Twenty-five years ago this month, Disney, what we know now as a corporate, cultural monolith that dominates the global box office and a major entity in the upcoming streaming wars, was venturing into new territory. The company was releasing their first original, straight-to-video feature and their first sequel to a “Disney Renaissance” tentpole: The Return of Jafar.
The first of two sequels to the highest grossing film of 1992, The Return of Jafar also served as the pilot for the Aladdin television series, which ran for 86 episodes over three seasons. Disney tasked Alan Zaslove and Tad Stones with bringing Al, Jasmine, Genie and Apu to the small screen, and both were more than up to it, having been the creative forces behind Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers and Darkwing Duck. But before the first scripts were written and lines were drawn, Stones wanted to bring one more character in to join the ensemble.
“I said, ‘I want the parrot in there,’” Stones recalled to Animation World Network of his initial pitch to Disney. “I thought the best character in the movie was Gilbert Gottfried’s Iago.”
Stones wanted, of all characters, the loudmouth, brash Red Macaw on the show. To do that they would first need to turn Iago from a sarcastic, sleazy, conniving henchman, to a sarcastic, sleazy, conniving hero. Then of course, there was the fact that Iago was still in the lamp with Jafar, both tossed out of Agrabah by Genie in the first film’s climax after the wise-cracking magical being granted Jafar his final wish of becoming an all powerful genie — a last minute trick pulled by Aladdin, playing off the villains own egotism. To accomplish both feats, Stones said that he, Zaslove, and the rest of the writing team, “came up with a convoluted story that explained everything and that ended up being The Return of Jafar.”
Taking place one year after the events of the original film, Return of Jafar finds Aladdin and Jasmine still blissfully in love, the former street rat and his monkey now living in the palace. Jasmine’s father, The Sultan, is planning to make Aladdin his new royal vizier, the position once held by the sinister Jafar. If life wasn’t already good enough for Al, Genie returns from his journey around the world, realizing that what he really wants to do with his newly earned freedom is to live a life surrounded by his friends.
Unbeknownst to the Agrabah Avengers, Jafar has escaped, and with the help of a lowly thief, Abis Mal (Jason Alexander), plans on getting revenge on Aladdin and his friends.
Even though it’s Jafar’s name in the title and it being a sequel to Aladdin, ROJ is really Iago’s story. The films main arc is Iago turning over a new feather; joining Aladdin and his friends to take down his former boss. He saves Aladdin early in the movie, releases Genie after he’s captured and emasculated by Jafar (in the movie’s only good musical sequence), who then saves Al from being beheaded; and it’s Iago who lands the final blow on Jafar, knocking over his oily black lamp into the pit of lava Jafar created, doing so after swooping in — Han Solo style — to stop Jafar from landing a fatal blow to Aladdin. Without Iago, there’s no story.
A sequel to Aladdin was about as sure fire a hit you can get in 1994, the continuation of a major hit that made Disney enough money from merchandise and video sales to fill a couple Caves of Wonders. However, there was some hesitation from the House of Mouse.
While always intended as a feature-length story, Return of Jafar was initially supposed to premiere on TV, billed as a special to promote the new series. There was also some worry that the straight-to-video approach would diminish the animated features.
“At the time I was told that Peter Schneider, who was in charge of Feature Animation was at a meeting with Michael Eisner,” Stones said in a separate AWN interview. “Peter said, ‘You shouldn’t do sequels, their quality hurts the Disney reputation,’ and Michael said, ‘I’m not sure we should be doing these either.’” Those fears dissipated once the first week’s sales numbers came in.
The Return of Jafar sold 1.5 million copies in its first two days of release, more than 4.6 million by the end of its first week. In total, The Chicago Tribune reported that 15 million copies were sold, bringing $300 million dollars to Disney, off a $3.5 million dollar budget (Aladdin cost $28 million). This all happened without Robin Williams, the late actor had a falling out with Disney because of the over commercialization of his character in Aladdin’s marketing. He was replaced with Dan Castellaneta (Homer Simpson); Williams would return for the third film, Aladdin and The King of Thieves.
Seeing a new way to make tons of money, Disney started churning out straight to video features based on all of their theatrical titles until 2008 (we’ve even made a list of them). While Stones admits that he isn’t a fan of the movie (“I don’t even own a copy,” he said to AWN) it’s still an important film in the history of Disney and animation as a whole. A movie that started a successful trend and one we got because of one man’s love for a loud, obnoxious parrot.