Direct-to-Video is now Direct-to-Dead
By Matthew Whitaker
You remember Disney’s The Lion King, right? And Aladdin too I’m sure? How about Mulan? These are all highly-rated animated films produced by the owner of your childhood, Disney. However, you may not be aware that each of these films had a sequel…or as some call them, “cheapquel”. With the explosion of the home video market in the 1990’s, producing content specifically for the VCR was an almost-guaranteed path to profit. Direct-to-Video was a popular new form of delivering content, especially in the animation industry. Quick and cheap computer animation had coincidentally boomed at the same time, so animated content could be easily shoveled into your local Blockbuster. Disney decided to use, or more likely abuse this trend to capitalize on its string of animated hits.
Disney created DisneyToon Studios to create sequels and spinoffs to many of the company’s animated hits. This was a separate operation from Walt Disney Animation Studios, which makes the theatrical feature films we know and love today. Films produced by DisneyToon Studios had incredibly low budgets and short production schedules. These films received little marketing and were often released at prime times for retail, like during the holiday season. Most films produced by DisneyToon Studios are known for their low-quality animation and writing, which were a result of the films’ miniscule production value. This earned them the nickname of “cheapquels”, all of which were a stain on Disney’s image.
Cheapquels were the epitome of laziness in the Direct-to-Video animation market. The Return of Jafar, a cheapquel to Aladdin, was actually three episodes of the Aladdin animated television series sewed together like some sort of Frankenstein monster into a feature film. It was critically panned, and Robin Williams didn’t even reprise his role as the beloved Genie. The Lion King II was certainly not the pride of the Direct-to-Video pack, and lacked even a fraction of the original’s quality. Mulan II was a disgrace to the original, and dropped the ball in just about every aspect, especially story and character development. Not all of DisneyToon Studios’ films were abominations though. One of my favorite movies growing up, Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search for Christopher Robin, was an excellent, heartwarming classic made by DisneyToon Studios. The film’s quality was high enough to warrant three more Winnie The Pooh films by DisneyToon Studios, The Tigger Movie, Piglet’s Big Movie, and Pooh’s Heffalump Movie. These each received a theatrical release, which was very uncommon for DisneyToon Studios’ films. The Tigger Movie and Piglet’s Big Movie were very enjoyable, though I didn’t like Pooh’s Heffalump Movie much. Overall, DisneyToon Studios has had a spotty record, though it makes an occasional gem.
In the past decade, Disney cheapquels have become a thing of the past, the last one released being The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning in 2008. The practice of producing cheapquels was halted when Disney purchased Pixar, as John Lasseter, the new chief creative officer at both studios, demanded their production be halted. The cheapquel chapter in Disney’s history certainly tarnished the company’s image, and since the end of it Disney has seen a renaissance in its animated features. High-quality films like Wreck-It-Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Moana have flourished in Disney’s modern era. Wondering what happened to DisneyToon Studios? Rather than closing the Disney disaster, the studio now exclusively makes spinoffs to mainline Disney and Pixar films, like the Cars spinoff Planes. With Disney back on its feet and the home video market in a nose dive thanks to streaming services like Netflix, cheapquels have become a thing of the past. Hopefully it stays that way.