Few companies throughout the history of the world have been so shameless in their pursuit of the almighty dollar as the Walt Disney Company. After breaking the mold in 1934, Disney has never shied away from creative marketing and release strategies to wring every last dollar out of its most beloved pieces of intellectual property. Each week, we’ll look at the House of Mouse’s various sequels, prequels, spin-offs and various misadventures relegated from the silver screen to the small screen. Is there any artistic merit to be found? Or was each film mostly conceived as an excuse to print more money? Join me as we search for the answers from the wonderful world of Di$ney.
Why does this exist?
In more ways than one, Aladdin changed animation forever in 1992. Even though Disney was in the midst of the “Disney Renaissance” — a period that saw the animation studio go from critical and financial disaster in the 1980s to an era of (mostly) monumental success throughout the 1990s — when the film was released, the success of Aladdin goes beyond the box-office receipts, critical praise or Oscar recognition.
By snagging Robin Williams to voice the Genie, Disney found a formula for success by casting A-list talent to bring in skeptical adults. Not that an animated film needed an all-star cast to be memorable. Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid got by just fine, but even some die-hard Disney fans might be hard-pressed to name any of the voice actors in either film.
It makes sense why Disney chose a sequel for Aladdin as its first direct-to-video release, at least from a commercial standpoint. But behind the scenes, the road to release was never very easy. Williams’s infamous public dispute with Disney — after being paid a measly $75,000 and Disney balking on its agreement to not prominently feature Genie in marketing — boiled over and he refused to return for this sequel.
The Return of Jafar was originally slated to be a TV-movie lead-in for an Aladdin animated series, but co-director Tad Stones convinced the Disney brass to release the film on home video. Could the film have worked as well if it had simply been relegated to television? Probably. But at least this way Disney could get a return on its investment. Indeed, the film raked in $300 million in worldwide sales against a $5 million budget. From that standpoint, the gamble paid off.
What’s going on here?
The story picks up not long after the events of Aladdin, where Iago the parrot (voiced by Gilbert Gottfried) escapes from the lamp to which he and Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) were confined and returns to Agrabah.
Because the original film gave Aladdin (Scott Weinger) a complete character arc, The Return of Jafar attempts to make Iago the emotional center of the story by turning over a new leaf and forgoing his life of villainy. This development is forgivable to some extent. Aside from the Genie, Iago was the original film’s most enjoyable and most quotable character. Gottfried makes Iago a character worth rooting for, but it’s strange how lifeless every other character throughout Jafar feels in comparison.
There’s some material regarding Jasmine’s (Linda Larkin) mistrust of Aladdin, but the entire storyline feels tossed-off. Genie returns after seeing the world, and the film barely tries to justify his inclusion beyond being Aladdin’s magical lifeline whenever he gets in trouble. Dan Castellaneta does his best to infuse the film with the same madcap energy that Williams brought, and the animated team still has fun with the endless possibilities of a shape-shifting, magical being. As you might have guessed, Jafar also returns, with the assistance of Jason Alexander as Abis Mal (truly one of the worst character names ever conceived), and both team up for revenge against Aladdin.
How much of the original is preserved?
The film opens with a reprieve of “Arabian Nights,” as if to say to the audience, “Don’t worry, this still smells like the old thing at least!” The entire voice cast returns, with the obvious exception of Williams.
Jafar includes four additional original songs, but none is memorable in the slightest. The film tries to mirror some of the Aladdin bangers like “Friend Like Me” and “A Whole New World” by making them lighter and less consequential, and I couldn’t help but feel like the songs were the last piece of the puzzle to be put together when the film was made.
The characters almost look like strange Twilight Zone versions of their original selves, as if the animators were given the templates to draw them at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday and tried their best to replicate them before heading out for the weekend. Eyes and mouths feel bigger, and the shape of the Sultan feels less elastic, less fun to animate. At one point, it looks like Jasmine’s skin tone changes in the middle of a scene. Dialogue very rarely matches up with the movements of the characters’ mouths. Thankfully, the ethnic problems that plagued Aladdin are slightly less glaring this time around since the film is much more contained, though it’s far from a spotless entry.
Does this ruin the original film?
Comparing a direct-to-video sequel to one of the greatest animated films of all time is a fool’s errand, regardless of who is steering the ship. Still, it’s hard to guess what could have made the film work if the bones of the story were to remain intact. I’m not entirely convinced that Williams could have saved Jafar because the Genie feels like such an afterthought here. Expanding the film’s running time could have given Jasmine and Aladdin some room to breathe, though it’s hard to imagine the screenwriters had any ideas that were left on the table. Jafar‘s runtime is a paltry 69 minutes, whereas next week’s Aladdin and the King of Thieves‘ is 81, and you can’t tell me that the additional 12 minutes was all dedicated to letting Williams (who did return for that film) do his thing. It also can’t be overstated just how cheap Jafar looks. Sure, the budget was only $5 million compared to Aladdin‘s $28 million. But the animation in Aladdin was crisp, clean and vibrant, incorporating CGI beautifully when necessary whereas Jafar truly looks like it was made for the small screen.
I was 7 when Jafar was released, and though I couldn’t remember the plot at large, I was surprised by the number of moments that came back to me on this watch. One of the biggest questions I have for this project is to examine the long-standing cultural footprint of these films. Does anybody go back to these films today? Is there any argument to be made for their continued existence or should they be demoted to the Disney Vault, never to be seen again? Even with every one of these films within arm’s reach on a streaming service, is anybody eschewing Disney’s newer, flashier offerings to watch any of them?
In the case of The Return of Jafar, it’s hard to argue for it beyond a pure nostalgia trip. The film is neither memorably bad or a forgotten gem; rather, it’s just forgettable.
- Next Time: One more magic carpet ride back to Agrabah for Aladdin and the King of Thieves.