Disney Sequels: How We Went from Direct-to-Video to Frozen II

In terms of Disney making animated sequels, The Return of Jafar walked so that Frozen 2 could run.

Disney Sequels Frozen 2 and Return of Jafar

If you’re a millennial—or perhaps a parent or babysitter of a millennial in the 1990s—you might remember the weird fever dream of Walt Disney direct-to-video sequels: Ariel and Eric’s daughter Melody rebelling against her parents to get a tail and be part of that oceanic world; Pocahontas’ awkward love triangle with John Smith and John Rolfe; Cinderella and her evil stepmother going all Avengers: Endgame to change the past. These follow-ups to Disney classics fell far short of Empire Strikes Back status, with nearly universal weak plotting and off-putting animation, and seemed proof that in the cases of little mermaids and street rats with magic lamps, it was impossible to make lightning strike twice. And yet, there were so many of them being churned out until as recently as 2015.

Despite the DTV sequels’ (or, in the case of The Lion King 1 ½ and Bambi II, midquels’) prevalence, you might be surprised to learn that not a single one is technically part of Disney canon. To date, Walt Disney Animation Studios has made only three officially sanctioned sequels: The Rescuers Down Under, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and the forthcoming Frozen II

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The 40-plus other films all belong under the purview of Disneytoon Studios (formerly known as Disney MovieToons), which existed from 1990 until it was shuttered in 2018. Disneytoon Studios occupied an odd space within the Walt Disney Company, in which it made a pretty penny for the parent company in the DVD market (more so in the earlier decades), yet its output all exists in some parallel universe, distantly remembered in something akin to the Berenstain/Berenstein Bears debate.

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Interestingly, Disney MovieToons was established in 1990, the same year that Walt Disney Animation Studios did release the company’s first-ever animated sequel: The Rescuers Down Under, which reunited intrepid mouse explorers Bernard and Miss Bianca and flew them across the world to Australia to save a kidnapped boy and an endangered eagle. The impetus for this property being selected for a follow-up would seem something of a head-scratcher; ostensibly, it was drawing upon the popularity of The Rescuers, but that movie had been released in 1977. However, as Mari Ness points out in her Disney Read-Watch on Tor.com, The Rescuers was one of Disney’s rare successes in the otherwise spotty era of the 1970 and ‘80s, defined by Disney archivists and animation buffs as The Changing of the Guard.

Den of Geek’s Mark Harrison lays out in this deep dive into The Rescuers Down Under, it was the introduction of new CEO Michael Eisner and chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg in the ‘80s that helped percolate the idea. Among the traditions that the duo carried over from their time at Paramount Pictures was “the gong show,” an open space for any Disney employee—from animator to janitor—to pitch their idea for a feature. One of those happened to be a Rescuers sequel set in Australia, which may have taken some inspiration from the 1986 release of Crocodile Dundee. The movie was put into development the same year, with its production pioneering an ambitious new form of animation: CAPS, or Computer Animation Production System. Unfortunately, as producer Thomas Schumacher reflected in the Disney documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, applying the new technology to a feature film instead of testing it out on a short proved a rash move that delayed production and ballooned the budget.

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Released around Thanksgiving 1990, The Rescuers Down Under was, ironically, up against a number of sequels, including Child’s Play 2 and Rocky V, but it was no match for that weekend’s box office juggernaut in the form of a new franchise: Home Alone.

Still, it wasn’t just Kevin McCallister’s face launching a thousand memes that destroyed Disney’s first animated sequel; it was the studio setting it up to fail in the first place. Specifically Katzenberg, as Mousterpiece Cinema co-host Josh Spiegel lays out, really should have known better than to pit it against Home Alone in the first place. The chairman then yanked all television marketing for the movie following its dismal opening weekend. Not even near-unanimous critical praise of the CAPS-animated sequence in which young Cody flies upon the majestic Marahuté’s back could, well, rescue it.

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In the meantime though, Walt Disney Animation Studios properly kicked off the ‘90s by releasing the trifecta of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, among other classics before later going a bit more quirky (with varying success) in the 2000s with The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo & Stitch, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire. They also started to experiment with wholly computer-animated adventures that brought us a return to critical and commercial form in the early 2010s with Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen.

Occuring in tandem to the canonical Disney movies’ aboveground people, like Jordan Peele’s shadowy Tethered in Us, Disneytoon Studios released The Return of Jafar, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride, Kronk’s New Groove, Lilo & Stitch 2: Stitch Has a Glitch, Atlantis: Milo’s Return, and many, many more. Even then, some of them actually managed to recapture the spirit of their predecessors.

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As Animation World Network’s Joe Strike reflected in 2005, Katzenberg himself was impressed by the quality of Return of Jafar’s opening sequence (it helped that the film was made for a fraction of Aladdin’s budget). Robin Williams returning to voice the Genie in the third installment further legitimized the direct-to-video market, and The Emperor’s New Groove director Mark Dindal was reportedly charmed at a screening of the DTV sequel. Yet by the time Disney hit the 2010s, there was a shift in attitude, both in terms of the need for sequels and the importance of their having quality.

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What made Walt Disney Animation Studios decide to give official sequels a go again, nearly 30 years after The Rescuers Down Under? YouTube critic Mat Brunet (a.k.a. AniMat) tackled the storied history of the DTV sequels in a video posted late 2018, providing some useful context about Disney’s first decade after buying Pixar Animation Studios in 2006. In the 2010s, Pixar put out a surprising number of authorized sequels to beloved hits hits like Toy Story 3 (the second film of which only existed so Pixar could prevent DisneyToons from making it) and Finding Dory—and they were quite lucrative.

“Like the direct-to-video sequels, regardless of what people thought of them, they made a lot of money,” Brunet said. “In fact, some of them, like Toy Story 3, Finding Dory, and The Incredibles 2, are among some of the highest-grossing animated features of all time, making more than a billion dollars each. This gold rush wasn’t just happening at Pixar, either: Disney Animation was also making some of the biggest animated films of the decade. Because of these massive successes, and Pixar doing very well with its sequel-itis, the company decided that they would be more open for Walt Disney Animation Studios to also be doing sequels as well, with Wreck-It Ralph and Frozenespecially when the latter got the crown for the highest-grossing animated feature of all time.” Though they came out within a year of one another, and had similar budgets, 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph earned $471 million worldwide and 2013’s Frozen monumentally reached nearly $1.3 billion.

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While Wreck-It Ralph 2 was officially announced in 2016 for a 2018 release, the truth is that Walt Disney Animation Studios had co-writer Phil Johnston and writer-director Rich Moore bouncing around ideas for a sequel as early as 2014. The way the pair described it to Nerdist ahead of the sequel’s release was very aw-shucks: “It kind of felt like, I’m having a great time, and we really enjoyed making it, but you do wonder, are we all just high on the same thing? Will people actually like it?” Moore said. Johnston then chimed in that “[i]t’s quite daunting, I think, the fact that the first movie was loved and it felt like we did what we needed to do. But then we started to talk about it and realized that maybe their stories weren’t done and that maybe Ralph was still defining himself by the way someone else feels about him.”

Characters’ “stories not being done” is the kind of catch-all sequel justification that can be applied to stories of any quality, and that can mask all manner of motivations. One cannot help but still be cynical; even though Ralph Breaks the Internet was surprisingly incisive about the failings of internet culture, it didn’t quite recapture the “I don’t have to be a bad guy” lesson of the original.

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Money is the easy, obvious, letdown answer as to why we’re getting these sequels. It would be naïve to think that it didn’t factor significantly into Disney’s change of heart. But guaranteed profit is not the whole picture. History has shown how choosy the Walt Disney Company is about which properties it will properly invest in for a continuation of the story, and which characters will get the kids (and their parents) back in theaters.

What makes Frozen II such an obvious financial investment is the unprecedented level of fan engagement in Frozen, which is objectively an excellent movie. It lampshades and then eschews the typical Disney princess “happily ever after” scenario of finding one’s idealized prince in favor of a complicated relationship between two sisters that culminates in the ultimate act of love. Elsa, who starts out as the misunderstood villain, embodies valuable lessons about how it’s okay to be messy and emotional on the way to discovering your true self. Having a banger anthem in “Let It Go” did not hurt, either. More than just box office earnings, that fan investment is observed in the franchise it spawned with the speed and solidity of Elsa’s ice powers, along with another kind of magic: social media.

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Frozen was released at the perfect moment in time to resonate with fans, children and adults alike, who would not just consume it but refract that consumption back into social media postings and even their own creations. Fans of all ages posted soulful “Let It Go” tributes on YouTube—and the famously litigious Mouse House didn’t pull them down. Hashtags like #GiveElsaAGirlfriend made it crystal-clear that a portion of the fandom related to Elsa as a queer character and desired to see that queerness made textual in the sequel. As of 2016, three years after its release, Frozen was the most popular movie discussed on Facebook.

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At the same time, Disney was keeping up with the demand for consumer goods that would allow fans to feel even closer to these characters, creating Elsa and Anna costumes (more than three million as of 2016) and testing the waters for future adventures with shorts like “Frozen Fever” and the Frozen Broadway show (featuring several new numbers). With this kind of positive feedback loop, there was no doubt that not only is Frozen a franchise, but it’s a franchise to rival Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and all the other Disney princesses combined.

Thirty years ago, Disney could rely on box office numbers or test audiences to justify making low-quality, forgettable sequels, yet this was not enough information to invest in official successors that would have to stand up to their forebears. Social media has quantified and qualified sequel demand by clearly demonstrating the existence of an audience—and giving them a platform for emotional reactions, positive and negative, to the final product. So you can have Bob Iger saying strategic things like this:

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“Mickey Mouse was created in 1928 and he’s still one of our most popular characters. People are downloading Mickey Mouse shorts on the internet fairly regularly. I think that’s an interesting example of when you have a character or stories that people love, there’s no reason why if we don’t continue to support these characters and this franchise, there is no reason why it can’t last a very, very long time … When you have something that is as good as Frozen in today’s world, and you treat it well, meaning you continue to support it and fuel it with basically new creativity, there’s no reason why it can’t keep going at all. It’s not a fad.”

While still believing that this new era of Disney sequels aren’t being created for a market, but for a specific kid, or adult, who saw themselves in the original and want another glimpse.

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Natalie Zutter will always consider the Aladdin sequels canon. Talk Disney sequels with her on Twitter @nataliezutter!

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