There’s a Party Here in Agrabah

Aladdin and the King of Thieves is the better sequel compared to The Return of Jafar. It’s still direct-to-video, but the animation is slightly better and the story feels more conclusive. Although Aladdin and the King of Thieves was part of my VHS collection growing up, my brother and I didn’t watch it as much as The Return of Jafar. It’s an improvement, but it still can’t compare to the original. Aladdin and the King of Thieves serves as a finale to the 3 season animated series and the Aladdin trilogy in a whole. It was enough to bring back Robin Williams as the unreplaceable voice of Genie. Only after Disney apologized did they rewrite his scenes to fit Williams’ unpredictable brand of comedy. There’s a ton of pop culture references that I didn’t get as a kid and a few too many Disney references. Even Mrs. Doubtfire makes an appearance. Genie is always entertaining, but he’s only along for the ride.

Unlike other Disney Princes and Princesses, it took 2 sequels and an animated series for Aladdin and Jasmine to finally get married. The wedding captures the attention of the fabled Forty Thieves. Since Aladdin is based on One Thousand and One Nights, it only made sense to base a movie on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Including the magic word “Open Sesame.” Most of the Forty Thieves are exaggerated stereotypes except the titular King of Thieves. Aladdin now wears shoes and dresses in more than just his signature outfit. Since he’s more mature, he wonders about his long lost father who turns out to be the King of Thieves. John Rhys-Davies is a suitable voice for Aladdin’s charismatic rogue father Cassim. The father-son theme gives the sequel some emotional weight. They have bonding experiences like riding Magic Carpet and stealing the movie’s treasure. An oracle voiced by CCH Pounder leads them to the golden hand of King Midas hidden inside a world turtle.

Although Abu and Iago have become an animal sidekick duo, Iago finds himself drawn to Cassim’s misguided greed. They trick the Sultan and end up pursued by the antagonistic guard Razoul, but the true villain is Forty Thieves betrayer Sa’Luk voiced by Jerry Orbach. He’s no Jafar, but Sa’Luk is intimidating with his muscles and golden claws. There’s much more action that even Jasmine participates in and the songs are a little better than The Return of Jafar. “There’s a Party Here in Agrabah” is easily the catchiest number that introduces the wedding. “Out of Thin Air” is sweet, but I’m still distracted by Jasmine’s replacement singing voice. “Father and Son” is so sentimental that I wish it was sung be someone other than Genie. “Welcome to the Forty Thieves” and “Are You In or Out?” are two villain songs for the price of one. Since this is the official ending, “Arabian Nights” was the best way to close the book. Aladdin and the King of Thieves ends the franchise on a high note.

2. Aladdin and the King of Thieves

Aladdin flies with Jasmine and his father

Preceded by: The Return of Jafar

You’re Only Second Rate

The Return of Jafar marks the beginning of the Disney direct-to-video sequel era. Aladdin is an all-time favorite of mine from the Disney Renaissance. My brother and I were just as excited as any kid to know there was a sequel. Though The Return of Jafar was technically made in response to a 1994 animated series of Aladdin, the decision to release it on home video was a double edged sword for Disney. On one hand, it was a faster way to get a sequel to the already popular Aladdin. On the other hand, that meant cheaper Saturday-morning cartoon animation. I didn’t mind when I was younger. In fact, I sometimes watched direct-to-video sequels more often since they’re usually quick and painless. The Return of Jafar is among the best selling VHS tapes of all time, but Disney got a little too greedy with sequels.

The movie picks up 1 year after the original with Aladdin, Abu, and the Magic Carpet ready for a new adventure. Aladdin is currently living in the palace with Princess Jasmine and her big cat Rajah, but he continues to steal from the rich to give to the poor. Although cheaper, almost the entire voice cast returns. Except the one who really counts. Robin Williams refused to return thanks to a marketing dispute, so he was replaced by Dan Castellaneta desperately trying to recreate Genie’s manic energy. Genie returns after seeing the world, but he somehow still has magic and his shackles despite being freed. The voice of the Sultan was also changed, but Gilbert Gottfried is arguably the star. Iago is given so much attention in the sequel. After escaping Jafar’s lamp, he slowly redeems himself by saving Aladdin’s life and eventually turning on his old master. I love Iago as a villain’s sidekick, but this was a good direction for him.

Before The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Jason Alexander voiced the equally annoying secondary villain Abis Mal who ends up rubbing Jafar’s lamp. Jafar is a lot more red than he was before, but he’s just as entertainingly evil with Genie powers. Jafar’s revenge leads to his surprisingly graphic death when his lamp is destroyed. The ending where Aladdin and Jasmine want to see the world is deliberately meant as a pilot for the animated series. Animation is one thing, but the songs are also lower quality. “Arabian Nights” is the same kind of opening with a few altered lyrics. “Nothing in the World (Quite Like a Friend)” is nothing compared to “Friend Like Me.” Just like “Forget About Love” is forgettable compared to “A Whole New World.” The problem, like the song “I’m Looking Out for Me” was letting Gottfried sing in his grating voice. Linda Larkin returns to voice Jasmine, but her singing voice is clearly different. The best song ends up being “You’re Only Second Rate” since it finally gives Jafar a chance to sing his own personal Disney villain song that isn’t just a reprise. The Return of Jafar may have cut the budget, but Aladdin fans should appreciate Jafar’s defeat.

1. The Return of Jafar

Jafar taunts Genie

Preceded by: Aladdin & Followed by: Aladdin and the King of Thieves

3 Small Words

Josie and the Pussycats is the new Spice World. It’s totally ridiculous, but I kinda liked it. Josie and the Pussycats were originally created by Archie Comics in 1963. Gaining even more popularity as a Hanna-Barbera Saturday-morning cartoon in the early 70’s. When Sabrina the Teenage Witch became popular as a live action TV series in the 90’s, they decided to make a live action Josie and the Pussycats movie in 2001. Although I was introduced to an all-black version of the band through their scattered appearances on Riverdale, I knew I needed to see the movie one day. The movie is a lot more comic accurate with Josie McCoy as the level headed redhead guitarist, Melody Valentine as the dumb blonde drummer, and Valerie Brown as the outspoken black bassist. All three actresses were well known at the time and perfect for their part.

After making her biggest impression in She’s All That, Rachael Leigh Cook learned to sing and play guitar just to play Josie. After her notable role in American Pie, Tara Reid stole the show with all of Mel’s airheaded thoughts. Rosario Dawson wasn’t a household name just yet, but Val was her first of many comic book roles. Other important comic characters include Gabriel Mann as Josie’s less than muscular love interest Alan M. Mayberry, Paul Costanzo as their pathetic band manager Alexander Cabot, and a skunk haired Missi Pyle as his meddling sister Alexandra. Together the Pussycats go through the usual rise to fame and jealousy when Josie is given top-billing. It sounds cliché, but Josie and the Pussycats is way more clever than it seems on the surface.

For whatever reason, the fictional band is used to satirize the music industry and heavy commercialization. Subliminal messages are used by an evil record label in an effort to sell things to the youth of America. So the extreme product placement is all very deliberate. Alan Cumming and Parker Posey are perfectly hammy villains who sell the insane premise. Donald Faison, Seth Green, and Breckin Meyer make up a stereotypical boy band called Du Jour that gets booted out when they ask too many questions. Josie and the Pussycats is filled with catchy music, but everything does lead to a catfight. Let’s just say Archie Comics wasn’t exactly happy about the PG-13 language and sexuality (little did they know). Despite bombing at the box-office, Josie and the Pussycats has a cult following for a reason.


Josie and the Pussycats

Yo! I’ll Tell You what I Want what I Really Really Want!

Spice World is utterly mental, but I quite fancy it. I’ve been a huge fan of the Spice Girls ever since I first heard “Wannabe” when I was 3 years old. I was too young to recognize the rest of their songs, but they were really big in the 90’s. So big that they felt the need to make a movie centered around the popular girl group. It’s essentially the A Hard Day’s Night of the modern age. There’s practically no plot aside from getting to a concert in the end. Spice World was torn apart by critics and a Razzie magnet that won Worst Actress for every member of the Spice Girls. Of course they can’t act, but that’s kind of the idea.

When you accept the absurdity, Spice World is a bouncy parody of superstardom with all of their greatest hits sprinkled throughout. Although I do wish “Wannabe” wasn’t the demo version. For those who somehow don’t know, the Spice Girls consist of: Mel B (Scary Spice), Mel C (Sporty Spice), Emma (Baby Spice), Victoria (Posh Spice), and Geri (Ginger Spice). They’re all very British and they act like their respective personas the entire time. The rest of the cast is surprisingly good for a Spice Girls movie. Several famous Brits make cameos like Elton John, Bob Hoskins, Hugh Laurie, and Stephen Fry. Richard E. Grant plays their high-strung manager and Claire Rushbrook plays their assistant.

Meat Loaf makes sense as their bus driver, but Roger Moore is essentially a Bond villain who runs their record label. The real villain is an exaggerated newspaper editor who wants to ruin the Spice Girls by hiring a ruthless photographer. There’s also a pregnant friend of the girls that keeps them distracted. Alan Cumming continuously documents the girls, but Spice World is so self aware that it breaks the fourth wall by having executives pitch a Spice Girls movie while the movie is happening. It only gets more ridiculous with fantasy sequences, aliens, boot camp, and a tour bus chase. Spice World is dumb fun that does “girl power” with the best of them.

Spice World

The Spice Girls

When Pacino Met De Niro

Heat finally brought Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together. The Godfather Part II doesn’t count since it was impossible for them to share screen time. Pacino and De Niro have been gangster royalty for decades, but it wasn’t until 1995 that they finally found the perfect project to star in. Heat was technically written by expert crime director Michael Mann as early as 1979. It was based on a real life crime story before being developed as a failed 1989 pilot turned TV movie titled L.A. Takedown. Although I (like most people) was drawn to the A-list cast, Heat is really one of the most influential crime dramas ever made. Shocking that it didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination. It’s a nearly 3 hour epic that delves into the everyday life of an L.A. police lieutenant and a career criminal. Heat is a game of cat and mouse between Pacino’s Lieutenant Vincent Hanna and De Niro’s Neil McCauley.

Pacino goes big with a loud performance of Hanna who dedicates his life to the heat. An improvised scene involving Hank Azaria is unexpectedly funny, but Hanna feels most human in a scene where he comforts a grieving mother. Hanna’s job has a negative affect on his marriage to Justine played by a despondent Diane Venora. Though she doesn’t appear much, a young Natalie Portman leaves an impression as Hanna’s troubled stepdaughter. McCauley is not so different with De Niro taking a more subtle approach to a lonely criminal. His only attachment is Amy Brenneman as the innocent Eady. McCauley’s crew gets just as much development as he does. Val Kilmer is Chris Shiherlis, who has a wife and child that he takes for granted. Ashley Judd brings unexpected layers to their relationship as his wife Charlene. Tom Sizemore is Michael Cheritto, the second most trusted member of their operation.

Jon Voight stays out of the action as McCauley’s fence, but William Fichtner ends up crossing him as a money laundering client. Danny Trejo and Dennis Haysbert are getaway drivers with surprising arcs, but it’s Kevin Gage as a psychotic serial killer who cuts the deepest. They aren’t given the same amount of attention as McCauley’s crew, but Hanna’s fellow officers include dedicated performances from Mykelti Williamson, Wes Studi, and Ted Levine. Heat was most influential for action scenes like an armored car robbery with hockey masks or an extended shootout after a bank heist. The final confrontation at an airport is great, but nothing beats Hanna and McCauley having a mutual discussion about their lives over coffee. Although they share less than 10 minutes of screen time, Heat goes to show just how alike a hero and villain can be if they only take time to talk things out.


Lieutenant Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley meet for coffee

A Good Thing for a Bad Man

A Bronx Tale is a tale of two fathers. It was a personal story that Robert De Niro dedicated to his own father who past away the same year. A Bronx Tale originated from a one-man show based on the life of Italian American actor Chazz Palminteri. De Niro was so captivated by the performance that he immediately decided it would be his directorial debut. A Bronx Tale is a gangster story, but De Niro doesn’t play the gangster this time around. Palminteri got his big break as the feared mob boss Sonny, and De Niro goes against type as working class bus driver Lorenzo. In the middle is Lorenzo’s son Calogero based on Palminteri’s own childhood growing up in The Bronx during the 1960’s. The doo-wap soundtrack is a nice reflection of the time.

Calogero finds himself drawn to the local mob despite warnings from his father and conflicted mother played by Kathrine Narducci in her first acting role. We learn all about Calogero’s life and everything he knows about members in the mob. Even Joe Pesci shows up when we’d least expect it. Similar to Palminteri, everything changes when Calogero witnesses a murder perpetrated by Sonny. When he refuses to rat him out, Sonny takes him under his wing and gives him the nickname “C.” Think Goodfellas if more focus was on growing up. Francis Capra is perfect as a young naive Calogero, but it’s the older Lillo Brancato who really feels like a young De Niro. It’s a shame he was a victim of wasted talent.

A Bronx Tale is far more complex than simple good guy v.s. bad guy. Sonny seems like a ruthless gangster, but he does care enough about Calogero to keep him away from the violent aspect of his life. Lorenzo means well, but even he can have wrong viewpoints. A Bronx Tale does a good job of portraying racial tension between African Americans and Italian Americans. Most of it is tough to watch, but there is hope when Calogero falls for his classy black classmate Jane. Although young actress Taral Hicks is inexperienced, they have a cute relationship complicated by Calogero’s racist idiot wannabe gangster friends. A Bronx Tale deals with heavy themes, but it balances things out with a sneaky sense of humor. I’m so glad one of my closest co-workers suggested I watch it. A Bronx Tale is one of the most underappreciated gangster films I’ve ever seen.


Calogero rides the bus with his father

Very Superstitious🍀

Luck is too abstract even for Pixar. When Pixar founder and Walt Disney Animation chief creative officer John Lasseter was fired for misconduct, the newly formed Skydance Animation wasted no time hiring him. It was a controversial decision, but other former Disney collaborator’s like director Peggy Holmes embraced the opportunity. Lasseter’s contribution to computer animation should never be understated, but Luck is far from his best work. Let’s just say it wasn’t worth reactivating my Apple TV+ account. Luck asks the question, who’s responsible for the good and bad luck in the world? The concept of luck is recognized by most people, but it’s not the same as emotion. The animation is good if a little too clean looking.

There’s so much green in the movie that it should be a crime. I’m surprised the main character Sam Greenfield doesn’t have green eyes. Instead she’s voiced by lesser known Hispanic actress/singer Eva Noblezada. Sam is the unluckiest person in the world who ended up aging out of foster care. Lil Rel Howery voices Sam’s boss who gives her employment after she’s forced to relocate. The system is accurately depicted, but it’s just as boring and bureaucratic as the Land of Luck. Just about every form of good luck or bad luck is represented. A lucky penny gives Sam good luck and it’s probably the only part I found amusing. Simon Pegg voices a black cat who crosses paths with Sam. Luck is G rated and relatively inoffensive, but there are way too many exaggerated accents. Pegg uses his Scotty voice since black cats are considered lucky in Scotland.

The Land of Luck is populated by Irish leprechauns, lady bugs, pigs, rabbits, and other lucky creatures. Jane Fonda voices the luck dragon CEO of Good Luck and Whoopi Goldberg voices the leprechaun head of security. The only goal is for Sam to turn around the luck of one of her foster friends. Along the way Sam and Bob recieve help from Colin O’Donoghue as a helpful leprechaun and Flula Borg as an overly eccentric German unicorn engineer protecting the balance of Good and Bad Luck. Bad Luck is full of roots and goblins, but they’re not so bad. John Ratzenberger was clearly loyal to Lasseter since he chose to voice a character in Luck instead of continue his Pixar voicing tradition. There’s a moral about finding a balance of luck, but luck just isn’t that deep. Luck proves Skydance Animation doesn’t have half the luck that Pixar has.


Sam hides with Bob in the Land of Luck

Don’t You Mean Wonderland?

Wonder Park puts the wonder in “I wonder why I even bothered to watch?” There have been plenty of Nickelodeon movies based on existing Nicktoons. Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Barnyard are the only theatrical movies that became TV shows later on. Wonder Park was meant to be the third, but Adventures in Wonder Park looks just as bad as the original. Unlike The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius or Back at the Barnyard that either matched or surpassed the original. Wonder Park has many problems that failed to endear it as a beloved Nicktoon. The original title was Amusement Park, but they changed it to Wonder Park even though the movie’s amusement park is clearly called Wonderland.

There are obvious parallels to Alice in Wonderland, but why call it something you’re not gonna use as a title? Wonder Park is all about June and the imaginative park she creates with her mother. I have a big imagination too, but most of their ideas are corny and by the numbers. The computer animation may be colorful, but the characters are too bland to warrant the effort. They’re all just anthropomorphic animals. The cast is big even though the material is weak. I guess the director was also fired for misconduct. Matthew Broderick is June’s concerned father and Jennifer Garner is June’s creative mother who falls victim to off-screenitus.

A literal Darkness overcomes Wonderland and June discovers her made up world is real. Norbert Leo Butz voices the chimpanzee mascot Peanut who creates park attractions by listening to voices in his head. John Oliver voices an unfunny porcupine named Steve, Mila Kunis continually snorts as a wild boar named Gerta, Ken Hudson Campbell is the oafish blue bear Boomer, and Kenan Thompson & Ken Jeong are a pair of angry beavers named Gus & Cooper. I guarantee you’ll forget everyone after watching. Like Tomorrowland, another problem is mostly seeing the amusement park when it’s a barren wasteland. When stuffed Chimpanzombies overtake Wonderland, June must restore the park and learn an obvious lesson along the way. Wonder Park is nowhere near as splendiferous as it thinks it is.

Wonder Park

June and the Wonderland crew

Where do Babies Come from?

Storks is not the bundle of joy I was hoping for. Warner Bros. Animation hadn’t made a theatrical animated movie in over a decade. Storks is the only original movie that the newly formed Warner Animation Group produced between the success of The LEGO Movie and its spin-offs. I had no desire to see it in theaters, because it looked generic. The animation technically looks good, but it was actually Sony that did it. My parents never told me I was delivered by a stork, but I know this is just an innocent fantasy. Even though the co-director Nicholas Stoller is known for raunchy R rated comedies. Like most non-Disney animated movies, Storks is also co-directed by former Pixar animator Doug Sweetland.

The combination feels like an extended version of the Pixar short Partly Cloudy with Looney Tunes style slapstick and cringy SNL humor. Andy Samberg is hit or miss as the lead stork Junior who desperately wants a promotion. The storks have a basic design except for their creepy human teeth. Storks used to deliver babies using letters in a machine that makes babies, but they now use their resources to deliver packages for Kelsey Grammer is a generic evil boss, but Stephen Kramer Glickman is super annoying as a pigeon toady who talks like a surfer bro for no reason. Voice actress Katie Crown voices an eccentric 18 year old human named Tulip who ended up being the last undelivered baby. Danny Trejo voices the stork that grew attached to her.

Tulip joins Junior in an adventure when they accidentally create a new pink haired baby. I’m surprisingly bothered by the fact that some babies have colorful hair and some don’t. A human subplot involving the boy who asked for the baby and his parents voiced by Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell is also very generic. Storks constantly flying into windows made me chuckle, but the only thing that really made me laugh was a pack of wolves that create vehicles with their bodies. Of course Key & Peele voice the alpha and beta wolf. As much as I love babies, the ending that acknowledged all kinds of families wasn’t enough to win me over. Although I’ve warmed up to Storks, it’s not the right package for me.


Junior plays with the baby

To the Sky

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole is the odd movie out in Zack Snyder’s divisive career. At the time, Snyder was only known for directing R rated adaptations of existing properties. The complete opposite of a children’s book series like Guardians of Ga’Hoole. Although the movie was given an unnecessarily long title, I assume it’s faithful to the source material. The Owls of Ga’Hoole may be a computer animated kids movie, but you better believe it’s full of Snyder’s signature 3D slow motion action. The trailer was so epic that I very nearly considered seeing it in theaters. From the same studio that animated Happy Feet, The Owls of Ga’Hoole has breathtaking almost photorealistic computer animation. Turns out there are several different classifications of owls and other useless owl facts that I never knew featured in the movie.

An epic fantasy about talking owls is fairly unique, but the story is more generic than it should’ve been. Even with a relatively respectable English and/or Australian cast. Jim Sturgess voices the standard heroic dreamer Soren who looks up to a legendary parliament of warrior owls known simply as the Guardians. Imagine Lord of the Rings if owls wore helmets and fought with weaponized talons. Hugo Weaving actually voices two important owl mentors of Soren. Geoffrey Rush voices his Guardian idol Ezylryb and Abbie Cornish voices his love interest from Ga’Hoole. Ryan Kwanten voices Soren’s jealous brother Kludd who turns evil out of nowhere after they get kidnapped by villainous owls called the Pure Ones. Joel Edgerton voices the Sauron inspired Metal Beak and Helen Mirren voices his even more evil mate Nyra. Sam Neill voices one of the Guardians who betrays the team.

This may be Zack Snyder’s only kids movie, but it does have a dark tone. Pure Ones use found owls for slave labor and plan to conquer the world with some kind of magic energy. Soren’s younger sister Eglantine is among the victims of a moonlight zombification process. Since it is still PG, The Owls of Ga’Hoole has plenty of disposable animal sidekicks and a random pop song appropriately sung by Owl City. Emily Barclay is Soren’s miniature owl best friend Gyfle, David Wenham is the more overtly comedic Digger, and Anthony LaPaglia is his singing treemate Twilight. Miriam Margolyes as Soren’s snake nursemaid Mrs. P. Snakes, rats, and an all-seeing echidna are among the only animals that aren’t owls in the movie. Although I can appreciate the effort, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole doesn’t quite take flight.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Soren flies in the rain