ALADDIN 2: THE RETURN OF JAFAR / ALADDIN 3: ALADDIN AND THE KING OF THIEVES – DVD review

After the enormous success of Disney’s animated “Aladdin” in 1992, I suppose it was inevitable that the studio would follow it up with sequels. I mean, almost every other studio did sequels. Why not Disney. And like so many of Disney’s animated sequels since then, “Aladdin II: The Return of Jafar” and “Aladdin III: Aladdin and the King of Thieves” were both made as direct-to-video releases. If they didn’t live up to the original, well, who really expected them to?

In their favor, they retain most of the same cast of voices, the exception being Robin Williams, who sat out the first sequel. They also keep the same exotic locales, and they maintain the use of music and songs wherever possible. Moreover, they are both offered in a two-for-the-price-of-one package. Without the budget of the original, however, the sequels come off looking like made-for-television products, which isn’t hard to understand since Disney also did a short-lived “Aladdin” TV series in 1993, and these sequels and a passel more were produced by Walt Disney Television Animation.

“The Return of Jafar”
Of the two sequels, this one from 1994 comes off by far the worst. The story and animation are both second-class compared to Disney’s best theatrical efforts. Often the production looks cheap, the art work less detailed than before, with backgrounds dull or simplistic and lacking depth.

The story line and music, too, are dull and simplistic. Things start off well enough with a reprise of the song “Arabian Nights,” but from then on it’s all downhill. Jafar (again voiced by Jonathan Freeman), formerly the evil Grand Vizier, now just evil, has been imprisoned in a magic lamp since the last episode. As the movie begins, he and his odious henchman, Iago the parrot (again voiced by Gilbert Gottfried), have just gotten out of the lamp, and Jafar is now a genie himself. He wants revenge, and he wants his old power back in the kingdom of Agrabah.

Meanwhile, in the city, Aladdin (again voiced by Scott Weinger) and Princess Jasmine (again voiced by Linda Larkin) are as sappy and boring as ever. After a song from Iago, “I’m Looking Out for Me,” and some meaningless dialogue between Aladdin and the Princess, the Blue Genie shows up. Apparently, there was some dispute between Williams and the Disney company, and Williams refused to reprise his role, so this time Dan Castellaneta does the voice of the Genie. Believe me, it isn’t the same. Despite Castellaneta’s best efforts, without Williams the life is sucked out of the enterprise.

More songs follow, each of them as derivative and as tedious as the one before. The Blue Genie sings “Nothing in the World Quite Like a Friend” to Aladdin and the Princess, and a little later the parrot sings “Forget About Love,” also to the Princess. Jafar’s song, “You’re Only Second Rate,” is the single piece that holds any promise.

A new character, Abis Mal (Jason Alexander), could have gone somewhere, but his part is lost along the way. Mainly, we get an ounce of plot, a whole lot of slapstick, a few lame jokes, and a climax about Jafar kidnapping the Sultan. Then the whole dull affair comes to a close after running a snappy sixty-nine minutes that seems many times longer. The end comes as a welcome relief. Rated individually, I’d have to give “The Return of Jafar” a 4/10 at best.

“Aladdin and the King of Thieves”
Things pick up considerably in this 1996 sequel, although that is still not saying much compared to the original “Aladdin.” Nevertheless, beggars and thieves can’t be choosy.

Again, we get much the same cast of characters and actors, except that this time Robin Williams is coaxed back into the fold. Understandably, he saves what little day there is to save. Scott Weinger and Linda Larkin continue to voice Aladdin and the Princess, and Gilbert Gottfried continues as the voice of the parrot, Iago. New to the picture are John Rhys-Davies as Cassim, the King of Thieves, and Jerry Orbach as Sa’luk, his treacherous right-hand man. Missing in action is Jonathan Freeman’s nefarious Jafar.

Williams’ Blue Genie is the first major character to make an entrance, so it’s clear that Disney knew who the star of the show was here. The story begins on Aladdin and Jasmine’s wedding day, and the Genie has the first song, “Party in Agrabah.” Williams instills badly needed life into the proceedings with his diverse voice characterizations and impersonations–Woody Allen, the Marx brothers, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Marlon Brando, etc. Without him, I’m afraid the plot would not have stood up on its own.

The story concerns the relationship between Aladdin and his long-lost father, whom we quickly learn is Cassim, the King of Thieves himself. Which helps to explain Aladdin’s unique abilities. Runs in the blood. Cassim and his gang of forty thieves disrupt the wedding party looking for an enchanted orb and an Oracle who can answer any question she’s asked, Cassim’s being where to find the world’s ultimate treasure, the Hand of Midas. Unsuccessful at getting an answer, Cassim leaves the scene, and it is Aladdin who afterwards asks the Oracle a question she does answer, namely, who his father is. When he finds out, it’s off to find him, with the flying carpet, the parrot, and the monkey in tow.

More songs include Jasmine’s mushy “Out of Thin Air”; the thieves’ “Welcome to the Forty Thieves”; the Genie’s “Father and Son”; Sa’luk’s “Are You In or Out”; and a welcome reprise of “Arabian Nights” at the end. Most of these songs are a notch above those in “The Return of Jafar,” yet they’re not things you go away humming.

The look of “Aladdin and the King of Thieves” is a little better than that of “The Return of Jafar,” the animation a bit more elaborate and detailed. But, oddly, the animation appears to get simpler as the movie goes on, as though the filmmakers were running out of money. But how could that be? This is Disney! I guess budgets are budgets. There are a couple of good laughs in the film, courtesy of Robin Williams, somewhat less reliance on slapstick, and a bit more adventure. Rated individually, I’d give “Aladdin and the King of Thieves” a 6/10. My Film Value rating at the end of the review is a composite 5/10 for both movies.

Video:
First, the bad news for widescreen fans: “The Return of Jafar” is available only in a 1.33:1 ratio screen size, given that it was made exclusively for TV video back in the days when the extensive use of widescreen televisions was only a dream of the future. So, it was never in widescreen. Now, the other bad news: Regardless of the announcement on the back of the keep case that says “Aladdin and the King of Thieves” is also in 1.33:1, it isn’t; in fact, it’s in a 1.78:1 screen ratio. Maybe in the intervening two years, Disney decided widescreen wasn’t so bad after all. Or maybe the studio just matted the DVD release especially for the occasion. (The IMDb lists them both at 1.33:1, so it appears that Disney chose to lop off the top and bottom of the screen on this second sequel; they should have left well enough alone.)

For Disney animations, however, the transfer quality in the films is more than a tad ragged, especially in “The Return of Jafar.” Colors are sometimes bright and sometimes slightly dim, take your choice. Visible, noticeable, grain is present almost constantly in “Jafar,” but the situation improves considerably in “King of Thieves.” Still and all, in both films everything seems to have a dark veil shrouding it.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 English soundtracks don’t seem too much different from the 2.0 French and Spanish tracks, except that they’re slightly louder and in selected scenes they offer more information in the surrounds. Most of the time the sound is confined to the front center channel, especially in “Jafar,” with the front sides and the rear surrounds coming to life only on occasion. In its favor, the sound is quiet and well balanced, and even though “King of Thieves” opens things up more and has a much better bass and dynamic range, don’t expect anything like the enhanced home-theater sonics of the original “Aladdin” DVD.

Extras:
Each movie comes on its own disc, with its own extras. “The Return of Jafar” offers you a “Wish At Your Own Risk” game that is so slow I couldn’t deal with it for more than a couple of minutes. It appears to be mostly narration. Then there’s a DisneyPedia feature, “Wishes Around the World,” that provides a geographical history of wish-making in various countries. On a world map you click on the icon of a wishbone in Italy, say, or a cloverleaf in Ireland and get information on local folklore regarding making wishes on the thing. That is followed by a typical Disney song selection, which takes you to the songs in the movie with optional lyrics that pop up on the screen so you can sing along. I can’t imagine why. Finally, there are Sneak Peeks at five other Disney animations, including “Bambi”; twenty scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. A chapter-selection paper insert comes with the disc, but it does not identify the songs in the movie.

“Aladdin and the King of Thieves” offers extras similar to those in “The Return of Jafar,” maybe a little more. The first item is “Disney’s Song Selection,” which operates like the one on the “Jafar” disc, with optional lyrics to sing along with. The next item is a “Bag the Bad Guys” game, where you have to find and click on eight of the forty thieves and bring them to justice. After that is a game called the “Loot In The Lair Challenge.” You have to retrieve wedding gifts stolen by the thieves and hidden in their maze of caves. These games should be enough to entertain tykes, but adults will want to stay clear. Then, there is “Behind the Microphone,” a four-minute look at the voice talent in the film. Here, Williams tells us that he came back for the second sequel “to do something so free, because you don’t get this anyplace else.” Oh? Then, you’ll notice that since this is a longer picture than “The Return of Jafar,” you get fewer scene selections, twelve. Go figure. And you get the same Sneak Peeks at other Disney animated features; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired. Again, there is a chapter insert, but it does not identify the individual songs in the film.

The movies come in their own separate keep cases, the two keep cases packaged together side-by-side as in the cover graphic above right (click for a larger view). This arrangement must be a delight to stores like Tower Records who have to figure out how to place a double-width package into a regular-width counter bin.

Parting Shots:
No doubt the combination of well-known Disney animated characters, some songs, and a two-for-one price tag will be attractive to quite a few kids and their parents. The movies are light, brief, and harmless, at the very least eschewing fart jokes and crude humor. I expect they could have been a lot worse. They should be able to keep the little ones entertained for a time, and the presence of Robin Williams in the second sequel might even charm a few adults. Now, if the money Disney sunk into these two mediocre direct-to-video sequels had gone into a single good theatrical release…. But, oh, well.

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