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The New York Times - July 19, 1996

Home Video

By Peter M. Nichols

Next month, Disney will get back into a genre that it likes but treats warily: sequels that don't play in movie theaters but go straight to video stores.

"Aladdin and the King of Thieves," to be released without a theater run on Aug. 13, is the second sequel to the mega-hit that earned \\$219 million at the box office in 1992 and subsequently produced sales of some 24 million videocassettes. It is also the second "Aladdin" sequel to go straight to video. Last year, Disney issued "The Return of Jafar" solely for the small screen. To date, almost 11 million copies have been sold.

That is not exactly a shabby performance, but Disney feels it can do at least as well or perhaps better with "Aladdin and the King of Thieves." Critics were quick to point out that "Jafar" was no "Aladdin." Animation for the big screen is far more sumptuous than it is for the tube. There was also the music, which is generally superlative in major Disney productions but was considered relatively undistinguished in the less costly sequel.

To some of the critics, in fact, the sequel had more to do with merchandising than with inspired film making. But most of all, "Jafar" missed Robin Williams as the genie. In "Aladdin," Mr. Williams's "big blue guy" might as well have been William F. Buckley, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ed Sullivan, Robert De Niro or any of the myriad characters he conjured up in a highly charged and often wildly improvisational performance. In addition to his fee, Mr. Williams was rewarded with a Picasso painting.

In "Jafar," the genie was played by Dan Castellaneta, better known as the voice of Homer Simpson. Critics said he generally held his own but could only suffer by comparison with Mr. Williams. For "Thieves," however, Mr. Williams is back. "They gave me a Red Skelton painting this time," he said.

Ann Daly, the president of Buena Vista, Disney's video arm, said that the return of Mr. Williams showed the studio's intention to raise the level of films sent straight to video. "Aladdin" took three years to make and is said to have cost \\$35 million. Ms. Daly declined to give the production figures for "Jafar" or "Aladdin and the King of Thieves." The new sequel took two years to complete and, though the animation is still for the small screen, she said it was more costly to make than "Jafar."

Mr. Williams said he had been given all the freedom he had in the original film. "They were saying, 'Well, let's see what he can do this time,' and told me they'd use what I gave them. I said: 'Go ahead, good luck. I'll give you choices.'"

Pre-release screenings of "Aladdin and the King of Thieves" are being held in movie theaters in an effort, Ms. Daly said, to stress its quality. As to why the film wasn't made for theatrical release to begin with, she explained that when it came to the big screen, the studio preferred fresh subjects. "Disney hasn't built its company on the sequel business," she said.

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