Disney brought Robin Williams’ Genie back for a new short, without AI

Disney Celebrates 100-Year Anniversary with Once Upon a Studio Short

Disney Animation Studios has released a new animated/live-action hybrid short film called Once Upon a Studio to honor its 100-year anniversary. The short features a whopping 543 characters from Disney’s rich history, including iconic characters like Aladdin’s Genie, voiced by the late Robin Williams. Polygon attended a Los Angeles preview of Disney’s upcoming feature film, Wish, where they were able to view the short.

Bringing Characters to Life

The plot of Once Upon a Studio revolves around Mickey and Minnie Mouse as they gather animated characters for a 100th anniversary group photo outside the Roy E. Disney Animation Building. Halfway through the short, the animated characters come to life and interact with each other within the studio’s halls, much like the movie Night at the Museum. This is where Genie makes his surprise appearance, alongside Frozen’s Olaf, and delivers lines that were not heard in the original Aladdin film.

The producers clarified that they did not use special effects or artificial intelligence (AI) to create Genie’s appearance. Instead, they utilized direct lines from Robin Williams’ past recordings to bring the character back to life. Producer Yvett Merino explained that during animated recordings, multiple takes are usually done, giving them a pool of material to choose from.

Respecting Robin Williams’ Legacy

While AI technology has been a controversial topic in Hollywood recently, Disney has firmly decided against using it. Producer Brad Simonsen stated that AI is not allowed within their premises, emphasizing their respect for the late Robin Williams and his family.

Prior to creating Once Upon a Studio, the creative team reached out to Robin Williams’ estate. They shared storyboards and outtakes from Aladdin to get their approval for featuring Genie in the short. The estate was supportive of the idea, with Disney Animation Studios’ chief creative officer and Frozen director Jennifer Lee expressing her gratitude for their blessing.

The Animation Process

The directors and producers of Once Upon a Studio were determined to honor the characters and their original animators. They brought back the lead animators who worked on the characters in the hand-drawn animation era. Eric Goldberg, who animated Genie in the original Aladdin film, also served as the head of hand-drawn animation for the short.

Goldberg was given creative freedom to bring the Genie scene to life, with the directors trusting him to capture the magic. “We storyboarded the moment out and we said, ‘OK, Eric, do your Eric Goldberg thing and bring the magic,'” said director Dan Abraham.

A Tribute to Disney Animation

Lee expressed that Robin Williams’ portrayal of Genie holds a special place for her and many others. She believes that Williams’ contribution to Disney animation’s history is permanent. “Genie is such an important character to so many of us,” she said.

Once Upon a Studio will premiere on Sunday, Oct. 15 during the Wonderful World of Disney: Disney’s 100th Anniversary Celebration special on ABC. A streaming date has yet to be announced.