Robin Williams was, despite his varied career, and perhaps above all else, a children’s performer—and because of that he was also a teacher. In the wake of his death, many are taking comfort by rewatching scenes from movies like “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting,” in which he played figures of mischievous authority. In these roles, and elsewhere, Williams was avuncular and mostly benevolent, but with an edge of grown-up cynicism that appealed to young people because it seemed faintly dangerous, honest, and real. Yet Williams could be a teacher even when he wasn’t playing one—and could instruct even in silly roles. For me, and for people my age, he was a guide into a more adult world in what was likely his very silliest performance: as the voice of the Genie in Disney’s 1992 animated movie “Aladdin.” It is no diminishment to say that I will always remember Williams as a bright-blue cartoon.
You are watching: Ten thousand years will give you such a crick in the neck
The Genie was a perfect container for Williams’s manic energy and allusive impersonation skills. His first appearance onscreen couldn’t have been less subtle or more exciting: he shoots out of a magic lamp, accompanied by pink smoke and fireworks. This was for me, at the age of eight, a moment of personal cinematic history, and it felt that way even then; it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. “Oy,” he exclaims. “Ten thousand years will give you such a crick in the neck.” Then he takes his head off and spins it around. In the span of just a few minutes, Williams runs through a dizzying routine of character-based comedy, leaving the kids in the audience rushing to keep up. He does Borscht Belt patter, mixes in a ventriloquist performance, and then does French and Scottish caricatures. He plays men and women, and finds places in between. He speaks in Yiddish (“You little punim, there”) and gibberish (“Esalalumbo, shimin dumbo!”). One moment he is Arnold Schwarzenegger (I got that); the next he’s Ed Sullivan (I didn’t). I was enthralled and giddy but also anxious—I knew that there were jokes I was missing, even as I was laughing.
“Aladdin” was a pop-culture class hidden within the framework of a kids' movie: in the course of a fable about a young street urchin finding love with a princess, the Genie was a kind of master of ceremonies, morphing into Arsenio Hall, William F. Buckley, Rodney Dangerfield, and Jack Nicholson along the way. The effect of the impressions was assisted by the rapid-fire dynamism of the animation, which gave visual clues to accompany Williams’s voice. (To be fair, nothing was going to help me figure out who William Buckley was.) And, along with the cultural references, the Genie’s songs in the movie had clever, adult lyrics, which stretched the ear and went just beyond understanding: “So don’t you sit there slack-jawed, buggy-eyed / I’m here to answer all your midday prayers / You got me bona fide, certified / You got a genie for a charge d’affaires_!_” We needed to be familiar not only with “Firing Line” but also with Babar to keep up.
Now, there is a cynical explanation for much of this—a matter of business. Disney figured out that a great way to get parents to take their kids to an animated movie, or at least to improve their experience while in the theatre, was to fill the movie with Baby Boomer references and just enough adult humor to keep things interesting. The massive commercial success of “Aladdin” may be partly to blame for the crass innuendo that gets embedded, from time to time, within contemporary children’s movies. But, thanks to Williams’s generosity and full-throttle sincerity as a performer, the jokes that went over the kids’ heads never felt exclusionary, or as if they had been included at our expense. Instead, they were a warm and thrilling invitation to aspire to join the adult table, where Williams would put you at ease by poking you under the table and making fart noises. It was a window into, if you will, a whole new world.
That year, the Golden Globes was moved to create a special-achievement award just to recognize Williams’s performance as the Genie. (In his acceptance speech, he impersonated Mother Teresa using his hand as a mouth, and ended by saying, “Gracias, shalom.”) Looking back, there are some troubling aspects to the movie—its depiction of the Middle East, even mediated as it is through the lenses of history and fable, is regrettable. Some of Williams’s caricatures, especially his swishy gay impressions, are dated at best. But reconsidering “Aladdin” also brings renewed appreciation for the pathos that it blended with the hilarity. Its moral and principal dramatic device holds that being a Genie, despite all the song and dance, is a tough gig. The movie reaches its happy end after the villain, Jafar, gets hold of the lamp and gets to make three wishes of his own. For his final wish, after some clever manipulation by Aladdin, he demands to become the most powerful genie in the world. Bad choice. As we’ve learned earlier, a genie is possessed of everything except for freedom; he must live in the lamp, waiting to serve at the pleasure of others. Or, as Williams’s Genie puts it, “Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty-bitty living space.”