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"Aladdin II - The Return of Jafar": No Genie in this Lamp

Disney has always been a firm believer in the adage that more is better. So they wasted little time in following up 1992’s wildly successful Aladdin with the direct-to-video The Return of Jafar, beginning an ignominious tradition that has picked up both steam and plenty of cash over the years. Now, with a DVD release, you can experience the “magic” (such as it is) all over again.

ImageI’m certainly not opposed in principle to an Aladdin sequel, as the original is one of my very favorite Disney productions. It had beautiful visuals, catchy songs, and nonstop comic riffing from the incomparable Robin Williams. Sadly, The Return of Jafar bats 0 for 3. It suffers most from the absence of Williams—behind which is a story involving Disney’s dishonesty, a Picasso, and corporate groveling unseen since Louis B. Mayer dropped to his knees and kissed Dore Schary’s foot—and without its original star there’s not much reason to have a sequel. The second Aladdin does a decent job of covering all the bases, but it doesn’t hit any home runs.

Set just after the end of the original film, The Return of Jafar opens with Aladdin still up to his thieving ways, though now he’s adopted the more socially acceptable practice of stealing from other thieves and giving to the poor, a practice that gets him crossways with rival Abis Mal (Jason Alexander). Meanwhile, Iago (Gilbert Gottfried), after abandoning Jafar, ingratiates himself with Aladdin by inadvertently helping him escape from Abis Mal’s thugs, and Genie (Dan Castellaneta) arrives back from his jaunt around the world, confessing that all its wonders felt a bit empty without his friends by his side. The story really gets going, though, when Abis Mal finds Jafar’s lamp and sets him free, and the two of them plot revenge against Aladdin.

All of the original gang, including the Sultan and Jasmine, is back, but they seem to have used up their A material in the original film. Genie’s role is much smaller, and he doesn’t even bother with the celebrity impersonations that made him so memorable in the original. To his credit, Castellaneta does a solid job of filling in for Williams, but although he nails the voice he cannot make up for a serious humor deficit. Instead, Iago has become the star of the picture, a change that cynics might take as a corroborating instance of the second law of thermodynamics at work. Jason Alexander is wasted as Abis Mal, bringing his annoying George Costanza voice but none of his comedic chops. Everyone else is competent but unexceptional, apart from Jafar, whose genteel yet sinister portrayal by Jonathan Freeman is always a treat. As with Christopher Walken and William Shatner, I would pay just to hear Freeman read a menu.

The animation quality is way below the level of the theatrical feature, but I suppose that’s to be expected from a DTV film. It’s a couple of notches above regular TV animation, but it often looks disturbingly plain. The transfer at least looks very crisp.

A few songs return from the first film, supplemented by a bevy of new tunes that fail to leave much of an impression. In perhaps another sign of the coming apocalypse, it features two Gilbert Gottfried musical numbers, which might be designed to drive parents out of the room so kids have to endure less carping about black magic and ethnic stereotypes. Only Jafar’s dig at Genie, “Second Rate,” really comes close to the mischievous fun of the original score, but even it has its questionable moments. The songwriter, apparently running up against a deadline, follows up “Zaba-caba-dabra” with the inexplicable “Granny’s gonna grab ya” (!). The visual suggests this may be a Psycho reference, but it has to be the most random rhyme in recent Disney history.

Disney seems to accept that this film isn’t a patch on the original, giving the DVD only a meager selection of special features. The high point is a cool animated menu with Iago ragging on the other characters. The rest is strictly for the diaper set. In “Wish at Your Own Risk” Jafar deviously grants your wishes via clips from the film, but you aren’t allowed to ask for a better movie. “Wishes Around the World “briefly explains various wishing traditions from around the globe. Finally there is the inevitable “Disney’s Song Selection,” which lets you practice karaoke with clips from the film. It’s best used when your parents are getting up your nose and you feel the urge to get back at them.

The film has a few smiles; it will certainly entertain kids; and for Aladdin completists it’s not an entirely unworthy addition to the collection. There’s plenty of squawking for Iago fans to enjoy, the delightful Jafar again steals all his scenes, and here and there a snicker will likely escape you. However the film suffers by comparison to its fantastic predecessor, and it is disheartening to see how little of Aladdin‘s boundless charm and humor carries over. Casual Aladdin fans can safely pass over this disc without a pang of guilt. You’ve had a friend like this before, and you watched the clock every time he came over.

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