How Disney Brought Back Robin Williams' Genie for 2023's Once Upon a Studio (Exclusive)

By Russ Milheim Updated:
Genie, Robin Williams

Two key producers from Disney Animation revealed how they brought the late Robin Williams’ Genie back for the company’s newest short, Once Upon a Studio.

In 2023, Disney is celebrating its 100th anniversary. To do that, the studio is dipping into its extensive history to create a new short that pulls from over 85 of the company’s previous feature-length films and shorts.

This new project is called Once Upon a Studio, and it will see 543 Disney Animation characters come to life in a whole new way. Not only that, but it will even feature crossovers that fans have only ever dreamed of.

Have you ever wanted to see Moana and Flounder share a moment together, or Tinker Bell with Mickey Mouse?

Many things became possible when Disney set its eyes on making this impressive new short a reality, which also served as the opportunity to bring together scores of classic characters.

Bringing Back the Genie

Genie in Aladdin 1992

Brad Simonsen and Yvett Merino, the producers for Disney Animation’s newest short, Once Upon a Studio, spoke exclusively to The Direct about the new project and revealed how they worked to bring Robin Williams’ Genie back for a brief moment.

Robin Williams debuted as the voice of the legendary Genie in 1992's Aladdin but refused to return for 1994's Aladdin 2 due to a merchandising-related fallout. The disagreement was later settled and the comedy icon returned as the Genie for the 1996 direct-to-video threequel, Aladdin and the King of Thieves.

Simonsen shared that “[they] knew from the beginning” that Williams’ iconic Genie needed to partake in the fun, so the team “reached out almost immediately to [the late actor’s] estate:”

“... We knew from the beginning that the Genie needed to be in this movie, right? So we reached out almost immediately to [Robin William's] estate. And we started sharing with them what we were up to. And then what we did is we actually looked at outtakes. Dan Abraham, our director, looked at outtakes from the recorded sessions and then chose those lines.”

He continued, noting that they quickly “went back to the family” to “[make] sure that [they] were on the journey together:”

“And then we went back to the family and the estate and shared, 'Hey, this is the specificity. [Disney animator] Eric Goldberg is going to be part of this.' So it was really a collaboration with them. And us making sure that we were on the journey together.”

As for the short itself, Merino added how the “first cut was about 12 minutes long” and figuring the final version out quickly became “a balancing act:”

“I think [the] first cut [with Directors Dan Abraham and Trent Correy] was about 12 minutes long. It was like, we can't make a 12-minute short in this amount of time. So we had to really make sure, be careful, that every interaction that we have was timed specifically to that interaction. It became as like, 'Oh, we're spending a little bit more time on this, and it takes away from this.' So, it became like a balancing act of doing that.”

But with such an ambitious short, Merino confirmed that Once Upon a Studio unsurprisingly posed “a lot of unique challenges,” namely in marrying multiple styles of animation while also taking place in a live-action setting:

“There were a lot of unique challenges in this one. I think bringing in the various styles of hand-drawn and CG into our studio and making it feel like they actually are walking in our studio and walking the halls and making them blend seamlessly.”

Disney Once Upon a Studio

The producer continued, pointing out the shot with “Moana and Flounder,” an interaction that was “difficult to make them look like they’re living in the same world:”

“There's the shot… the Moana shot because that's in the trailer; like the Moana and Flounder shot, right. And when you're interacting, you're not only having them in the same scene, which is difficult to make them look like they're living in the same world, but they're actually interacting, holding, and touching. And so it's really a credit to the incredible talent of artists and technicians and production people that we have here in the studio to make sure it all works together.”

Simonsen jumped in to explain how they worked closely with production designer Ryan Long, the directors, and animator Eric Goldberg “to make sure that everything was working:”

“I was just gonna say, Ryan Lang, our production designer, we worked really, you know, closely, Dan and Trent worked really closely with him and Eric Goldberg to really do these tests. So we'd take, like, a single frame, and he'd paint over, and we'd really work with the artists to make sure that everything was working together. So each shot had kind of that love.”

One key element of many Disney animated projects is the musical elements. While there is a moment towards the end of the short, fans shouldn’t expect these many characters to be consistently singing tunes as they glide through the halls of the Roy E. Disney Animation Building.

But were more songs ever considered? Simonsen shared that maintaining the balance between all these character moments and musical numbers “would be very hard to do:”

“What we realized was with every second you're with a character, you're taking away time from another character when you're trying to get as many in as possible. So it would be very hard to do musical numbers and still keep that pace that we have.”

Merino expressed how Once Upon a Studio “was a fun one to screen [internally]” because many of the notes would center around adding new characters or moments into the story:

“This one… was a fun one to screen [internally] because the notes were more about like, 'Oh, well, remember this character? Oh, try to get this character.' And there were some good story notes about making sure that we keep a drive alive within the short. It was really fun because we have so many great directors and writers in our studio who have such a history here. They were like, 'Oh, you can put this character in there. Oh, what about this?' So it was a lot of fun. Yeah.”

Brad Simonsen added how they “did a survey to the entire studio” that encouraged people to pitch their ideas to the team:

“Yeah... And we even did a survey actually, after the original pitch, we did a survey to the entire studio and said, 'Hey, if you have ideas, please, please pitch them.' And one of those ideas that came out of that was the moment near the end of the short as they're all gathering. Where Oswald actually tips his hat to Mickey, and Mickey says, 'After you.' That was literally--someone suggested that as one of our team members, yeah.”

More Disney Crossovers to Come?

Once Upon a Studio is definitely different than Disney Animation’s usual shorts, but fans are undoubtedly going to fall in love with it. Seeing all of these classic characters interact in previously inconceivable ways scratches an itch many never realized they had.

Maybe if the short really catches on, Disney Animation could commission a larger project that would allow Disney’s large library of characters to interact in similarly unique ways. Hopefully, fans won’t have to wait another hundred years before some more crossovers like this happen again.

The next step in celebrating Disney’s 100th anniversary will be the release of Wish, the company’s next animated movie, which will be released on November 22. The film follows Asha, a young girl who wishes for a star, only to get a much more direct and magical response than she ever would have thought.

Once Upon a Studio will make its Disney+ debut on Monday, October 16.

- About The Author: Russ Milheim
Russ Milheim is the Industry Relations Coordinator at The Direct. On top of utilizing his expertise on the many corners of today’s entertainment to cover the latest news and theories, he establishes and maintains communication and relations between the outlet and the many studio and talent representatives.