Why the Hell Did Straight-to-VHS Disney Sequels Ever Exist?

Wouldn’t they have made more money with proper sequels? And more importantly, did we really need the story of Simba’s daughter screwing her own cousin?

Before we get started, I just have to say, I kind of love The Return of Jafar. I know it doesn’t capture the magic of Aladdin — my favorite Disney film — but it came out at a time when I was too young and stupid to know the difference. Even when I’ve revisited it as an adult, I still like it, not only because of nostalgia, but because of my love of Gilbert Gottfried, who plays Iago the parrot and who, strangely enough, has the most developed character arc in the whole story, turning from Jafar’s stooge into a reluctant good guy. Plus, he’s got this delightfully obnoxious song:

With that exception though, I generally have a negative view of the Disney straight-to-VHS (and later DVD) sequels, even if I didn’t really remember much of them, or have seen them all. To me — and much of the internet — these cheaply-made sequels seem to corrupt some of the magic of the originals, kind of like how a half-dozen shitty Terminator sequels have cheapened the first two masterpieces. 

These sequels seem even worse when you look at movies like Ralph Breaks the Internet, which had a mature, thoughtful story about friendship, and Frozen II, which is unequivocally excellent, with a story that develops a new adventure while also answering some questions from the first Frozen. It also has Cristoph sing a pretty awesome 1980s rock ballad.

In fairness, these movies didn’t invent the idea of multiple sequels. When Disney started making these straight-to-VHS sequels back in the mid-1990s, strings of sequels were already established money-makers, with the likes of Back to the Future, Jaws, Terminator, Alien and other franchises. Disney had even ventured into animated sequels themselves, with 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under. So instead of making these “lesser” sequels (that some say aren’t even canon), why not pour a bit more money into them — by bettering the story, animation and casting — and releasing them theatrically, surely making a lot more money than whatever they were pulling in from gas-station-counter impulse buys in the process? 

“It’s totally inaccurate to say that we were doing these sequels ‘instead of’ theatrical sequels,” says Jim Kammerud, longtime Disney animator and storyteller, and director of The Fox and the Hound 2, 101 Dalmatians II and The Little Mermaid II. Kammerud explains that the sequels that he worked on were created by Disneytoon Studios, which was a separate studio from Walt Disney Pictures. Disneytoon made these sequels, as well as Disney’s television animation. “Walt Disney Pictures wasn’t interested in making sequels,” Kammerud explains, which makes sense after the poor performance of The Rescuers Down Under. So had Disneytoon not made these sequels, they wouldn’t have been made at all. 

“Walt Disney Pictures was interested in creating new stuff,” Kammerud says, “but after they’ve done that, they can make a lot of money by exploiting the property, and they do that by making dolls and rides in the theme parks and books and toys forever. So the videos were part of that — they’re building off something that they already spent the money to establish.”

As for how these sequels began, Disney legend Tad Stones, who was one of the founders of Disney Television animation, shares how The Return of Jafar, the first of these sequels, came to be. “The company never made a decision to make a sequel to Aladdin, it was me trying to keep my budgets up at Disneytoon,” he admits. “Whenever we did a new Disney animated series back then, we always introduced them with a two-part or four-part story, like Ducktales had one that was really a great big adventure. So, true-to-form, when Aladdin was becoming a series, the first four or five episodes were a big introductory adventure. They were questioning our budgets at the time, so I knew that if we could bring in another profit stream, maybe they’d keep our budgets higher.”

“I turned to a few guys in the home video division, and I told them, ‘By definition, we’re doing a sequel to Aladdin, would you guys be interested in putting it on video tape?’ They ran that up the ladder, but it was rejected. Then later, Aladdin was released on video tape, it did huge, so I called them again and this time they were very interested. So that’s how Return of Jafar made its way to home video. It was made for $3.5 million, and it made somewhere between $180 million to $200 million domestically.”

With The Return of Jafar becoming an unexpectedly huge money-maker, Stones explains that from that point on, straight-to-video sequels became a recurring — and sometimes controversial — subject at Disney. Stones shares that the head of the features division at the time wanted Disney television animation shut down because they felt it “cheapened” the Disney name. While Stones says he wasn’t in the meeting, he also heard that Disney CEO Michael Eisner also questioned the value of feature-length stories not made by the features division, “but then he heard how much money Return of Jafar made and Eisner said, ‘How many more you got?’”

At this time in the mid-1990s, the home video market was exploding, and the VHS releases of Aladdin and The Return of Jafar helped Disney realize this. So on they went to capitalize on this new market. As film critic and Disney historian Josh Spiegel explains, “The production and development timelines of the theatrical animated features were typically a lot further out, meaning that Disney couldn’t capitalize as quickly on sequelizing these films as they might have wanted to. So while they could have gone forward with a sequel to something like Aladdin, it would’ve taken years. Going the direct-to-video route was simpler for Disney because they could get these sequels made faster and cheaper.” 

Sean Kinney, a film fixer who worked with Disney’s video division in 2003 and 2004, explains that in the mid-1990s to the late 2000s, the home video department of Disney was actually Disney’s most profitable division. VHS and DVD sales were gigantic, so much so that, he says, “when we did the home video release of something like Lion King, it was incredibly important for us to hit those deadlines. If you remember, Blockbuster was king at the time, and back then, if we were ever late on getting a video released, the fine we had to pay to Blockbuster was a million dollars a day, so we had to hit those deadlines on time.” 

He further explains that with all of the marketing and advertising that has to be done for feature films, the video releases made far more money because most of that money went straight to Disney, whereas features often lost money. 

To completely about-face on the entire premise of this article, why, then, would Disney ever do a theatrical film, instead of keeping on crapping out DVDs? Kinney explains that they still needed that initial push in marketing to create something new, so theatrical releases were pretty much required for new properties. Plus, the law of diminishing returns still applies, and eventually, stories about Aladdin, Simba or Ariel are going to run out, so it’s not like that would be enough to keep Disney afloat on its own. 

Still, the question of “why make a feature at all” is something that still lingers today. After all, Netflix only released The Irishman to qualify for the Oscars — otherwise, it wouldn’t have bothered, because it’s so expensive and theatrical movies so often lose money. Instead, best to skip the middleman and bring the movie straight to people’s homes, just like Disney did with Tarzan II: The Legend Begins (which, it should be said, de-aged Tarzan far better than Scorsese de-aged Robert DeNiro, just sayin’).

Following The Return of Jafar, direct-to-video sequels became commonplace at Disney, but The Mouse was still aware that their original features were important and tried their best not to corrupt them. So, in an effort to explore this market yet not cheapen the original property, Kammerud explains, “The other sequels were approached via a different pipeline than Return of Jafar, which was just a bunch of repackaged episodes of a TV series. They spent a lot more time and care on those movies. While I don’t have the numbers in front of me, if a movie cost $100 million, one of these sequels might cost 15 percent of that. But that was still a lot more than what a TV budget would be for an entire season of a show. It was sort of a hybrid model.”

Indeed, when I went back to revisit many of these direct-to-video sequels, I was surprised at how good they looked. The animation for movies like Fox and the Hound 2, Tarzan II and Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning was barely distinguishable from a theatrical release, whereas Return of Jafar does seem, well, second-rate, which is made only more obvious by the absence of Robin Williams.

Still, despite a larger budget and a certain degree of care, some of Disney’s direct-to-video sequels weren’t without problems and Disney was clearly not above some quick cash-grabs. As Kammerud explains, “I wrote Tarzan II and Disney spent more money on that than many other sequels. But eight months or a year before it came out, Buena Vista [Disney’s video division] packaged together some of the Tarzan TV series and released it as Tarzan & Jane, so everybody thought they already had Tarzan II. The right hand and the left hand didn’t always know what they were doing, or even agree with what each other was doing.”

So while Disney was pouring more care and money into some of their sequels, there was still stuff like Belle’s Magical World and Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, which were just repackaged shorts or TV episodes presented as sequels. Movies like these, one could argue, cheapened all Disney direct-to-video sequels, because they were all of such varying quality. 

To this point, Stones — who, again, was the man behind the first Aladdin sequel — shares the following story: “When I was working on Lion King II, I left the studio one lunchtime and went up to Griffith Park Zoo to get a bunch of reference books. It was a big purchase, so the woman at the counter asked me what the books were for. I explained to her that I was working on the video sequel to The Lion King. She was really excited and said, ‘Oh, that’s wonderful, that’s fantastic. I love that movie… Just don’t make it like that terrible Return of Jafar!”

Then there’s the question of whether the stories themselves should even be told. Many view Disney’s direct-to-video era as something to lampoon, and in many cases, they’re right. For The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning, while the animation is great, the whole plot is about King Triton banning music in Atlantica — it’s basically Footloose, which is hardly in keeping with the epic, beautiful love story of The Little Mermaid. For its part, The Lion King II looks good, but the story is all about Simba’s daughter falling for Kovu, a Scar lookalike who was originally intended to be Scar’s son, until everyone realized that would make him and Simba’s daughter cousins, so it was changed at the last minute. There was also stuff like Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, which doubled-down on the white-washing of history of the first film, as well as Mulan II, which finds that badass warrior Mulan of the first film is “suddenly … a hopeless romantic,” as Polygon describes. 

Stones admits, “I don’t know that Eisner was wrong,” when he talks about the Disney CEO’s caution regarding how Disney’s features may be affected by these direct-to-video sequels. “I even have my own misgivings about it, in part because I started in features. Most features are meant to be airtight, in that there’s no unfinished business. This is it.” 

Of course, not all of these sequels were bad or somehow sacrilege, it just means that maybe some were poorly conceived ideas. With Lion King II, for example, the first Lion King is based on Hamlet, so it’s hard to see how a sequel to that doesn’t cheapen the first one. However, when I went back and watched The Lion King 1½, I really liked it, as it was just a side adventure with Timon and Pumbaa — a fun romp that didn’t feel like it was corrupting the original story. The same could be said of Tarzan II, a fun look at Tarzan’s baby years in the jungle. Aladdin and the King of Thieves was also quite good, and it featured Robin Williams’ return as the Genie. Honestly, I was surprised at just how many of these sequels I genuinely enjoyed.

Here’s another thing that I didn’t realize until my conversation with Stones: During this time — the late 1990s to the late 2000s — Disney wasn’t really making traditional, 2D animation films. They’d consistently done so since Snow White in 1937, but in 2004, it all stopped after the forgettable flop that was Home on the Range. But for the excellent The Princess and the Frog in 2009, Disney has stopped making 2D animated films entirely. Today, it’s all but a lost art, which is only further buried by these live-action remakes of the exact same films. For an entire decade, Disney video was the only place keeping feature-quality 2D Disney animation alive, a hell of a legacy to carry on, even if the stories weren’t always there.

Still, in 2008, the direct-to-video Disney sequels came to a swift end. As Spiegel explains, “When John Lasseter was brought into the executive suite at Disney Animation, one of his first leadership choices was to hit pause on Disneytoon Studios making DTV sequels.” Kammerud confirms this, adding, “I was going to do Aristocats 2, but Lassater came in and he hated the sequels so he shut it down.” 

Lasseter’s concern was that it diluted Disney’s intellectual property, but Kammerud disagrees. “I don’t agree with that in any way at all. If there’s this cool universe there, there’s no reason not to revisit it and tell some cool story that kids around the world can watch and have another adventure with the characters that they love.” 

This idea of “exploring the universe” is a bit of what has happened since 2008 with Disney’s direct-to-video efforts. Stones explains that after the sequels were shut down, people had to come in and pitch multiple stories in an established world, which is where you get things like the Tinkerbell animated films and Planes, which takes place in the Cars universe. Stones compares this to Star Wars, in that there’s a whole galaxy out there in these films, so why not explore those worlds?

So while Lassater put the kibosh on things back in 2008, the Disney sequels never really died, they just shifted, sometimes to ancillary characters who could then explore an untouched part of the universe, as opposed to another adventure with the same main characters. But even that isn’t exclusively true, as Disney has made a TV movie — and later a series — about Rapunzel in the Tangled series (which, by the way, is awesome).

One could even argue that this is what Disney is doing with their other properties, too, with Disney+ series like The Manadalorian and all the upcoming Marvel shows. All of these are the offspring of the direct-to-video sequels that we grew up with, and some of them are better than the actual tentpole films in those worlds nowadays. For any of these sequels — be it the VHS ones from 25 years ago or the Disney+ ones today — it’s all about exploring the right properties, then finding the right story and giving it the budget it needs. 

And if that doesn’t work, just give Gilbert Gottfried a musical number. I’ll still come and watch it.