Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ Was Modeled After Tom Cruise

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The diamond in the rough Disney hero had a crazy journey, from Michael J. Fox to Tom Cruise.

Tom Cruise has crossed nearly every conceivable milestone for a movie star. He’s appeared in blockbuster spectacles and daring, offbeat projects. He hasn’t won an Oscar, but he’s been nominated. His clout is such that he can throw his weight around, for good and for bad. He has his eccentricities, to put it very mildly. But there is one star turn Cruise hasn’t taken yet: he hasn’t leant his voice to a cartoon.

That’s somewhat unusual in today’s Hollywood, but in the days when Cruise was rising up the film star ladder, it would have been far stranger if he had. There was very little precedent in the 1980s and early 90s for major live-action stars to be involved in animation. The rise of our current era of big names plastered over animated film posters has been traced back to Robin Williams in the 1992 Aladdin. And it’s that same Aladdin that gives Tom Cruise a connection — albeit a loose one — to animation: he was actually a model for the main character.

Howard Ashman Wrote the Original Version of Disney’s ‘Aladdin’

Disney’s Aladdin endured a tortured development process. The idea came to Disney via lyricist/producer Howard Ashman, who’d nursed dreams of adapting the tale for years. His initial treatment for a tongue-in-cheek romp that owed more to the Fleischer Brothers’ sensibility than Disney’s, was submitted before The Little Mermaid was released and rejected almost immediately.

Of course, a film studio rejecting a specific concept for an adaptation like Aladdin doesn’t mean they won’t run away with adapting it in some way if they see value in it. Disney commissioned screenplays and bought up the remake rights to Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad, just in case there was anything in it that they might want to crib from. These drafts took Aladdin further and further from Ashman’s treatment (at one point, the film was to be sans musical numbers), and with Ashman both busy with Beauty and the Beast and dying from illness, he wasn’t in a position to get back on the project.

But when The Little Mermaid directors John Musker and Ron Clements were attached to Aladdin, they read through the development work that preceded them and decided they liked a lot of what Ashman had done. They restored most of his songs and his jazzy tone, though it was their idea to bring in Williams as the Genie and replace some human sidekicks with animals. And they kept Ashman’s concept of Aladdin as a young, short, scrappy boy out to make his very-much-alive mother proud.

This was the version of the film, and the character, that was presented to production chief Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1991. By that time, Ashman was gone, having lost his battle with AIDS. Much of his work on Aladdin wouldn’t long outlive him. In a decision that Disney’s animation staff eventually dubbed “Black Friday,” Katzenberg rejected the story reel and ordered the film revamped — without any time added to the schedule.

Aladdin Was Originally Modeled After Michael J. Fox

With help from screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, Clements and Musker found a new angle on the plot. The mom was out, the Genie was limited to three wishes, and Princess Jasmine went from a bratty comic character to a woman fighting against the confines of royal dictates. She also became the primary love interest, and that exposed another problem with Aladdin, the film and the character — at least in Katzenberg’s mind.

“Aladdin was the least interesting thing in the movie,” Katzenberg complained to the Los Angeles Times, referring to how the boy was characterized in the rejected story reel. “Whenever he was in a scene with Jasmine she so overwhelmed him with her personality and intelligence, it was like he wasn’t even in the scene.” That was the way Katzenberg put it to the outside world. Within the walls of Disney animation, the problem was put in more basic terms: Jasmine (modeled on animator Mark Henn’s sister) was so alluring that the scrawny kid that was Aladdin at the time would never make it to her romantic league. “You’ve got Julia Roberts and Michael J. Fox,” Katzenberg told the animators. “You need Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts!”

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Fox was one of the models animator Glen Keane had been using for Aladdin’s design and movement. And Aladdin had been made younger and scrawnier by design. This wasn’t just an attempt to adhere to Ashman’s original conception of the character. Up to that time, the prince characters in Disney animation were widely considered weak links, at least among the animators themselves. The expectations for the straight-arrow heroes, and their limited roles within the films, made the job of drawing these stiffs among the least sought-after at the studio. Sleeping Beauty’s Prince Phillip made some headway in giving prince characters names, bits of business, and something resembling a personality, but Keane and his crew were determined to go further with Aladdin, and playing him as a younger underdog had been key to that plan.

How Tom Cruise Inspired Aladdin’s New, More Confident Look

Katzenberg’s note on Aladdin’s design wasn’t optional; Keane would have to rethink the character. But his directors still wanted to keep Aladdin’s youthful, plucky, diamond-in-the-rough qualities, and his vulnerability from his station in life. If that didn’t make Keane’s job hard enough, he was already into animation on Aladdin and would have to go back over musical numbers that had already been drawn (glimpses of the original Aladdin can be found on the making-of documentaries on Aladdin’s DVD and Blu-Ray releases).

Keane accepted Cruise as a new point of reference and studied his performance in Top Gun for ideas. He latched onto what he called Cruise’s “impish look” and the confident cock of his eyebrows as something to hang the character on. The newer, cockier, taller Aladdin was relayed to the team. But as Keane explained years later, “If that’s all I did, was explain technically what we had to do, I can guarantee we never would have done that picture. Because artists don’t respond to numbers or charts or even money. You’ve got to tell them why. You’ve got to help them understand and get them to start to believe in why you are doing what you’re doing.”

Footage on home video releases shows Keane at the head of the room with an overhead projector and fresh sheets of paper. He takes his staff through the evolution of Aladdin’s design before diving into detail on how to draw the final version of the character and what kind of a personality he needed to exhibit. He discusses Aladdin’s confidence and vulnerability. Those kinds of meetings weren’t easy to get through. “Even though I looked calm and controlled…I probably in my head was running around screaming.” But the new Aladdin, with his six inches of extra height, a bit more muscle mass, and his Cruisian impish grin, made it past both directors and Katzenberg, and the movie was finally back on track. And with that, Aladdin became the Disney classic that it is today — all thanks to Keane, a team of dedicated animators, and of course, Tom Cruise.

 

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