contract, at least according to Williams: Williams didn’t want his voice used for anything but the movie.

"[A]ll of a sudden, they release an advertisement—one part was the movie, the second part was where they used the movie to sell stuff," Williams said. "Not only did they use my voice, they 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."

Disney made no official statements until the studio president Jeffrey Katzenberg was replaced by Joe Roth. Then an official apology was issued. “Robin complained that we took advantage of his performance as the Genie in the film, exploiting him to promote some other businesses inside the company," Roth told the Los Angeles Times. "We had a specific understanding with Robin that we wouldn't do that. [Nevertheless] we did that. We apologize for it."

15. Robin Williams agreeing to portray Genie changed the entire genre of voice acting

Disney, via disneyscreencaps.com

Will Ferrell, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Billy Crystal, Tom Hanks ... the A-listers who have voiced characters in animated films reads like the seating chart at the Oscars. And it’s all because of the Genie.

Prior to Aladdin, “real” actors seldom stooped so low to do voice work unless they were on the desperate end of their careers. Even Bea Arthur reportedly refused the role of Ursula in The Little Mermaid. The work was left to professional voice actors. Disney even kept a stable of regulars throughout the decades. (Think of Winnie the Pooh’s voice. And the Cheshire Cat, the snake from The Jungle Book, the Stork in Dumbo ... These are just some of the characters voiced by the sweet quavery voice of Sterling Holloway.)

But then came Genie, who was written exclusively with Robin Williams in mind. His work on Aladdin, combined with the rising quality of Disney films, gave a new respectability to voiceover work. Soon, celebrities were happy to lend their voices to talking toys and singing monkeys. But where did this leave professional voice actors, who spent years perfecting their relationship with a microphone? Are celebrities stealing work and exposure they don’t even need, or does their involvement help the profession?

According to Voices.com, the trade site for voiceover artists, a voiceover workshop posed that question to its participants and “The consensus was that 'No—celebrities actually raise the profession to a new level, making VO a more recognized career choice and perhaps even elevating the pay scale long term.'"

BONUS: Aladdin holds enough “evidence” to support the fan theory that the story actually takes place in a distant, post-apocalyptic future.

Disney, via disneyscreencaps.com

Since we’ve peeked behind the curtain so much here, we know that many script inconsistencies in Aladdin were the result of Robin Williams’ freestyle. But if you were to take the movie as presented, it practically screams post-apocalyptic future. Key elements that theorists favor: Genie first emerges from his lamp declaring he’d been inside for 10,000 years. That, combined with him later criticizing Aladdin’s wardrobe as "much too 3rd century," and his impersonation of 20th century personalities, would suggest that Genie was trapped in his bottle after these events. That would make the date of his emergence closer to 11989 AD, where Arabic culture had become dominant on the decimated Earth—possibly because Earth’s climate had so changed that only those familiar with desert-dwelling could survive. Remnants of an advanced civilization still exist; hovercraft technology in the magic carpet, genetic mutations that allowed animals to talk. Of course, that is just one of many theories, the most popular of which is that Aladdin is a cartoon and completely, wonderfully illogical. 

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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