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Aladdin II & III Collection DVD Review

Buy the Aladdin II & III Collection from Amazon.com DVD Details:

The Return of Jafar: 1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Aspect Ratio)
Aladdin and the King of Thieves: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround (French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish; Closed Captioned
Release Date: January 18, 2005
Two single-sided, single-layered discs (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $34.99
Black Keepcases with Side Snaps
The Return of Jafar
Directors: Toby Shelton, Tad Stones, Alan Zaslove
Voice Cast: Scott Weinger (Aladdin), Linda Larkin (Princess Jasmine), Dan Castellaneta (Genie), Gilbert Gottfried (Iago), Jonathan Freeman (Jafar), Jason Alexander (Abis Mal), Val Bettin (Sultan), Jim Cummings (Razoul), Frank Welker (Abu)
Songs: "Arabian Nights", "I'm Looking Out for Me", "Nothing in the World (Quite Like a Friend)", "Forget About Love", "You're Only Second Rate"
Running Time: 69 Minutes / Rating: G /
Video Debut: May 20, 1994
Aladdin and the King of Thieves
Director: Tad Stones
Voice Cast: Scott Weinger (Aladdin), Linda Larkin (Princess Jasmine), John Rhys-Davies (Cassim), Gilbert Gottfried (Iago), Jerry Orbach (Sa'luk), Val Bettin (Sultan), Frank Welker (Abu), Jim Cummings (Razoul), Robin Williams (Genie)
Songs: "Party in Agrabah", "Out of Thin Air", "Welcome to the Forty Thieves", "Father and Son", "Are You In or Out", "Arabian Nights Reprise"
Running Time: 81 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated / Video Debut: August 13, 1996
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Eighteen months after Aladdin was released in theaters to large audiences and critical acclaim,
Disney issued a sequel called The Return of Jafar directly to video. It was the first of its kind for the studio, an animated follow-up made by the Television Animation department for a fraction of the cost of Aladdin and heavily marketed for home video release.

Return of Jafar sold 10.5 million copies, which at the time made it the best selling direct-to-video film ever. In the more than 10 years that have passed, other Disney video debuts have eclipsed those numbers. But Return of Jafar's unquestionable financial success paved the way for a direct-to-video market which has given us more than twenty such feature films since.

DTV sequels have not met with unanimous critical approval; some Disney enthusiasts dub them "cheapquels" and many view the practice of low-budget follow-ups to classic Disney films (including decades-old films from Walt's time) detestable. But there is no denying the profitability of the market and Disney's direct-to-video sequels won't be going away anytime soon. There are more than half-a-dozen such projects in the works right now, varying from continuations of recent pictures like The Emperor's New Groove and Lilo & Stitch to revisits with classic Walt-era characters like Bambi and Tinker Bell.

Being "the one that started it all" on the direct-to-video front may not be a lofty distinction the way it now is for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the first full-length animated film) and one day will be for Toy Story (the first full-length computer-animated film), but such is the status of The Return of Jafar. The film feels like an unspectacular retread of Aladdin, poorly animated and far less ambitious, but modestly entertaining nonetheless.

Return of Jafar picks up right where the first film left off, and proceeds by adhering to a similar formula, down to the use of certain musical numbers very similar to Aladdin's which fit right into place where they did before. Having been outwitted in the predecessor's finale, the heinous Jafar and his obnoxious parrot henchman Iago are cursed to remain in the magic lamp in a distant desert. Back at the palace, likable former street rat Aladdin is on good terms with Princess Jasmine and her father, the Sultan. Also returning is the lively Genie, who has traveled the world and seen its splendors, but would rather be back with his friends.

Aladdin decides it's best to keep Iago under lock-and-key. Look at what popped out of the magic lamp.

In the opening scenes, Aladdin thwarts the robbery that a group of bandits are carrying out. The bandits are lead by the bumbling Abis Mal (voiced by Jason Alexander, of "Seinfeld" and Hunchback of Notre Dame gargoyle fame), who quickly takes a disliking towards the righteous Aladdin.

Somehow, Iago escapes the lamp he was prescribed to, and rather than letting Jafar out, he sets off for Agrabah on his own. Iago plans on somehow getting back at Aladdin and the Sultan, but along the way, he winds up saving Aladdin from Abis Mal and company. This unexpected act of bravery has both Iago and Aladdin re-evaluating their situations, and Aladdin agrees to defend Iago so that the Sultan gives the parrot a light punishment.

Coincidence would have it that Abis Mal crosses paths with Jafar, when that magical lamp is discovered and the wicked sorcerer is let out. (You knew it was coming, from the title.) As a genie, Jafar is a trickster and he is less concerned with granting Abis Mal's wishes than he is with getting revenge on Aladdin, their common enemy.

In many ways, the movie is Iago's story. His moral dilemma provides the crux of the film, and in some scenes, he feels like the character we're intended to identify with. This tactic actually works fairly well, with the grating parrot stuck between the charming protagonist and the loathsome villain, with muddled loyalties putting him at a crossroads.

To its benefit, the makers of Return of Jafar clearly knew Aladdin well. The characters stay true to their behavior in the first film, perhaps to excess. But it's refreshing at least that there are plenty of references to the events of Aladdin as opposed to other sequels where the past can be forgotten or adjusted to fit immediate needs.

Abis Mal, the unscrupulous and not very skilled crook who is mad at Aladdin. Jasmine, Aladdin, and Genie are drawn with a unique style for "The Return of Jafar."

The animation in the film leaves much to be desired. There never seems to be a great deal of attention paid to how the characters should look, which results in off-the-mark visuals that contrast with the mostly on-target personalities. Most of the voice cast has returned, but the one big exception is The Genie. Dan Castellaneta can do a great many voices (he's best known as Homer Simpson), and some times he gets the Genie's personality down pat.
But most of the time, we're left fully aware that Robin Williams is gone and we're not in Feature Animationland anymore. Whereas the Genie provided such spark in the previous film, here he's left being a weak shadow of his previous self. Efforts were made, and the Genie here seems more convincing then Castellaneta's voicing for the "Aladdin" TV series, but it's a shortcoming that would be addressed in the next sequel.

When all is considered, The Return of Jafar remains watchable and likable in a way similar to much of Disney's animated TV fare of the early-to-mid '90s. You never mistake this for theatrical-caliber spectacle and story, but there are some amusing gags and some captivating adventures. As a first direct-to-video effort, Disney's Television Animation department may not have nailed the visuals, but they got more right than they didn't. Far worse sequels have been made since this and you could do far worse than spending more time with the compelling cast of characters from Aladdin.

A small note on the title: When it was first released, The Return of Jafar was just that. The packaging on this new DVD relegates that to a subtitle of Aladdin as in Aladdin: The Return of Jafar, but the movie's opening title logo remains what it always has been (with no 'Aladdin').


Just two years after the smashing sales of Return of Jafar, Disney saw it fit to revisit the world of Aladdin again and gave us Aladdin and the King of Thieves, the third and most recent entry in the series.

This film opens with Aladdin and Jasmine set to wed at last. Their wedding isn't just going to happen,
it's going to happen with style, as the early scenes depict a lavish ceremony about to take place. That ceremony is interrupted by the legendary Forty Thieves who crash the scene and take all the wedding presents they can get their hands on.

They do not get their hands on one special gift, which Aladdin inherited at birth from his long-lost father. The gift is an enchanted staff, which contains an oracle who is willing to answer one question.

Aladdin, intrigued by his past but unsure of how to get answers from just one question, gets some help when the Oracle reveals that the father who he's never known is alive. The Oracle points the surprised Aladdin in the direction of his father, who turns out to be...the King of Thieves! Yes, Aladdin's father Cassim runs with the forty thieves, where he has a famed reputation and an English accent (care of John Rhys-Davies).

There's a party here in Agrabah, and this time Robin Williams is invited! Jasmine, Iago, and Aladdin see a bright light, from the oracle.

With Jafar gone, the Forty Thieves and their resilient and imposing bald bluish baddie Sa'luk (voiced by recently-deceased "Law & Order" star Jerry Orbach) fill the void as antagonists. Cassim is painted with a surprising shade of gray; he naturally has a bit of a good heart, but the life of crime is what he knows and pursues. (Recalling Aladdin's swift moves early in the first film, one assumes he inherited genetically Cassim's adept skills for thievery.)

Aladdin's heritage of crime and his squeaky clean new palatial life come head to head, when he invites Cassim to attend his wedding to Jasmine, whose role is considerably reduced this time around. Meanwhile, both the Forty Thieves and Cassim have their eyes set on the Hand of Midas, which allegedly turns anything it touches to gold.

Thankfully, Robin Williams returns as the voice of the Genie, and this film provides a showcase for his comic talents, rapid-fire pace, and knack for impressions. Among the barrage of impersonations on display, Williams and Genie give us Forrest Gump, Rain Man, Rocky, Marlon Brando, Walter Cronkite, and Woody Allen. In addition to contemporary pop culture references, there are also many nods to other Disney films, including Snow White, Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, The Lion King, and Pocahontas. There's a line about synergy and how the marketing folks find it to be good, and the self-aware references add comedy and spice to the film.

Sa'luk packs a powerful punch, which is especially potent when his fist isn't cut out of the frame. Aladdin and the King of Thieves.

The rapid wit of Williams leads to almost of the film's laughs. We can credit his comic riffs for keeping the film interesting, when the mediocre script might not stand on its own.
When the Genie is absent, as he is for a fair portion of the 81-minute running time, the film ventures off with a father/son story that is more unique and ambitious, but not the most engaging.

King of Thieves deserves credit for not simply relying on a retread or a simple twist of the original film, and its storytelling efforts seem sincere even if they're clearly not to be held up to scrutiny. This sequel tries to do its own thing, and most of its concern and development revolve around Aladdin and the newly-introduced characters. Yet, it's most entertaining perhaps when it doesn't seek to advance itself, instead permitting Genie and the other personalities who figured largely in the previous two films to engage in light, fast-paced comic diversion. In the end, King of Thieves finds mild success, as it delivers laughs, music, and unpredictable if humdrum plotting. Most of the credit should go to Williams, whose return breathes life into the 'franchise' and whose comedy delights much more so than the dramatic conundrum surrounding Aladdin and his father.

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Return of Jafar is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 fullscreen. Video quality is really a mixed bag. I don't think too much blame can lie with the transfer, as most of what's unsightly is a product of the poor, low-budget animation. Direct-to-video animation has come a long way from Return of Jafar (just take a look at last year's very visually pleasing Lion King 1) - here the characters and settings look kind of shoddy. Consistency seems to be an issue, colors aren't held steadfast (Iago wavers between pale pink, orange, and rich red) and backgrounds tend to break up. Specks appear with some regularity to mar the presentation. There is minimal detail in the animation and little depth as well. Without altering the movies with digital revisionism, I think this is as satisfying as this sequel could look on DVD.

The Return of Jafar's Dolby Digital 5.1 remix doesn't feel like anything beyond a Dolby Surround track. That happens to be fine, since the front-heavy track does a good job of presenting dialogue, music, and sound effects. The surround speakers provide very light reinforcement on music, but the soundfield is mostly subdued and there's practically nothing in the way of directional effects. The sound mix is clearly not that of a theatrical Disney animated film, and lacks the oomph of the technically impressive modern DTVs.

Aladdin and the King of Thieves is issued in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. It's clearly matted, and some odd framing suggests erroneously so. This is most evident when the screen is divvied up into a grid of nine heads la "The Brady Bunch"; only the top and bottom three squares are missing the tops and bottoms of heads.

Unimpressive TV-style animation in "The Return of Jafar" Cropped framing in "Aladdin and the King of Thieves."

Animating for widescreen in 1996 (and 1.85:1, a ratio Disney has rarely used for animation) with no intentions of a theatrical exhibition or letterboxed home video release seems odd. King of Thieves' first DVD release in the UK was in fullscreen, but when it was reissued last year, it was also in the oddly-framed 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Tops of heads get cut off with some frequency as do small characters who approach the top or bottom of the frame.

The visuals are mostly lacking in this sequel as well, with television quality animation being stretched to a direct-to-video feature. The animation is a bit better, and the transfer is less plagued by unsightly flaws. Still, like Return of Jafar, King of Thieves lacks the sharpness of a better-looking animated film with higher production values. The poor aspect ratio decision seems to be the biggest drawback to its otherwise acceptable video presentation.

King of Thieves is also presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and this track is far more aggressive and active. There's a surprising amount of bass, maybe to an excess. Elephant stampedes, falling rocks, massive waves and some powerful musical numbers will keep the subwoofer thumping. But there's also a well-rendered score, a more expansive soundfield, and more directionality to the sound effects. The range in dynamics is far wider too, which will have you reaching for the remote to adjust the volume if you're at all inhibited in your listening levels.

Disney's Song Selection: "Forget About Love" Wish at Your Own Risk Disneypedia: Wishes Around the World

BONUS FEATURES

Both DVDs are relatively light on bonus features, and just barely use more than the single-layered disc capacity.

Each DVD contains Disney's Song Selection, which allows quick access to every musical number in the films. These play with colorful subtitles on the screen displaying lyrics for you to sing along with. (King of Thieves provides a choice to not display the lyrics subtitles.) The "Play All" option allows you to reduce the sequels into a collection of sing-alongs (running 11 minutes and 15 minutes, respectively). Alternatively, if you choose the second English subtitle while watching the movie as usual, the colorful subtitles will pop up just for the songs.

Return of Jafar contains the set-top game "Wish at Your Own Risk." Simple but somewhat clever, the game presents an opportunity to rub the lamp and make three wishes from cunning genie Jafar. You choose from a very limited number of options presented, with semi-amusing results. Perhaps most impressive is that voice talent from the film (Scott Weinger as Aladdin and Jonathan Freeman as Jafar) have contributed their vocals.

Also on Return of Jafar's DVD is Disneypedia: Wishes Around the World, a series of ten featurettes on wishing traditions from around the world. The narrator of the piece sounds like Jason Marsden (A Goofy Movie, The Lion King II), while Iago (Gilbert Gottfried) and Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) provide banter after each informative vignette. Each piece runs about thirty seconds making the whole section last about 5 minutes, though no "Play All" option is offered.

Aladdin and the King of Thieves contains two additional games and the only behind-the-scenes bonus feature.

Loot in the Lair Challenge Bag the Bad Guys Behind the Microphone

"Loot in the Lair" Challenge presents a 3-dimensional journey in which you move about various rooms of a cave looking to recover eight wedding gifts that were stolen by the Forty Thieves. If you find a thief instead of a gift, you get to lose one of you discoveries, an obstacle which makes this activity take quite a long time to complete. While the premise is basic, the design is elaborate and it provides a bit of light guessing game fun before it drives you crazy. As there's no special prize at the end, you may want to exit when the random play starts to go against you.

"Bag the Bad Guys" Game is similar to the previous game, only this time you're looking for the thieves, eight in total. Like last time, the narrator's encouraging and discouraging remarks get tiresome quickly. But at least there's nothing to move you backwards, and this time there is a reward of sorts. Once you have collected the eight crooks, you can select any one of them for amusing mini-profiles.

"Behind the Microphone" (4:42) is a brief but welcome featurette on the voice cast performing their roles for Aladdin and the King of Thieves. There are interview bits with Scott Weinger, Linda Larkin, Frank Welker, Jerry Orbach, John Rhys-Davies, Gilbert Gottfried, and yes, Robin Williams. There are also lots of fast clips of the actors recording the voice, which is always interesting and is particularly so here, as it's the only extra that explores the making of either sequel.

Each disc opens with previews for Bambi, The Incredibles, Mulan II, and the first five Disney Princess DVDs (with an emphasis on the upcoming second wave). The Sneak Peeks menu adds a preview for the first two volumes of Growing Up with Winnie the Pooh due in February.

The Return of Jafar's Main Menu Aladdin and the King of Thieves' Main Menu

MENUS and PACKAGING

Return of Jafar's menus are animated and more inspired than you'd expect. The 16x9-enhanced Main Menu impressively runs nearly four minutes as Iago (voiced by Gilbert Gottfried) discusses all of the film's characters who appear in Jafar's crystal ball while trying not to disturb his master.
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After some brief and clever transitions, the rest of the menus provide minimal animation (if any) and instrumentals of the sequel's music.

The menus on Aladdin and the King of Thieves are less delightful. Its main menu just features a tiny animated intro and then score selections at an overloud volume. There is also one menu transition employed before accessing most of the submenus, which at least feature music at a more reasonable level.

Each DVD is packaged in a black keepcase, with a pair of snaps on the side of the case offering an additional obstacle for DVD thieves (Disney has begun using these on new releases, at least those in black keepcases). Each disc is accompanied by a two-sided insert which lists chapter selections on front and an overview of bonus features on back. The only other insert can be found inside King of Thieves; it's a form for a sweepstakes in which you can win a Disney DVD library or a single disc to be determined.

"Why don't you come with me on a magic carpet ride, Sultan?" Aladdin and Jasmine are lovers through and through. Even when an enchanted staff stands between them.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The two Aladdin sequels are apparently not going to be released separately. For now, this 2-pack is the only way to get them on DVD and is itself supposed to be available for a limited time only. With a $34.99 SRP, this II & III Collection is advantageous for customers who planned on getting both movies anyway. They're lower-priced this way than they would have been separately. Disney must be assuming (probably correctly) that this collection will appeal to those who were only planning on getting one sequel, as they will be getting the other one for just a few bucks more than they likely would have on its own.

This 2-pack is rather anemic when it comes to substantial bonus features. We're left with three set-top games that are slightly more involving than usual, the typical Song Selection feature, and a short old featurette on King of Thieves' voice cast. Even the trailers for these films that were included on Aladdin's DVD are missing here. The films would have lent themselves to some additional making-of material, particularly considering Return of Jafar's noteworthy status as Disney's first direct-to-video sequel, a market which in just over a decade has expanded into a significant (and audience-dividing) component of the studio's animated output.

But alas, the only real draw here then is the movies, which are unquestionably several notches below the original Aladdin but still offer a reasonable amount of fun. Some have been anxiously awaiting the day these sequels arrive on DVD. Others may consider these inferior projects never worth revisiting. I'd put myself somewhere between those two extremes in that big middle area. These are undoubtedly direct-to-video sequels, but as Disney's first forays into this domain, they're neither as schlocky as some of the bottom-rung follow-ups we've seen since nor as ambitious and satisfying as some of the better, more recent output. The stories show some thought and skill, even if the low-budget animation wears a lack of craftsmanship. Taking into consideration King of Thieves' apparently blunderous aspect ratio, this two-pack gathers only a light recommendation based on the movies themselves.

More on this DVD 2-pack / Buy from Amazon.com

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Related Reviews:
Aladdin: Platinum Edition & Gift Set
The Lion King 1 1/2 The Lion King II: Simba's Pride (Special Edition) The Lion King
Disney Princess Stories: Volume One Disney Princess Stories: Volume Two (contains episodes of "Aladdin" TV show)
Gargoyles: The Complete First Season Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Magical World Pooh's Grand Adventure
The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning Cinderella II: Dreams Come True The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Disney Princess Sing Along Songs: Volume 2 - Enchanted Tea Party (featuring "Forget About Love")
Disney Princess Sing Along Songs: Volume 3 - Perfectly Princess (featuring "Out of Thin Air")

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Reviewed January 16, 2005.