New 'Aladdin' should help direct-to-video market

August 13, 1996|By Maureen Pao | Maureen Pao,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

So will Aladdin and Jasmine get married or what?

Inquiring fans of Disney's 1992 blockbuster "Aladdin" want to know.

And they'll find out when "Aladdin and the King of Thieves," the final installment of the "Aladdin" trilogy, is released today. ("The Return of Jafar," the first sequel, was released in 1994.)

Robin Williams returns as the voice of Genie, which he originated in "Aladdin." (Dan Castellaneta, voice of Homer Simpson, was the voice in "Jafar."

But if you want to munch on popcorn while you watch, you'll have to pop it yourself.

Like "Jafar," you won't find "King of Thieves" at your local multiplex. Look instead to the small screen and on the shelves of video stores.

Once the province of awful B-grade (or worse) slasher/sci-fi/skin flicks, the direct-to-video market is undergoing a renaissance.

Disney wants to turn conventional wisdom about movies released straight to video on its head. Its goal is to make direct-to-video -- already a highly profitable market -- into a reputable one and then dominate it by producing high-quality, original releases. Big-name stars like Williams signals a seriousness of purpose.

"We're hoping to change the perception, create a whole new category of entertainment and give people a choice of new movies to bring home," says Tania Moloney, vice president of publicity and marketing for Buena Vista Home Video, which distributes and markets video releases for Disney and other studios, such as Touchstone and Miramax.

And Disney hopes to appeal to the 90 million VCR owners who get their entertainment predominantly on video.

Moloney also notes that sequels work well on video because viewers are already familiar with the characters.

Although "King of Thieves" doesn't totally shed the Saturday-morning cartoonlike quality that characterized "Jafar," it is higher-quality fare. The animation, though not as lush as that of "Aladdin," is more complex, the movements and facial expressions more varied. And the story, of Aladdin and Jasmine's impending nuptials and Aladdin's search for his long-lost father, is substantive and compelling.

A team of about 400 animators worked on "King of Thieves" for more than two years. In contrast, Disney put together "Jafar" in about half the time.

"We worked on 'The Return of Jafar' quickly. We wanted to respond to the consumer request for more, play quickly on the franchise when the franchise was very hot. We needed to prove that this medium could work," Moloney explains.

But the speed with which "Jafar" was created was apparent in the final product. It lacked what made "Aladdin" special: no Alan Menken and Howard Ashman score, no Robin Williams, no computer-animated ornate flying carpet, no gorgeous color and animation. In addition, it had a story that would put just about anyone to sleep.

Some critics point out that Disney's reputation for high-quality movies has been severely damaged by such a blatant attempt to make an extra, quick buck.

But things are different this time around.

" 'Aladdin and the King of Thieves' is possibly more significant than 'The Return of Jafar' because having seen the success of the first ['Jafar'], we were able to put more time into the second, more resources, more money in the creation process, because we knew the potential success level," Moloney says.

She declined to give production costs for either "Jafar" or "King of Thieves," but consider that Robin Williams, one of America's most popular actors, was on the payroll and the numbers shoot up automatically. His salary is reported to be $1 million.

Other voices include Jerry Orbach (voice of Lumiere in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" and a cast member of TV's "Law and Order") and John Rhys-Davies (TV's "Sliders" and the movies "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark"). Original voices Gilbert Gottfried as Iago, the wisecracking parrot, Scott Weinger as Aladdin and Linda Larkin as Jasmine are also back.

To date, about 11 million copies of "Jafar" have been sold, ranking it in the Top 15 of best-selling videos, and profits are reported to be near the $150 million mark. Disney hopes to sell at least as many copies of "King of Thieves" (suggested retail price: $24.99).

Pub Date: 8/13/96

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