The Return of Jafar Revisited

The summer of 1994 was a big deal for the Walt Disney Company. Primarily, it marked the release of the studio’s biggest animated film to date, The Lion King, a film with a rocky production history that has become one of their most incredible success stories. But it was a summer of upheaval and major change, both among its top executives and within the studio’s storied legacy of animation. The Lion King celebrates its quarter-century anniversary in mid-June, but another 25th anniversary for Disney animation arrives this week, and we should acknowledge it even if it’s not for good reason: the release of The Return of Jafar.

The Wonderful World of DTV

Not even a decade prior to the home-video release of The Return of Jafar, the notion of Disney doing video-only animated films seemed impossible. It was only thanks to the massive revival of feature animation, with the now-fabled Disney Renaissance (I will here include a shameless plug for my Reviving the Renaissance series, here at /Film), that the studio felt emboldened to make animation for the small screen as much as the big screen.

The Disney Renaissance on the big screen was coupled with a group of TV shows that brought well-known characters to the small screen, targeting young audiences in ways that hadn’t been as possible in the 60s and 70s. Shows like DuckTales, TaleSpin, and Goof Troop proved that Disney characters could live on during morning and afternoon TV blocks. Of course, the quality of animation wasn’t the same even if interest levels were high.

It was the world of TV that led to the creation of direct-to-video sequels. When DuckTales premiered in 1987, it arrived with a five-part pilot episode that could have functioned as a feature film. The same guiding principle — kicking a show off with a serialized story that can be spread out over multiple installments — was utilized with both TaleSpin and Darkwing Duck. And it was the same mentality that led to The Return of Jafar.

After the release of Aladdin in 1992, Disney was riding particularly high. Though it didn’t get the same Oscar love as Beauty and the Beast did, Aladdin was the highest-grossing film of the year in the United States and won the studio more awards for its music. So the film naturally became a candidate to receive an animated follow-up on TV. The Little Mermaid had already been turned into a TV series, a 31-episode prequel that first aired in the fall of 1992 in syndication. Aladdin, though, would be a sequel show that could capitalize on the feature’s massive popularity.

Based on articles like this one from Entertainment Weekly in 1996, the idea for turning The Return of Jafar from a two-hour TV special to a direct-to-video film was courtesy of Tad Stones, a producer and director on other Disney Afternoon shows like DuckTales and The Little Mermaid. Though some executives, including Peter Schneider and Michael Eisner, were apparently skeptical of Stones’ idea to turn The Return of Jafar into a feature because it might dilute the studio’s brand, the minimally budgeted film (costing just $3.5 million in mid-1990s dollars) was greenlit and released on VHS on May of 1994.

Diluting Disney’s Brand

In that Entertainment Weekly article, timed to the release of a second DTV sequel to Aladdin, entitled Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Stones is quoted as saying, “Direct-to-video was where you dumped things. Nobody expected that kind of interest.” Quality aside, The Return of Jafar was a hit, selling a reported 4.6 million VHS copies in its first week alone. For context, in 1996, a single VHS from Disney would’ve cost an average of $16. So in its first week, The Return of Jafar made around $70 million. Not too shabby, and a very clear reason as to why Disney kept making DTV sequels for over a decade.

But in doing so, The Return of Jafar set an awkward, often embarrassing template for Disney sequels. Most of the films that got turned into mini-franchises had fairly closed-off endings. Despite its anarchic spirit, Aladdin ends like most Disney films do: happily ever after. How do you keep telling a story after the heroes get everything they ever wanted, and after the bad guys are discarded once and for all? The Return of Jafar, from its very title, suggests that the bad guy isn’t out of the story as much as everyone thought. Even though Jafar got turned into a trapped genie in a lamp far away from Aladdin and Jasmine, he makes his ignominious return here.

The story of The Return of Jafar has the distinct, unfortunate air of desperation, of trying to craft a story around something popular, instead of building a story from the ground up. The premise is that a year has passed since the end of the 1992 film, and Aladdin is about to be named the Sultan’s grand vizier. But then Iago escapes from Jafar’s lamp, while a scofflaw becomes Jafar’s new master, thus enabling the baddie to attempt to reign over Agrabah once more. Of course, all is well at the end of the new film, but the quality of what’s on screen is far from that.

Because of the low budget, because the animation was outsourced to studios in Australia and Japan, and because it was always designed to be seen on fullscreen TVs a long time before high-definition was a reality, The Return of Jafar looks pretty rough. While it’s fair to point out that animation quality has improved in the last 25 years, there’s no reason to cut corners in calling out this movie’s animation. Yes, The Return of Jafar was never intended for the big screen. But the reason why this looks so troubling circles back to Eisner’s concern: does it dilute the Disney brand? Arguably, yes. Moreover, The Return of Jafar diluted its predecessor for an unfortunate, unavoidable reason.

Most of the voice cast from Aladdin returned, except for just one actor: Robin Williams.

A Marketing Snafu

When Robin Williams agreed to appear in Aladdin as the boisterous, irrepressible Genie, he did so at the height of his film and standup career. He also did so a) at a time when major celebrities rarely, if ever, appeared in animated films and b) for cheap. Because Good Morning, Vietnam, released by Disney through its Touchstone Pictures subsidiary, had done so well, Williams agreed to appear in Aladdin for the lowest possible salary, $75,000, or the scale amount for SAG actors. Williams had just one condition: the film’s marketing would not utilize his presence, to avoid any marketing push for his live-action film Toys, the Barry Levinson film that opened soon after Aladdin.

While Disney agreed to these terms in theory, in execution, things didn’t go the way Williams wanted. The Genie was used to sell toys and other merchandise, and Williams’ voice was equally employed in advertising for the film. No doubt, Williams’ work in the film is superlative, but he was so bothered by Disney changing its mind on the unique deal that he refused to appear in The Return of Jafar. Disney cast an exceptionally talented voice actor in his place, to be fair: Dan Castellaneta. You may not know Castellaneta’s name the way you know Robin Williams, but you likely know his most famous voice performance, as Homer Simpson. In short, Castellaneta was as good a voice actor as Disney could get.

And it still doesn’t work, not because Castellaneta’s not trying his damnedest. He is, which is what makes the disconnect so painful to listen to. If you need any proof that Robin Williams is, and will always be, irreplaceable, just watch any given moment of the Genie in The Return of Jafar. The voice is not the same, nor is the humor. Williams’ improvisatory style is impossible to recreate. The script attempts to graft more pop-culture references into the Genie’s patois, but forcing that kind of joke just doesn’t work. (After Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney, just months after the release of The Return of Jafar, his successor made a public apology to Williams, which paid off: he appeared in the third Aladdin film, Aladdin and the King of Thieves.)

A Financial Windfall

Even though The Return of Jafar has a core element missing, it didn’t matter in 1994. In all, the film sold roughly 10 million copies and made $300 million worldwide. It was an undisputed hit, especially considering how cheaply it was made. This, in effect, is how Disney was able to greenlight so many direct-to-video and direct-to-DVD sequels, films that strive to be forgettable but often wind up as being terrible to the point of insulting its predecessor’s legacy. Movies made cheap that bring in hundreds of millions of dollars are hard to pass up, animation brand be damned.

It’s only recently that DisneyToon Studios, the production company tasked with making these films, went away. DisneyToon was riding high throughout the mid-2000s, only to have its production slate paused when John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were installed at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Possible sequels to Pinocchio and The Aristocats, among others, were cancelled. The studio didn’t vanish, though, as the Tinker Bell franchise was produced by DisneyToon Studios, as were films related to Lasseter’s pet Pixar project, Cars. Yes, both of the execrable Planes films, released theatrically, were DisneyToon Studios products, even if they looked like Pixar’s films.

The end for DisneyToon Studios only came after Lasseter stepped down from the Walt Disney Company due to sexual harassment claims. The studio, then in the works on another Cars-adjacent film that had been teased at a D23 Expo event, was shuttered in June of 2018, though their last release was in 2015. It all began with The Return of Jafar, a film that attempted to test the waters of how desperate parents were for something to entertain their kids. Today, in a landscape full of streaming services, YouTube channels, and more, films like The Return of Jafar would likely never make a dent. But back at a time when animated films were a brief oasis in a given year of theatrical releases, it made an awkward splash.

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