The Return of Jafar at 30: The Start of the Brand-Deposit Era

Considering the state of the Walt Disney Company now, it’s almost impossible to believe that for the first 70 years of its existence, they avoided animated sequels almost by design. Of course, the very nature of classic animated fare means that creating a sequel after the audience sees characters arrive at their happily ever after is especially difficult. That’s why it made perfect sense that the first Disney animated sequel was The Rescuers Down Under, a film that followed the same procedural nature of its predecessor, in which two heroic mice go on a journey to rescue a missing child. But the first successful Disney animated sequel never made it to theaters, by design. Thirty years ago, the arrival of The Return of Jafar portended the brand-deposit future of its parent company.

While The Rescuers Down Under didn’t set fire to the box office, Disney’s Thanksgiving 1992 release certainly did. Aladdin wasn’t just an Oscar winner, but also the highest-grossing film of the year. Like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, its popularity was both undeniable and unavoidable. Aladdin wasn’t the first Renaissance film to lead to follow-ups of some sort – The Little Mermaid spun off into an afternoon TV series in the early 1990s, and the Beauty and the Beast stage musical premiered on Broadway in the spring of 1994. But this time, while Aladdin would have its own TV series, there was a demand for a bridge between the big feature and the small show. Return of Jafar co-director Tad Stones has said in past interviews that he pushed for that bridge to be more than a TV special, but an actual movie, and the home-video division only pursued that once Aladdin became such a big hit at the box office.

To be perfectly clear: The Return of Jafar is not overdue for reclamation, nor will it ever be. It is a film that looks very much like a TV show, with a low budget to match. Even if the animation wasn’t hopelessly stunted compared to the visual craft of the 1992 film, the storytelling is baffling, lazy, and unfunny. Though the title implies that the evil ex-Grand Vizier of Agrabah is going to wreak havoc on his old stomping grounds, the story largely focuses on Iago (voiced by Gilbert Gottfried) as he wrestles with whether or not he can redeem himself from his evil past. (Spoiler: he can.) Aladdin and Jasmine are supporting players, Jafar is paired with a criminal named Abis Mal, and the Genie arrives for D-level jokes that are mostly a reminder that no one could ever hope to impersonate Robin Williams and top the real thing. (Williams had a falling-out with Disney based on the marketing of Aladdin, but even if he hadn’t, it seems hard to envision a scenario where he would have willingly taken part in this specific story. Dan Castellaneta, who took over and is best known as the voice of Homer Simpson, does his best, but there’s just no replacing Robin Williams.)

At least in Stones’ retelling, the most notable (if unsurprising) aspect of the conversation surrounding The Return of Jafar is that both Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Feature Animation head Peter Schneider felt that pursuing films like this would “hurt the Disney reputation” before noting that the DTV sequel cost $3.5 million to produce “and made over $100 million. …what should the next one be?” Though Disney’s feature animation unit still cranks out films each year, including recent hits like Frozen II and Encanto, the reputation of the studio has, if not been hurt, shifted somewhat notably. In those first seven decades, Disney looked to classic stories for its source material. Now, Disney looks to…itself for its source material. 

Disney, like its rival studios, no longer eschews sequels. They pull from their own archives to beef up intellectual property, or to make prequels or computer-animated remakes of their own classics. The upcoming Mufasa: The Lion King may not have a low budget like The Return of Jafar did, but it will use its storytelling to further the Disney brand while answering creative questions none of us have asked. If Jafar did not hurt Disney’s reputation, it simply shifted it. Just consider the next animated feature from Walt Disney Animation Studios: Moana 2, arriving in theaters this Thanksgiving. (That gives Disney time to refine its live-action adaptation of Moana, coming in the summer of 2026.) Moana 2 is, like The Return of Jafar, a sequel to a film directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. It, too, is a sequel that doesn’t feel necessary. It, too, has original songs that aren’t from the multi-talented writer who brought them to life. (Lin-Manuel Miranda is busy…on that Mufasa title.) And it, too, was originally going to be a title for the small screen: what was once a Disney+ extension of Moana is now going to be expanded. Everything old is new again.

“The Return of Jafar” is streaming on Disney+.

Josh Spiegel is a freelance film and TV writer and critic, who you may also remember from his truly ridiculous March Madness-style Disney brackets on social media. His work has appeared at Slashfilm, Vulture, Slate, Polygon, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post, and more.

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