Sunday, March 30, 2014

Aladdin (the series) 20th anniversary -- prelude: The Return of Jafar (released 5/20/94)

If the original plan had been adhered to, “The Return of Jafar” would have been part of the Aladdin TV series, serialized into either two or three installments. (I have reason to believe that the intention could’ve been one or the other, as I’ll explain below.) It would’ve aired in whole, though in an abridged form (is that a contradiction, or what?) during the weekend immediately preceding the beginning of its run on The Disney Afternoon by all of the stations across the U.S. that carried the lineup. This would’ve continued the tradition that had started with DuckTales and been upheld by every Disney Afternoon series since, excepting that what were once five-part serials eventually got whittle down to two parts.

In keeping with the rest of the series of which it was a part, it probably would’ve been devoid of any musical numbers. As the version that was ultimately produced includes several musical numbers which take up nearly a third of it (and are contrived both in and of themselves and in their interjection into the movie), it’s possible that it was intended to only be a two-parter. Starting with Darkwing Duck, that became the standard for each successive fall’s premiere, but I can’t be sure.

What changed? According to producer Tad Stones, at some point during production, he “realized [they] were making Aladdin II”, and for some reason inquired with Walt Disney Home Video as to if they would be willing to release it as such to Wal-Mart (as it was officially designated as at that point) and such. I’m not sure why the home video department was the first place he thought to go to, rather than Buena Vista’s movie theater distribution department or, say, Michael Eisner himself, but that’s the way Stones tells it. Anyway, as his story goes, at first they snubbed it, but when the first sales reports for the VHS release of the original came in, they changed their tune.

So, the result is a direct-to-video release that apes the format of the first movie in the style of its title and end credits sequences and the intermittent Broadway-esque over-baked melodic divergences, but has all of the production methods and characteristics that were the norm up to that point for Walt Disney Television Animation. Officially, it’s not part of the TV series, but its origins are interlocked with and bound to it, despite the way Disney originally promoted it and has continued to promote it on the occasion of any upgraded release. In sharing the series’ production team and the production means, and by establishing a relationship integral to the series as well as introducing one of the series’ major villains, it is far, far more closely related to the series than it is to the original movie.

As I discussed in my previous post, as an adventure-oriented series, Aladdin was a return to form (and in such terms, a last hurrah) for The Disney Afternoon. Over the preceding couple of years, not only had the premieres been shortened, but their boundless scope and vigor had been dialed down. The domestic sitcom that was Goof Troop and the lifeless urban detective trappings of Bonkers paled to the awe and might of DuckTales’ “Treasure of the Golden Suns” and TaleSpin’s “Plunder and Lightning”. Unfortunately, as much as Return of Jafar aspires to be an opus of high adventure, deadly peril, and explosive, towering, unearthly spectacle, it comes off as ho-hum and on autopilot. Visually, in strictly technical terms, it reaches the heights it aspires to when the Sultan’s abducted by Jafar’s winged horses of death and with the climactic battle with Jafar, in giant-sized genie form, and the opening of the earth into a boiling pit of lava. But to back up all of the bombast, little is offered to win the viewer’s investment and make a singular, lasting impression.

The real problem is glaring: Jafar. Once it’s a given that he’s come back and that he remains bound to a genie’s existence but still craves revenge, it’s like, “Okay, that’s logical. He was so uber-archetypal in the original, there’s no real opening to write him as having done some self-reflection and, if not be repentant, have arrived at a new set goals and motivation.” So, yeah, he wanted to take over Agrabah and had ill will toward all of the good guys, and he still wants to take over Agrabah and still has ill will toward all of the good guys. There’s no rule that if he were to show up again, he would’ve changed. Nonetheless … WHY DID he have to show up again?! The original left no loose strings or unfinished business concerning Jafar. So now, he just comes off like a quarterback whose team lost the championship during his senior year but keeps calling for a rematch. Stones himself has lamented that he's "embarrassed" by Return for these very reasons. I'm not sure what role his co-writers Mark McCorkle and Robert Schooley played, but once this had been bumped up from TV special to major home video release, Stones probably felt that he needed stand backup to help ensure the ball wouldn't be dropped. Really, given that they were locked into the Jafar-oriented plot, the film flows smoothly and is just about the absolute best it could be. 

According to Bob Miller’s column in Comics Scene, Stones had asserted that Return “takes place a few hours after” the original!!! Don’t the characters just want to go to bed?! And to the viewer, Jafar’s return is a put-off. “Okay, yeah, here he is, he’s back, now they gotta stop him, you know, just like they stopped him last time…” It’s anti-climactic  and laborious, as if you’ve mastered a skill and are ready to move on, but are forced to continue doing the kind of tasks you can now do in your sleep. 

Now, if far later in the series, Jafar appeared in an unexpected and shocking type of way, that might’ve worked. Say, kind of like the Batman storyline “Hush”, there’d been an ongoing conspiracy against our heroes, and (figuratively) during sweeps weeks or as the cliffhanger of a season finale, the mastermind is revealed as Jafar. That would’ve been exciting. The reality of Jafar’s comeback is a stubborn, lackluster repeat performance.

Say that, at the point where Return of the Jedi ends, it kept going, doubling its length. Luke’s settling in for the night and trying to get some rest. Meanwhile, Darth Vader rebounds, and starts right up again at the exact same thing that he’d just failed miserably at. Luke would be like, “Aw, man, I gotta shut down this creep AGAIN?!” That’s pretty much what Return comes down to.

Still, when most of the gang is imprisoned while Aladdin is nearly beheaded (which Razoul has NO qualms about being tasked with executing, no pun intended … it’s a wonder that he was never characterized as an outright villain!), there is a greater – and I’d dare say a more realistic -- sense of grave danger and precarious mortality than when the original went through much the same motions, perhaps because the respective scenes had been preceded by so much frivolous, bright and shiny spectacle and musical numbers. The well-designed cloaked “Riders of Death” on winged black horses that Jafar takes the form give the movie an aesthetic distinction from the original, sharpen the relating of Jafar’s evil, and are one of the first signs of the creative team’s talent -- that they’ll exhibit time and time again on the series -- at creating their own adventure-fantasy concepts to populate the world surrounding Agrabah.

 (And Hans Solo would be like, “Aw, you gotta be kidding me! I was just about to bang Leia…”  It’s tempting to say that here, Aladdin’s saying the same thing about Jasmine, except that he seems completely preoccupied with earning her father’s favor, even though he’d already done that. Going by her hasty, unconcerned assurances to her beau that he has nothing to worry about, one could infer that her thinking is closer to Solo’s. When she blew up at Aladdin for bringing Iago back into their midst, rather than Iago’s affiliation with Jafar, what she’s REALLY upset about is that Al has been content to hang out with the guys and make new friends. Hence why she so stubbornly and heatedly insists to Iago that she and Aladdin are through, only the next minute to be throwing herself at Aladdin with little coaxing. But, I digress.)

In the past, each Disney Afternoon’s premiere was a slam-bang doozy of an establishing of the characters and the premise. One important function of “Plunder and Lightning” was to bring Kit and Rebecca into Baloo’s life and establish their relationships. But these things happened as an integral part of an original and exciting plot.  Return of Jafar is but a retread and a shadow of Jafar’s arc in the original. The series used the original movie’s conclusion to define the characters’ orientation for the duration of the series. With one major exception, that’s where we already find them at the outset of Return of Jafar, and that’s where it leaves them. It wasn’t needed for anything, and sadly, what it mostly does is serve as a placeholder.

The aforementioned major exception is Iago’s conversion. In fact, that’s the only thing that the plot really has going for it. Not only is it important in that it establishes Iago’s role in the series, but at least when I think of Return of Jafar, that lovably short-fused, selfish parrot’s “switching teams” is THE ENTIRETY of what distinguishes it for me. The retread of Jafar’s conquest and defeat is just a means of getting Iago where he’s going. Like when your  car’s in the shop and you get a rental, and you don’t really care if you wash it or put gas it in, because you’re just using it to drive to work along the same route that you do by reflex every day. The car doesn’t matter to you. What does matter is that you are at work when you’re supposed to be.

That is not say that the movie (I suppose that we have nothing better to call it...) has nothing to else to be said for it beyond Iago’s self-journey. I know it’s due to my Disney Afternoon/WDTVA bias, but I actually prefer it to the original. Still, some of the factors that I can point out as to why this is so only vindicate my bias!

The two most cited reasons for this movie’s inferiority to the original are the animation quality and the absence of Robin Williams. Regarding the first, I’ll contend that on average, the animation completely holds up to that of the original. The key distinction is that at this point, the theatrical animation department was using some sort of cinematographic technique that gives an illusion of 3D. I don’t have the requisite experience to be able to put my finger on it, but I’m discerning to see that a sequence showing Aladdin making a running leap in the original is any less skillfully animated in Return than is a sequence from the original of the same character engaged in comparable activity. And even if there’s fewer cels per second in the sequel, it’s obvious that the TV animators can draw Aladdin just as well as the movie ones can and that they’re masters of anatomy of the very same caliber.

At certain points in Return of Jafar, I believe the cel count-per-second was upped past the TV standard. During Jasmine’s duet with Iago in the second half of “Forget About That Guy” (or whatever it’s called), she’s does some prancing and twirling about that looks downright rotoscoped, if not a frame-by-frame imitation-by-eye of a live-action reel.

Furthermore, I’ll vouch that there’s no sign that the sequel’s background artists would be unable to do anything that the presumed varsity squad of the theatrical unit could.

It’s a process of deduction. The skill applied to both the animation and the background art in the sequel is absolutely on par with the original. But there’s still that distinction that makes the original look like a “real” Disney movie that everyone took their kids to, had a best-selling soundtrack, and got a bunch of Academy Awards, and the sequel look like all of its contemporary made-for-TV cartoons. I will be the first to attest that, as superbly animated as I think that some of Return of Jafar’s focal scenes and moments are, there are fleeting intermediary bits that are rushed and choppy. While it’s a matter of sheer reality that such instances are due not to a lack of skill, talent, or care but to budget and scheduling, someone can still argue that the fact of the matter is that such compromises make for an inferior production. I would counter that it’s not an inferior production but a result of inferior circumstances … but I wouldn’t want to get hung up on it. I know what’s what and why I like what I do.

Bottom line: the KEY distinction between the original’s overall look and the sequel’s does NOT lie in the skill and talent that went into the animation and the backgrounds. Other factors, largely technical, account for the discrepancy. As I argued in my review of Richard Williams’ Raggedy Ann, what made the “cel” animation in Disney’s `90’s theatrical films so dazzling was that it actually WASN’T pure cel animation, but involved lots of digital effects.

I actually find Return’s overall aesthetic more tasteful. Far less gaudy, the backgrounds have a more subtle, understated, almost earthier quality.  They’re also a notch above the backgrounds in an average episode of the series, more refined and precise.

Finally, besides Iago’s adjustments, there’s one other aspect of Return that makes it integral as a lead-in to the series: the introduction of Abis Mal. Though second banana and dupe to Jafar (though how different is that REALLY from his role in the series, where he was only in his own mind ever a master of anything), he still steals his scenes. Jason Alexander’s performance – which calls for a lot exertion, whether screaming or trembling with fear and/or panic – is already in full flight. More than anything, it’s Alexander’s voice work that defines Mal’s erratic and fraught traits. Here, already having the character down pat, he already has the myopic, nervous, high-strung, cowardly, greedy, scheming, inept, vain lout that we – or at least I – love in all of his appearances during the series. If anything, Mal seems more competent and formidable here than he ever would again, even though the movie closes on him in a position that gives him little dignity.

-- Ryan 

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