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Aladdin animator used subtlety to design strong villain

Andreas Deja
Interview.
November 20, 1992.

By Chris Roberge
Arts Editor

With the 1992 crop of movies finally drawing to a close, it is fair to say that Aladdin was one of the year's most entertaining films. As with most of Disney's animated successes, one of the strengths of Aladdin lies in its villain, the only character with both the greedy ambition and the power to set the workings of the plot in motion. Jafar, the sly and scheming vizier to the Sultan of Agrabah, is a wonderfully depraved character, and a worthy peer of Disney villains of the past. Jafar's angular design and understated movements were created by supervising animator Andreas Deja, who has previously overseen Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and King Triton from The Little Mermaid. I spoke to Dejas about his work in Aladdin when the film opened nationally in late November.

More than a few of Disney's many memorable characters share physical qualities with the actors who provide their vocal talents. Dejas, though, created the look of Jafar long before seeing Jonathan Freeman, the voice behind the vizier. "I came onto the movie and was supposed to design the character but they only had voice recordings of Jonathan Freeman. I kind of liked his voice -- there was a sort of an arrogant attitude in it. Then, through the drawing, I tried to come up with something that would fit the style of the movie but also that I could have some fun with. So he's got this eerie mask and he's very skinny and has a cape and so forth. Once I had this design set and started the animation, word was getting around that Jonathan was coming by. I remember when he came into my room I was saying, `Oh my God, I can't believe you're Jafar,' because he's a little chubby. I almost couldn't imagine that voice coming out of that man. But we had lunch and we talked and I watched how he moved. Jonathan's been on Broadway, so when he moves there's a little bit of a theatrical quality to it -- the way he gestures and rolls his eyes. I thought, `I can make that work. That's something I can really push.' And therefore Jafar turned out a little theatrical and over the top."

If the strikingly gaunt appearance of Jafar is far removed from that of Freeman, it is certainly even farther removed from that of the other characters who inhabit the fictional Arabian kingdom of Agrabah. Dejas explained that the differentiation was quite intentional. "Eric Goldberg, who designed the Genie, was the first one on the show and he turned us all on to drawings and caricatures by Al Hirschfeld. Eric found that his style worked very well for the Genie and soon the other guys tried to do that as well -- making everything a bit curvy and pleasing to look at. With Jafar I thought I wanted to be simple and direct too, but I wanted a contrast to the other characters, because they are all very animated and very bouncy and I thought that Jafar just can't be that way. He's a villain who doesn't move very much. He can show a lot by moving his eyebrow and other really subtle things. So not only in the animation, but in the design, I tried to come up with contrasting shapes -- a lot of vertical lines."

When asked to compare Jafar with past Disney villains, Dejas observed, "The closest one that I can think of is probably Maleficent because she was a villain who was strong by not doing very much. It was all in her poses and her subtleties, versus people like Cruelle De Vil and Captain Hook, who are very physical. Starting out, I didn't know which way to go, because in the storyboards he was digging for the lamp in the sand and screaming in one scene, and in others he was holding still. The more I animated, the more I found out that this is a guy you really want to underplay. He becomes much more powerful if you keep him subtle."

The work of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld has been cited by many people associated with Aladdin as a strong graphic influence, but in the early days of Disney's feature animation, he was one of Disney's strongest critics. After the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first animated feature-length film, Hirschfeld complained, "The illusion of a well directed pen line is not to be confused with the gingerbread realities of a Snow White. Disney's treatment of these characters belongs in the oopsy-woopsy school of art practiced mostly by etchers who portray dogs with cute sayings. To imitate an animated photograph except as satire is in poor taste."

When I brought this up, Dejas responded, "He came to our studio about three weeks ago and we talked about this. What he was objecting to were characters like Snow White who were drawn really close to life and seemed to be copies of live action. He loved the dwarves and said that they were great but he didn't like the straight characters. We also showed him Aladdin and he just loved it. I don't think that any of the characters are realistically portrayed like Snow White or something like Cinderella. Actually when he saw the screening, he said that he was jealous of us because while his lines were just on paper, our lines moved."

The narrative structure of Aladdin was adjusted and reworked fairly often during its production. Some scenes were added, while others, such as a conclusion which revealed the street merchant narrator to be the Genie in disguise, were excised in an attempt to streamline the film. The sequence which contained Jafar's only song was revised several times.

"What happened was that towards the end of the movie when he is really powerful and has the lamp, all of a sudden he broke into a song talking about his problems and who he is. Even though it was a great song, at that point in the story it just didn't fit. They tried to cut the song out altogether, replacing it with story continuity, and that sort of worked but it was kind of dry and someone said that it really missed a musical piece. Then someone suggested we pick up the Prince Ali theme and humiliate the lad with a reprise version ... Thank God I hadn't animated yet. It was storyboarded and composed and scored actually, but nevertheless we went for the shorter version and that's the way it is now. We could have had a song with Jafar maybe at the beginning of the movie. Later on I had an idea that when Jafar is changing into the old man, he could sing about his problems while you actually see him dress up. It would have given him some nice character development."

In many reviews of Aladdin, Robin Williams, who provides the voice of the Genie, has been getting the bulk of the credit for the film's success. This is a bit unfair, not only because the entirety of the movie is enormously entertaining, but because Williams' talents are not the only ones fleshing out the popular character. "I'm actually very much with you on that," Dejas said when I asked him about this. "We were talking with the Academy to find out whether Robin Williams could actually receive an award for a supporting role and he can! So I think that they're going to try to make that happen. And I'd be very disappointed if, were he to win, only he goes up on the stage to pick it up. It's a 50-50 thing and Eric Goldberg should be up there because he made it act. Robin Williams gave us a beautiful track -- it's a sort of stand-up comedy radio show in a way -- but Eric had to visualize all of that and he brought that character to life."

Apparently the victim of some type of animation typecasting, Andreas Deja will next be bringing to life the villain in the animated feature King of the Jungle, which Disney plans to release in 1993.