11 September 2012

DISNEY SEQUELS: YOUR DOUBLE-WHAMMY ISN'T UP TO SNUFF

Let us begin our long, strange tour of the run of direct-to-video sequels to its legitimate, theatrical motion pictures that the Walt Disney Company released over a decade and a half in the '90s and '00s, with a straightforward observation: The Return of Jafar is 69 minutes long. A significant number for all sorts of reasons, but I'll give you all a moment to figure out what, specifically, is important, besides the fact that it means one is only compelled to waste a bit more than an hour of one's life watching it. Hint: it has nothing to do with oral sex.

The answer we were looking for, of course, was "it's 23 minutes times three", and the significance of that number is that it's the length of three half-hour episodes of American television with space for commercial breaks. For as is well-known among we rather sorry folk who care about the matter at all, The Return of Jafar, which was released in the summer of 1994 as a sequel to the 1992 Disney feature Aladdin, was initially conceived as the three-part pilot to the Aladdin TV series which premiered later that fall. It was only after the Disney executives in charge - some versions of the story have it that CEO Michael Eisner himself made the decision - felt that the early material was promising enough that the episodes could stand on their own two feet as an independent story, not serving merely as an advertisement for the impending TV show (though, undoubtedly, that was part of the calculation), but as a full-fledged Aladdin sequel, to which the TV show would function as a mere spin-off (it's worth noting that Tad Stones, who worked as producer, co-director, and co-writer of the project, and is the closest it has to a leading creator, opposed this upgrade).

Indeed, while it's obvious from the finished product where the commercial breaks and episode-ending cliffhangers were to reside, as far as my limited research has revealed, The Return of Jafar was never ultimately broken back into its constituent parts and aired with the rest of the series in syndication; anyway, the decision seems to have come early enough in production that the film was reconfigured to be a standalone unit, given that there is no fade-to-black dividing "episode 2" from "episode 3", as there is between "episode 1" and "episode 2". And that's how we end up with some odd hybrid of stitched together telemovie and honest-to-God feature-length project.

Its success was not so immediate nor intense as to kick off the gruesome wave of DTV sequels, produced largely by the Walt Disney Television Animation studio in Australia, which would some time later be renamed "DisneyToon Studios" in recognition as its dubious status as more than just another TV animation satellite; that was a few years in the future still. But it was successful enough to get the Aladdin cartoon off to a big enough start that it became one of Disney's bigger TV hits in the mid-'90s, becoming just the third series to break past the Disney standard of 65 episodes, the first that did not include anthropomorphic ducks as its protagonists.

Aladdin as a series, or even merely a film franchise, makes a bit of sense, from a brutally pragmatic marketing standpoint: if you can figure out a way around the inconvenient marriage of the title character at the end, the cast and setting are well-suited to a series of matinee-picture adventures with at least a vague Arabian Nights twist, and with a male protagonist to boot (the cynic in me observes that, with a television version of The Little Mermaid having made little impact in 1992, the lesson of Aladdin the show was that boys made better TV heroes - or, anyway, more commercial ones). So the success of The Return of Jafar, from a conceptual standpoint, makes a certain amount of sense. That said, I recall, with more clarity than I'd like, just how big a deal Disney made of their first-ever DTV original back in 1994, and how much it seemed, at the time, like a continuation of the Aladdin story was actually pretty neat; and I remember with even more clarity how much my first viewing of The Return of Jafar sucked all the wind right out of me: it would take a very specific combination of intelligence and innocence in a 12-year-old to be actively disappointed in the animation quality of the picture, which I was, but the story was even more galling, and it was at that moment, all my hopes for an Aladdin sequel mocked and turned to ash, that I renounced the Aladdin TV show before it had even premiered (and I've still only seen, by accident, two or three episodes), and as Disney sequels went from being a curiosity to a cottage industry, I managed to resist the urge (which was often very small) to pay attention to any of them, all because of how much I hated, hated, HATED The Return of Jafar.

Pretty harsh response to something that, viewed with the proper detachment, is not such a horrible monstrosity as all that. Mostly, it's just tepid; about what you'd expect from a television pilot abruptly promoted to feature film status over the objections of its own creator. It is a faintly awful sequel to Aladdin, admittedly, largely because of how many reset buttons it tries to push: basically the same plot structured around exactly the same villain who has no business ending up resurrected at all, except through the magic of fan-wanking. The title itself informs us that the treacherous vizier-turned-sorcerer-turned genie Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) will be featuring in some capacity, despite being condemned to 10,000 years in an underground cave in the end of the last picture; this is gotten around via the age-old logic of "because we changed our minds", as Jafar's smart-aleck parrot Iago (Gilbert Gottfried) has managed to half-emerge from Jafar's lamp on no logic that makes any sense, and burrowed his way up through the desert sands. Here, he turns on his master - the first of many double-crosses the character perpetrates over the course of the next hour - and drops the lamp into what proves to be not nearly a deep enough well, given that the lamp is almost immediately recovered by incompetent thief Abis Mal (Jason Alexander) - it was only just now that I got that pun - who is presently nursing a grudge against thief-turned-royal-consort Aladdin (Scott Weinger), who we saw humiliate the thief in the movie's opening sequence.

As for Aladdin himself, he's ensconced comfortably in the royal palace of Agrabah, with his petulant, licentious monkey friend Abu (Frank Welker), and princess girlfriend Jasmine (Linda Larkin). Because we don't have the luxury of spacing out events in a 69-minute movie, several things happen all at once: Aladdin is rescued from Abis Mal's gang (this is before the lamp recovery, at the end of the first "episode") by Iago, putting him in the devious parrot's debt; his old friend the genie (Dan Castellaneta, doing a decent TV-sized job of replacing Robin Williams, who was ill-treated by Disney's marketing effort back in '92) shows up, pleading boredom on his world tour without his good friends; and Abis Mal frees Jafar, who immediately comes up with a plan to retake Agrabah and kill all his old enemies, which involves forcing Iago to change sides back.

Iago gets quite a workout throughout the movie, which is one of the biggest problems: with Aladdin given no real dramatic arc that isn't a feeble retread of conflicts he'd already solved in the first film, the only truly dynamic character is the snotty little comic sidekick. Indeed, if you came blind to The Return of Jafar, your response, after the utter confusion (there are a lot of unexplained callbacks to the first movie), would be to assume that Iago is the main character. He gets the most to do, the most songs, and perhaps the most screentime, though I cannot swear to that last. And while his abrasive sarcasm works in tiny doses, as comic relief, a little Iago goes a long way - a lot longer than The Return of Jafar has space for, anyways. But apparently they were terrified of making the TV series happen without him, because a comic genie, a comic monkey, and a comic magic carpet just weren't enough comic sidekicks.

Barring that unfortunate lack of focus on the people we nominally care about (and if Aladdin is given only a little bit to do, Jasmine has been turned into nothing but a narrative obstacle of the old "the man has screwed up and now the woman is too angry to let him explain" variety), the film's chief sins are not uncommon for a sequel: too much energy is spent setting things back to zero, so that we can get a replay of the original, instead of growing the world and characters in an interesting, organic way - ironic, given that expanding the original movie's universe would be the exact point of the show to follow this sequel, as promised by Aladdin's wholly unmotivated decision at the end not to marry Jasmine until he has more adventures out in the open world ; precisely 85 such adventures, as it turns out.

Plainly, Jafar didn't have to return; that single choice might have been enough to save an Aladdin sequel from itself, simply because it would have allowed the sequel's third act to be something less of an exact, beat-for-beat retread of Aladdin's own third act. Abis Mal isn't a strong enough villain to support an entire plot - he's not even strong enough to be a second-string comic baddie in a mediocre DTV film, as point of fact, and the hyper-familiar tones of Jason Alexander's voice don't help matters - but even he'd have been at least more interesting than Jafar doing Jafar a second time, complete with a Jafar song that feels uncomfortably like the short Jafar song from the first movie.

On the subject of which: nobody expects Alan Menken and Howard Ashman from a chintzy project like this, but the songs in The Return of Jafar are quite bad, even so. After a re-do of "Arabian Nights", the opening song from before, we're left with four originals: first is Iago's monstrously annoying "I'm Looking Out for Me", which attempts to explain the bird's erratic character shifting for the rest of the movie musically, since no screenwriter in history would be able to do it properly, and serves only one real purpose, which is to demonstrate that this film's idea of a showstopping musical number is going to be a bit littler than the Disney musicals of the '90s preceding it:

Next is "Nothing Like a Friend", a bald-faced attempt to remind us of the ebullient "Friend Like Me" from the first movie, in which the genie explains what, besides marketing, has driven him to return to Agrabah; it is far and away the film's best song, both because the lyrics follow each other in a logical progression from start to finish, some of them are vaguely amusing, and the music is relatively catchy. "Forget About Love" is the film's nadir, musically or otherwise: Iago sings again (because that Gottfried, he's got some pipes), about how much better off Jasmine is without Aladdin, she is reminded why she loves him, and then they have a duet - it is interesting solely for having a similar narrative arc to the immeasurably superior "I Won't Say (I'm In Love)" from the actual Disney movie Hercules three years later, and I like to imagine that Alan Menken was deliberately setting himself to improving on a movie that so badly defaced one of his best musicals. Last up is Jafar's "You're Only Second Rate", and I think if you try to imagine singing a phrase with such jangling, harsh phonemes as "second rate", you'll start to understand why this one doesn't work, and that's before the random lyrics "Alakazam-na-bus / This thing's bigger than the both of us" or pointless sight gags.

When it's not a terrible musical or an adventure story without interesting characters, The Return of Jafar, is all honesty, not an awful animated project. Compare it to Aladdin and despair, but it's still the case that Disney's television animation was pretty damn good as far as such things went in 1994; the film isn't a masterpiece of the form, but it's not dreadful - indeed, it's probably better than DuckTales the Movie, as far as television animation-quality feature length films involving magic lamps go. It's chief sin is being unnervingly inconsistent: while some characters, like Abu, are almost as expressive and nuanced as they were in the original feature (within the limitations of a much cheaper animation process-

-others go off model enough times that it's not entirely clear the "right" look was supposed to be in the first place-


And I have a very special hatred for the people responsible for making Jasmine, one of the finer creations of A-list supervising animator Mark Henn, look like such a putty-faced nightmare.



It is, indeed, the case throughout that Jasmine and Aladdin look worse than any other characters in the film, and this would be a bigger problem if it weren't secretly proof of how much neither of these characters actually matter.

Nothing about The Return of Jafar is exceptional, but nothing about it is entirely awful, either, except in reference to Aladdin, where the awfulness becomes legion: as major as the way that, like so many sequels, it tries to invalidate that film's closure, or as minor as the irritating fact that the genie isn't supposed to have gold bands on his wrists any more, and yet he does. It's a flawless case of the same thing only less so: the characters all sound and act mostly the same (Castellaneta is distracting, but one gets used to him by the end of his big song), but they're less interesting and harder to care about; the conflict is of equally high stakes, but it feels much pettier. Add in the chintzier animation, and the whole thing feels like a rip-off of itself, a carbon copy that misses the point and sucks all the energy out of something it's supposed to be complementing. But it made a lot of money, and that was all it took to guarantee that there would be plenty more things just like it.

7 comments:

franklinshepard said...

Well, I hope I don't lose any cred I've ever had in saying that I actually really liked this movie when I was a kid (I think I was 10 when it came out) and used to watch it over and over again. I can still hum "Forget About Love," which I rather enjoy - of course, it's no "I Won't Say I'm in Love", but on its own merits, I kind of like it.

That said, I'm positive it wouldn't hold up and I certainly wouldn't try to defend it. Those screencaps are ghastly.

Sssonic said...

It's funny; like you, my 8-year old self, like your 12-year old self, was all kinds of excited for "Return of Jafar" thanks to the surprisingly-strong hype Disney built around it back in the day and the fact that "Aladdin" was, at the time, among my favorite Disney films (I still like it well enough these days, but it's nowhere near my top five). And yet, also like you, I walked away disappointed; even back then, it felt like such a lackluster piece of work, not just in comparison to the original movie it followed up on but the TV series that would follow up on it.

I'm especially touched that you, like me, picked up on all the ways Grand and Small that the movie strives to invalidate the original for the sake of maintaining the Status Quo; I never could get over the Genie still having those Gold Bands in particular.

My one major area of disagreement is that I'd say I liked "You're Only Second Rate" more than you, and probably more than "Nothing Like A Friend"; I wouldn't say it's a better song, but Freeman manages to do more with his song than Castellanata, whose sub-Williams mugging grated me even back in the day. Plus, it's kind of nice for Jafar to finally have a full Song of his own after losing two chances for such a song in the original and getting an admittedly-pretty-good Evil Reprise instead.

Otherwise? Yeah, it's not awful, but "not awful" is pretty faint praise to be damned with.

K Wild said...

Excellent review, Tim. I remember being underwhelmed by the sequel, too, and King of Thieves only slightly redeemed Disney sequels for me.

I can't wait to see your take on the Beauty and the Beast sequels. Er, midquels.

Trish said...

"...as far as my limited research has revealed, The Return of Jafar was never ultimately broken back into its constituent parts and aired with the rest of the series in syndication"

Funny, I could have sworn I saw bits of "Return of Jafar" in among the few episodes of the "Aladdin" series I caught?

Sssonic said...

@ Trish: Footage from "Return of Jafar" was used fairly extensively in the show's opening theme. In particular, the opening shot of the Bandits riding across the desert and the closing shot of Aladdin flying toward the Palace in Agrabah are both taken from "Return". Perhaps that's what you're thinking of?

Tim said...

I must hasten to clarify: I don't know that ROJ wasn't incorporated into the series as a three-part episode, I just haven't been able to find prove that it was.

Trish said...

You are absolutely right about the opening credits (which even showed Jafar himself as I recall). Furthermore, I may, upon reflection, be confusing this with "Tiny Toons: How We Spent Our Vacation", which was indeed chopped up and aired as a multipart episode. Memories are weird things.