You'd Be Amazed What You Can Survive
The Return of Jafar
I've been talking about this a lot recently but it is important to have a reason to make a sequel. This is something that, i think, Disney of the past realized because they rarely did big sequels to their animated films in theaters (live action, of course, was another matter). Any time they did a sequel they shoved it out to direct-to-video or straight onto TV or something. They knew that the sequel wouldn't be as good as the original so why taint the memory of a beloved property. Better to milk a few quick dollars, and then move on as if dirty laundry was shoved under the bed.
Thing is, at least in the case of 1992's Aladdin, the story was actually ripe for a sequel. Jafar, while dealt with at the end of the first movie, wasn't actually dead. he was a genie, trapped in a cave of wonders, but capable of, one day, being a threat once again. All it would take was someone finding the lamp and chaos would ensue. That right there is a story that writes itself and, if ever there was a time to make a sequel to a beloved Disney property, this would have been the one to do it.
Only there was one small problem: Robin Williams. Due to the way that Disney had marketed Aladdin, expressly going against the agreement they had with Williams, turning him into the star attraction of the movie, selling all kinds of toys of the Genie, and doing everything that Williams expressly said he didn't want (and had a contract that outlined it to boot), Disney went ahead and did it all anyway. Thus, when they wanted to do a sequel, what with the first film being such a smashing success, Williams said no. Flat out, no questions asked. No Williams Genies, never in a million years (or at least until Disney did enough apologizing that he was willing to come back for the three-quel).
This put Disney in something of a bind. For once there was good reason to make a sequel but you can't do a proper sequel to Aladdin without the main attraction. Thus, instead, Disney shoved the idea down to the TV division, they hired some other voice actor (Dan Castellaneta, Homer Simpson on The Simpsons among other voices he does for that show) and, thus, The Return of Jafar was born. And if you think making a movie without William's Genie would just not work, well, you'd be absolutely right.
Frankly, the lack of William's Genie isn't the only reason why this film doesn't work -- it's bad on any number of levels -- but it certainly is the most glaring flaws. As we discussed in our review of the original film, Williams made that movie. Aladdin was the title character but Williams, with his animated performance, jokes, asides, impersonations, and everything else, absolutely and completely made that movie. You would need someone just as brilliant at improv to be able to give a performance anywhere near to that caliber; Castellaneta doesn't even try. His Genie is totally phoned in, a paycheck voice performance if ever there was one.
Castellaneta is a voice actor, but he's very clearly the kind that reads the script. "Give me pages, I'll read the pages, and what's on the page is what you get." That's not to say he's a bad performer, and his Genie certainly is serviceable, but Castellaneta clearly gave them the Genie on the page. Whether the writers were expecting a Williams style performance, or not, it's not what they gave, or got. Williams improvised most of his lines and they animated off of that, Castellaneta just didn't have that. It takes what was the star attraction of the first movie and renders him inert. Genie is no longer essential to the story, he's a background player at best.
Without Williams to liven things up we actually have to pay attention to the plot ad the story. Let's be honest, the first film didn't exactly have a deep plot -- boy gets lamp, gets what he wishes for, realizes that what he wished for wasn't what he needs, and then makes good -- all told in the basic fairy tale style. The Return of Jafar has an even more warmed over version of that story, with Jafar going through the same beats as the first movie -- looking for power and revenge, and then losing to the smarts of the heroes -- and we just get to watch it play out. It's not lively or even really interesting. It just kind of... exists.
As clearly a made-for-TV movie, the quality of this film is nowhere near at the same level as its predecessor. The animation is flat, the coloring basic. All the flashy direction and great moments are rendered dull and inert here. This is a film done by a TV department, meant to launch an Aladdin TV show, and it has the same quality to boot. It feels like a cheap cash-in, which it was (made on a budget of just $5 Mil in comparison to Aladdin's $28 Mil) and then shoved out the door to eager audiences. It didn't have to be good, it just had to sate a need.
And sate that need it did. Despite being made on only a shoe-string budget, and debuting on TV as well as home video, the film still managed to rake in $300 Mil. Audiences clearly wanted to see the continuing adventures of Aladdin and his crew and they were hoping for something that could live up to the hype, and expectations, of a "proper" Aladdin sequel. This was not that film, not by a long shot. Even as a kid, seeing this film when it came back 30 years ago, I thought the movie was crap. Time and age have not been kind to The Return of Jafar.
Thing is, this was clearly a movie people wanted and it could have been a smash hit, even bigger (potentially) than the first movie. Had Disney done a few things differently -- spent more money on it, hired good song writers to really crank out some solid follow-up hits, make nice with Williams and show him that they really would respect his wishes and do whatever was needed to get him back -- The Return of Jafar could have been pretty good. I dunno if it would have truly been as great as the original (the script as written really needed more work, for sure), but with the right motivation, and Williams back in the saddle, maybe the film could have been the rare sequel better than the original.
Certainly, at the very least, there was a way this could have been the sequel Aladdin deserved. The Return of Jafar is not that film and, in the process of sucking as bad as it did it cast a pall across the rest of the Aladdin series that it was never able to truly shake.