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?
As I said last week, The Return of Jafar was one of the best-selling home videos of all time. Between films, the Disney Channel produced an animated series that ran for three seasons, and Aladdin and the King of Thieves was intended as a kind of bookend to complete the series.
If you’re wondering why almost none of the plot developments in Jafar are addressed throughout Thieves, it’s because there were dozens of episodes that already did so. That decision is probably for the best though because barely anything consequential happens in Jafar, aside from ridding the series of its primary villain. It is fascinating how quickly the Disney machine kicked into gear, though. Within four years, the studio had released three films and a television series on Aladdin’s adventures. Sure, the execs had to have known Aladdin had the potential to be a mega-hit before it was released, but I would love to find out how quickly each project went from inception to final product.
What’s going on here?
It is a little strange that Aladdin’s family history is never brought up in the 1992 film, but framing his sudden fondness for his long-lost father around his impending wedding is a smart plot device. Aladdin and Jasmine’s wedding is interrupted by a gang of thieves searching for a specific piece of treasure among their wedding gifts. (Massive plot hole that doesn’t matter at all: Who is giving away a magical scepter as a wedding gift? Also, where are all these rich citizens of Agrabah, a city full of peasants, coming from that have so much gold and jewelry to toss off?)
Aladdin soon learns that the self-anointed King of Thieves (John Rhys-Davies) is none other than his father and tries to convert him from the dark side. A whole lot of inner turmoil and back-stabbing ensues, and Aladdin helps his father in a quest to find the “ultimate treasure,” the Hand of King Midas. The screenwriters (Mark McCorkle and Robert Schooley) were smart to re-focus the story on Aladdin, and not another one of the secondary characters, in this round after the narrative thud that was Jafar. Even Jasmine gets a “highlight” when she punches a guy in the face.
How much of the original is preserved?
The biggest triumph Disney pulled off, and the most notable improvement from Jafar, is the triumphant return of Robin Williams as the Genie. Dan Castellaneta was slated to reprise his role. But once Williams accepted Disney’s apology, Castellaneta’s voice recordings were scrapped and the animators even had to re-animate the Genie’s scenes to better fit Williams’s shtick. What’s strange, though, is how many stretches of the film are completely free of the Genie. The entire finale unfolds without him, which leaves the focus on Aladdin and the action rather than some frivolous comedic bits.
The animation doesn’t look as great as the theatrical release, but it’s a marked improvement over Jafar. Aladdin’s fight with Sa’luk (Jerry Orbach) in the den of the 40 Thieves is an impressive use of color, shadow and light as he has to battle against elements like fire and lightning.
Does this ruin the original film?
Any film that returns Robin Williams to his rightful place as Genie is alright by me. It’s clear that there was no love lost from Williams after the public fiasco that ensued after Aladdin‘s release because Williams once again throws all his boundless energy into the character. It could have been just as easy for Williams to phone in his performance, but Thieves just goes to show that the late actor was a consummate professional.
Even in 1992, Disney had begun to dip its toes into the self-referential machine that it’s become today, but the visual and verbal references to Disney’s other intellectual properties come fast and hard in Thieves. Much of that is surely due to Williams and his improvisational style, though there are some moments that were purely cooked up by the animators.
The film presents a nice wrap-up for all involved, while still leaving the door open for more adventures. (For a while, another sequel was rumored to happen but never came to fruition.) I think Thieves exists more as a bit of fan service than a narrative necessity, especially so that audiences could properly say goodbye to Williams’ Genie. No sequel — or live-action remake, for that matter — could touch the greatness of Aladdin, but Thieves manages to improbably stand on its own.
- Next Time: Get your reading glasses on because the font will be microscopic when we discuss the live-action Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves.