Once upon a time, Robin Williams took on two very dissimilar roles and really upset the House of Mouse. The beloved actor first signed on to play the role of a rapping bat named Batty in FernGully:The Last Rainforest. The film’s message about environmentalism inspired Williams, and he agreed despite the stigma at the time of live-action actors doing voice work for animation.
Enter Disney, filled with vigor and hope in the midst of their “Disney Renaissance” (a period of hit movies that saved the Studios from destruction) they approached Williams with a very different sort of project: Aladdin. Disney designed the Genie specifically with Robin Williams in mind, but Williams was reluctant to take on the role. After a significant amount of buttering up, the comedian eventually agreed. There was just one problem: Disney has never particularly been fond of competition.
The films were in production simultaneously and due to be released within months of each other. Disney wasn’t comfortable with their headliner appearing in two animated films so close together. They tried to persuade the comedian to drop out of FernGully, much to the frustration of Williams and 20th Century Fox (who produced the film). Williams was adamant that he would not quit FernGully, a project he very much believed in. In a heated exchange, he told Disney executives he could do as he pleased because “it’s MY voice!” Since Williams had agreed to the Fox film first, Disney’s hands were tied. Or were they?
What happened next is a diabolical plot suitable for Disney’s next great villain. If Disney couldn’t convince Williams to quit, they’d force Fox to quit. Sabotage ensued. The then head of The Walt Disney Studios, Jeffery Katzenberg, furiously engaged in all sorts of shady tactics to shut the film down, or at least make it extremely difficult (and expensive) for them to proceed. FernGully filmmaker Bill Kroyer explained, “Jim [Cox] took me on a tour at Disney with someone else’s name on my tag and pointed out the young guns to hire for FernGully. Katzenberg wasn’t happy when he found out. He was behind all the aggravation that Disney caused us: twice we rented facilities, and they gazumped us by paying more. When we found space in the brewery, Disney tried to buy it. One day Katzenberg and eight or so others marched through to inspect the premises–we scrambled to cover everything up! But it was also really about Robin.”
This wasn’t a good look for the company. Despite their best efforts, Disney’s attempts to shut the film down to keep Robin Williams to themselves failed. Though Aladdin was a much bigger hit, FernGully developed a devoted cult following that exists to this day. Two years later, in 1994, Katzenberg was fired from Disney and went on to found DreamWorks Entertainment. The real irony of the story? Disney now owns FernGully.