[Nostalgia Week] Coming Soon from Walt Disney Home Video: A Reflection on the Era of Direct-to-Video Sequels

In the past few years, Disney’s output has been equal parts plentiful and predictable. Since the release and subsequent success of their 2014 reimagining of Sleeping Beauty in the form of Maleficent, each year has seen a new live-action (or, in a few cases, hyper-realistic CGI) remake of one of the company’s many classic animated movies. For many, the gimmick has become tiresome, and the announcement of a new forthcoming remake elicits as many groans as it does excited buzz. Yet people continue to flock to the theatre anyway, so in response,  Disney keeps making them. However, because of the sheer amount of films of this ilk being released, people have taken to circulating rumours about why they’re being made. Some claim that Disney has to remake their own films to extend copyrights, while others claim that it was Walt’s wish for the company to remake their own films every ten years. Neither rumour holds up perfectly upon closer inspection, particularly not the latter, so it’s worth considering a third option: Disney already knows that these properties sell, so they’re going with safe, over innovative, to ensure profit. 

Of course, any child of the 90’s is all too familiar with this kind of thinking from the animation company. In 1990, a division of the Walt Disney Animation Studio dubbed “DisneyToon Studios” was unveiled to the world, and with it came Disney’s ‘direct-to-video’ sequel craze which would last well into the 2000s. The films were primarily targeted at young audiences, unlike many of Disney’s theatrical releases, which tended to lean towards family entertainment rather than solely children’s. The period marked the epitome of quantity and marketability over product quality, with some theorizing that the era resulted in the eventual collapse of 2D animation at Disney.

DisneyToon’s first film was a feature based on the TV series DuckTales, entitled DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp. It was released in theatres to generally positive reviews, but a financial loss. After this initial disappointment in the box office, the new studio often produced films intended for an immediate home video release, starting with a sequel of Aladdin called The Return of Jafar. The concept snowballed, resulting in the release of several sequels and television-based films of the same ilk as their initial releases, with more than one year seeing as many as four or five new films released from the studio. Kids seemed to generally enjoy the films, and parents bought them in droves due to the Disney name and their familiarity with the properties. Some, like the theatrically released A Goofy Movie, would go on to become cult classics among Disney fans, while others, such as Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, would be subject to poor reviews on release and later mocked for their cheap animation in the age of the internet.

The sheer amount of films being produced led some to believe that audiences were beginning to experience an oversaturation of the Disney brand, a concept which was cited by disgruntled animators in the unauthorized documentary Dream on, Silly Dreamer as being a key component in the downfall of the company’s 2D animation department. 

Let’s take 2003 as an example. This year saw the release of Brother Bear from the main Walt Disney Animation Studio, a film which, despite mixed reviews from critics, was applauded for its artistry and was, on average, enjoyed by general audiences. This year also saw the release of Stitch! The Movie, 101 Dalmatians II: Patch’s London Adventure, The Jungle Book 2, Piglet’s Big Movie, and Atlantis: Milo’s Return – the last of which was a compilation film consisting of three episodes of a failed television series based on the movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire. With few exceptions, these DisneyToon Studio films failed to entertain adult audiences, with the theatrically released The Jungle Book 2 receiving a 19% rotten score from critics and a 30% rotten score from audiences. 2004 would see more of the same in terms of sequel overkill, with the mainline Disney film Home on the Range not doing much to help matters, ultimately receiving more negative reviews than positive. The so-called “Disney Renaissance” was over, and people were beginning to take notice of the studio’s stark decline in quality.

Three animated cows are seen in front of a blue backdrop. Two look, smiling, at the distressed third cow. They are characters from Disney's 'Home on the Range'
Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios and AnimationScreencaps

Still, despite their often poor quality and bad reputation, it’s hard not to prefer some of Disney’s direct-to-video sequels to the current wave of live-action remakes. Maybe it’s the nostalgia talking, but there was a certain charm and freedom to the sequels that made them a great deal more likable than the often gritty, realistic versions of classic films we see in droves today.

Compare The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride to The Lion King. While the former certainly has its faults, featuring an oddly orange Simba, and following a pretty predictable plot line based on Romeo & Juliet, its narrative nonetheless has the freedom of expanding on the groundwork laid by the original film. Beloved characters from the first film return and play major roles, while still leaving room for likable new characters Kovu (Jason Marsden) – the heir of Scar – and Kiara (Neve Campbell)  – daughter of Simba. The plot, which sees Simba and the Pridelanders from the first film at odds with “the Outlanders” (a group of Scar’s supporters), feels more or less logically in-line with the ending of its predecessor, and, while the soundtrack isn’t necessarily on par with Elton John’s 1994 soundtrack for the original film, it manages to hold its own with catchy songs that add to the film’s narrative. 

All of this is in contrast to the hyper-realistic CGI remake released in 2019, a film which cast creativity aside to largely recreate the original film in a “real” world. Director John Favreau insisted on making the characters express less emotion in an effort to make them look and feel like real lions, but in doing so removed some of the characters’ heart. Their actions feel stiff and their faces wooden while singing and running through the African savannah. This isn’t a slight on the animators – the CGI itself looks stunningly real – but it never quite captures the same emotions present in the original and it barely adds anything new to the table to make up for that.

The DisneyToon sequels certainly aren’t flawless –  the aforementioned Jungle Book 2 does not hold a candle to The Jungle Book – but there’s something to be said about how fun and unrestrained the DisneyToon films are in comparison to recent releases. Watching the films, it’s clear that the writers and animators behind the sequels were given a lot of creative freedom to play with the classics as they saw fit. New characters were the norm and the storylines expanded on the originals in vastly different ways depending on the filmmakers involved. While many of the live-action remakes are consistent in their serious tone and intention for an older demographic, there’s a nice variety in the DisneyToon output – from the surprisingly dramatic Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch that could be said to be on par with the original in terms of storytelling, to Fox & the Hound 2 , which has an unquestionably lighter tone than its predecessor, focusing on Tod (Jonah Bobo) and Copper (Harrison Fahn) as children at a state fair. 

Although some of the less successful direct-to-video sequels will certainly fade into obscurity as time goes on, it’s not hard to imagine that many will have a lot more staying power than the live-action remakes. Their emphasis on fun, rewatchable plots in often oversaturated animated worlds allow for an easy likability amongst children of all ages, a likability which would later translate into nostalgia for many young adults eager to pass that enjoyment down to their own children. While the recent remakes typically have a serious tone and favor realism over imaginative plots or designs, the unrestrained childlike joy of the sequels is sure to have people revisiting them for years to come.

Header Image Drawn by Beca Dalimonte