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|Kevin Krock, editor|
Every Disney fan has an opinion about the slew of direct-to-video animated sequels that Disney has released over the last several years. Some folks feel they are all an abomination of the art while others see them as a godsend that provides their children another story with their favorite characters. For many of these titles, some youngbut most olderanimation fans cannot stand seeing their favorite theatrical characters and environments presented in lower quality, cheap-and-fast, cartoony, television-style animation, whereas many children could care less how a show looks or how the plot flows, just as long as it has their favorite character in it.
If you are a long-time reader, you probably know my opinion on this topic already. For those of you that do not, quite simply, if I am not willing to watch a DVD side by side with my young boys because of shoddy animation or poor story development, I see no reason to spend the money or the time on it. That is not to say that every Disney animated direct-to-video sequel is of poor quality. There are a few gems out there, but they tend to be few and far between. However, there is no reason to subject myself or my boys to something that I, as the parent and DVD gatekeeper, feel is substandard when there are so many better alternatives available. During DVD nights or afternoons, there are plenty of classic animated short collections and quality theatrical animated feature films to share with my children that most sequels are a secondary consideration in our house.
No matter how we feel about it, though, Disney keeps cranking out these animated sequels because they do make money and help ensure the longevity of a particular movie or character franchise. This is especially true of older titles where copyright protection is a big business concern of theirs, and a way to maintain the copyright is to demonstrate ongoing use of a character. Thus, you get TV shows like House of Mouse, which feature just about every character in Disney's stable, and abundant direct-to-video sequels rather than fresh characters and stories.
With that said, here are three Disney direct-to-video sequels for two significant Disney franchises: Mulan and Aladdin. So, read on to find out which ones might be worth your time and disposable income.
Picking up shortly after where the original movie left off, Mulan II follows the young heroine, Mulan (voiced by Ming Na), through another adventure across China. Before the adventure starts, though, General Shang (voiced by B.D. Wong) asks for Mulan's hand in marriage. But before their wedding, the Emperor (voiced by Pat Morita) has a task for them. To help protect China from the threat of Mongol invasion, the Emperor calls upon Mulan and Shang to escort his daughters to arranged marriages with allies to the north, and to help the pair with the task, the gang of three friends from the first movie, Yao (Harvey Fierstein), Ling (Gedde Watanabe) and Chien-Po (Jerry Tondo), as well as Mulan's guardian dragon, Mushu, join them on their quest.
As usual, though, something goes wrong with the plan. During the journey, the three princesses fall in love with the gang of three. Against the Emperor's orders, Mulan fosters the relationships between the three unlikely couples, and this ultimately threatens Mulan's relationship with Shang. In the end, though, Mulan sticks with her feelings and devises a solution to all of the problems that keeps everyone happy (of course).
At the very least, this movie stays true to the original in both style and character. Several of the original voices have returned, and those that did notmost notably Eddie Murphy as Mushu (now voiced by Mark Moseley)have been replaced by relatively decent facsimiles. There are also a couple of new songs and a reprise of A Girl Worth Fighting For to keep the musical aspect of the original intact, but I did not find them as catchy as the music in the original.
Additionally, the animation looks better than your typical Saturday morning cartoon, and several scenes feature details not usually associated with many direct-to-video titles, such as reflections and large fully animated crowds. Though not quite theatricalllevel animation, the overall look and feel is reasonably consistent with the original film.
The main problem I have with the movie is that it starts out reasonably strong, but then things just end. The first three-quarters of the movie are a pretty decent setup, and you see Mulan and Shang's relationship developing and the princesses falling for the three warriors. Then, as things start looking complicated for our heroes, bang, within about 10 minutes everything is hunky-dory. For some, this kind of end is probably not a big deal, but I would have found the end of the movie more compelling if things had not been resolved so simply and quickly. The movie has potential, but it just falls flat at the end.
The Video, Audio, and Interface
Given that this is a recent direct-to-video title, I expected a highquality video and audio transfer, and I was not let down. The video transfer features solid, saturated colors, particularly during the scenes with very bright reds, and the detail and clarity of the transfer is quite nice. I did notice, though, that everything looked pretty nice on my TV, but on a higher resolution PC monitor, I saw more digital artifacts around the edges of characters, especially with Mushu. For many of you and your children, though, these minor video flaws are barely noticeable on most home theater systems, and the video presentation is otherwise pleasing.
I do not have any complaints about the audio, though. The soundtrack is clear and nicely balanced, and the surrounds and directional effects are pretty active. While this is nothing more than I had expected, it is nice to see that this part of the presentation has not been overly shortcut.
As for the user interface, it is well themed and features animated screens with background music and artwork from the movie. It pleasantly sets the tone for the movie, and the menu hierarchy is easy to navigate.
This disc does have a few bonus items, but I would not consider any of them particularly outstanding. Of course, there are the requisite and very typical pop music video and set top game, but there are a few others that I found a tad bit more interesting.
There are four deleted scenes that feature introductions by the filmmakers Lynne Southerland (director), Darrell Rooney (director) and Jennifer Blohm (producer). The storyboard reconstructions are interesting to watch, and the introductions nicely set up the history behind each clip. Besides the deleted scenes, there are a couple of segments on the World of Mulanand the voice talent. The World of Mulan section is a brief "interactive" tour of Chinese culture and history, and you select between three areas that cover topics such as food, the story behind Ying and Yang, and so on. After visiting each of those areas, Mushu has an activity for you that reveals your Chinese birth sign.
Then, finally, there is a rather short voice talent featurette that is a collection of animation, interviews, behind-the-scenes video of several of the voice actors, including Ming-Na (Mulan), Pat Morita (the Emperor), Jerry Tondo (Chien-Po), Gedde Watanabe (Ling), Lauren Tom (Princess Su) and Michelle Kwan (the Shopkeeper).
In the end, though, these goodies are nice to have on any disc, but this small mish-mash of items is not a very compelling reason to spend much additional time with this disc.
The Final Evaluation
This is one of those marginal titles that probably will not hold up to the test of time, but it will provide some short term entertainment. The presentation of the movie is very nice, and the bonus material is fair. However, even Mulan fans may find this disc lacking in substance, so it would probably be best to give this a disc a rent before plunking down your hard earned cash to own it.
As I mentioned, I tend to be a bit cautious about Disney direct-to-video sequels, especially for follow-ups to major hits that I enjoy, such as Aladdin. The original is strong in so many ways that developing a sequel that comes close to the musical and comedic aspects of the original is a daunting task.
The first attempt back in 1994 was Aladdin: The Return of Jafar, which picked up shortly after where the original left off. Essentially, the imprisoned Iago and now-genie Jafar are discovered and released by a thief named Abis Mal, and then Jafar uses his new master to seek revenge against Aladdin. Meanwhile, the Genie (voiced by Dan Castellaneta rather than Robin Williams) returns from his round-the-world trip and happily rejoins Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Sultan. As the kingdom seems to be happily perking along, Iago shows up and befriends Aladdin and the gang, but it turns out that he is just setting them up for Jafar's evil plan to take over the kingdom. Then, Jafar shows up and things really start falling apart. Aladdin, Jasmine, and the Genie must fight for not only the kingdom but also their lives. Then, just as things start looking really grim for our heroes, Aladdin saves the day, of course.
A couple years after that video, Aladdin and the King of Thieves was released directly to video. This time around, with Jafar out of the way, Aladdin and Jasmine finally plan to get married. But just as the wedding starts, the royal palace is overrun by the legendary Forty Thieves in their search for the Hand of Midas. After the thieves destroy the palace and escape with everything but the fabled relic, Aladdin works to infiltrate the gang to find the stolen palace goods. Along the way, he finds out that his long-lost father is actually the leader of the Forty Thieves, and as Aladdin gets to know his father, he finds that his father is not as evil as he expected the King of Thieves to be. Together with Jasmine, the Genie (voiced by Robin Williams this time), and Aladdin's father, they work together to discover and recover the Hand of Midas themselves, much to the chagrin and eventual demise of some of the other backstabbing thieves.
While they sound somewhat promising on paper, neither of these movies particularly impressed me or my two boys. The Return of Jafar is dark and tries to be like the original but falls considerably short of that goal. The story has its moments, but for the most part, it just felt formulaic, the songs were lackluster, and the whole movie was not very compelling. Aladdin and the King of Thieves has similar problems. The opening musical scene with the Genie, a fun Robin Williams showcase, gets the movie off to a good start, and things look pretty good up until Aladdin heads off to find the Forty Thieves. From that point on, though, the action gets pretty dark and scary, to the point that my 4yearold burst into tears saying that this was, "not a good movie for me." Towards the end, though, things lighten up a bit, and the Genie's antics got him laughing again (once he returned to the room), especially the very brief Steamboat Genie scene. (Which goes to show you that even some young children may be able to appreciate and connect with references to animation history if properly exposed).
Are these movies worth watching again outside the context of reviewing them? Probably not. Just based on the story development alone, I will not be championing repeat viewings, and based on the frightened reaction of one of the boys and rather blasé reaction of the other, I do not think they will be clamoring to watch them again either.
On top of having marginal stories, I disliked watching the sub-par animation. The Return of Jafar seems to exhibit more problems than King of Thieves, but the animation on both movies is less than I expect from Disney. The character colors are off. The animation is choppy and overly simplified. The backgrounds are not detailed or very interesting. It just looks like it was made on the cheap with only a passing interest in maintaining the look and feel of the original. At least many of the recent sequels, like Mulan II, come relatively close to being on target with the original. My two young boys, of course, were less concerned about the look of the movies, and they just wanted to watch and laugh at the Genie doing silly things. If you like or expect quality animation, do not look here.
The Video, Audio, and Interface
Given that the animation on both of these movies is not all that great in the first place, the video and audio transfers are adequate. There is nothing great about the two movie transfers, and they meet basic expectations. One item of note is that while both movies are listed on the packaging as being full-screen (1.33:1 ratio) transfers, King of Thieves was actually presented in slightly letterboxed widescreen (1.66:1 ratio). It does not make much of a difference to the movie, but it is interesting that the presentation does not match the packaging. The audio transfers were also suitable for the purpose, but that is about it. There is nothing spectacular about the sound staging, but it is clear and on par with most stereo soundtrack conversions. As for the interfaces, they are both well themed and easy to navigate. Overall, they are pretty mediocre presentations of mediocre movies, but if you enjoy them, you can be sure they will look and sound just fine on your home theater system.
Each of these discs sports a few goodies targeted mostly at younger viewers, but none of them stand out as persuasive additions to the discs. Return of Jafar has a set top game and a song selection mode that puts lyrics on the screen of the selected songs. There is also a brief DisneyPedia that reviews several of the wishing traditions around world. King of Thieves also has a couple of set top games, which my boys somewhat enjoyed the first time through, and a song selection mode. The relative highlight on that disc, though, is the fiveminute featurette on the voice talent, including brief interviews with Robin Williams, Scott Weinger, Linda Larking, John Rhys-Davies, Gilbert Gottfried, and Jerry Orbach. Outside of that one item, though, the rest of the stuff on these two discs induced yawns at my house.
The Final Evaluation
There is a reason why these two movies come packaged together. Most people would probably only buy or rent King of Thieves solely based on the fact that Robin Williams voices the Genie again, but Disney threw in The Return of Jafar to complete the trilogy. Of the two, King of Thieves is the only one that really advances the story of the Aladdin cast (outside of getting rid of Jafar), but neither of the movies strike the magical mix of music, humor, and adventure of the original. If you have any inkling to pick these titles up, I would hold off on a purchase and rent them.
Kevin Doc Krock is been a long-time animation buff and home theater fan. He's been following the rise of the DVD format in the home market since its introduction, and he hopes to help you make the most of your family's home theater viewing time and video collections.
You can contact Kevin here.
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