*Warning: Major spoilers of minor movies ahead.*
“I’ve got it; she’s going to turn into a bear,” I proclaimed to my wife while mixing together yet another eggnog with diet ginger ale (Don’t judge me).
“You really think so?” she asked me.
“Guaranteed,” I said. “Just wait. That’s going to be the whole point of this movie: Koda gets a mom.”
“I think you’re right, Baby,” my wife sighed, realizing I was probably right, and that we still had another hour worth of Brother Bear 2 to sit through on the Disney Plus streaming service.
My soothsayer-level ability to accurately foretell the outcome of Brother Bear 2 was earned through many torturous hours spent trudging through all of Disney’s direct-to-home-video releases on Disney Plus. My wife and I were only 10 minutes into the sequel to the 2003 film Brother Bear, an underrated film that was panned by critics for the unforgivable offense of featuring talking animals while not being as memorable as The Jungle Book or The Lion King.
Over the course of the original film, a young Inuit man named Kenai is transformed into a bear, and assumes a new role as the willful protector of a young bear whose mother he’d slain earlier in the movie. Hence, he became the brother bear to an orphaned cub after learning to see things from the perspective of bears that view all human hunters as “monsters.”
Unfortunately, I was spot on in predicting the outcome of the Brother Bear sequel after only watching the first 10 minutes of the film. This is owed to the fact that almost all of Disney’s sequels from that era were crafted to either fulfill a singular purpose, or to correct trivial flaws of the original motion pictures, and not because Disney studios had incredible tales teed up and waiting to be told.
This is the flawed practice Disney mastered in the 1990s and early-2000s: The profit-making apology. Whatever criticism or backlash a Disney film had received, either due to certain scenes aging poorly, social norms being altered over the gradual passage of time, or simply because critics didn’t like the way certain character arcs were simplistically resolved in tales targeted at children, Disney studios never felt any qualms about slapping together a poorly-animated mess to patch up those problems.
What resulted was usually an underwritten production, clearly developed with the sole intention of pleasing the small segment of Disney’s fanbase that couldn’t come to grips with the idea that these characters would somehow continue to exist in an imaginary world in which every loose thread wasn’t neatly tied up, or trimmed off.
The precarious process of creating sequels that recrafted the endings of the original films without the support of plots competent enough to sustain the new feature films caused further problems. In many of these cases, it debased the original movies by extending their endings into unsatisfactory futures. Despite amounting to little more than a 15-year mountain of faulty storytelling, many of the direct-to-video films spawned by Disney during this unfortunate era generated profits of at least $100 million, proving that there isn’t a story flaw—real or imagined—that Disney can’t turn into an excuse to extract an abundance of cash from its fanbase.
Below are descriptions to each of the direct-to-video Disney sequels I had access to, along with the problems the studio thought it was solving by releasing each film, and the problems they created in the process of solving problems few people cared a whit about.
Please note, this list only deals with the animated sequels to Disney’s big-budget motion pictures, and not the live-action remakes of recent years. I’d love to ask the question of how a Lady and the Tramp remake set in Savannah, Georgia in 1909 can casually insert an interracially married couple into a part of the country and at a point in history in which their marriage was illegal, and magically have it not be a major plot point, but perhaps that’s another article for another time.
Original Film: Brother Bear (2003)
Sequel Film: Brother Bear 2 (2006)
Original Problem: Orphaned bear cub Koda was awarded Kenai as his new bear brother after Kenai murdered Koda’s mother in cold blood while seeking revenge for Kenai’s eldest brother, even though Koda’s mother really had nothing to do with the death of Kenai’s brother. As an adopted brother and self-appointed guardian to Koda, the human-turned-bear Kenai was a poor replacement for the mother he’d killed.
Problem Solved: Kenai’s childhood flame, Nita, realizes she’s still madly in love with Kenai and wants to be turned into a bear so that she can be with him, thereby providing Koda with a human-turned-bear mother figure to go along with Kenai.
Problem Created: While the first Brother Bear dealt with the fraternal nature of the relationship between Kenai and Koda, and how Kenai has to address some fissures in the relationship with his legitimate human brother, Denahi, Brother Bear 2 upgrades Kenai to the de facto stepfather of Koda, and then provides Koda with a stepmother as well. Nita’s decision to become a bear is also rushed and not thought out, especially when she has a brawny human suitor with no discernable character flaws prepared to marry her, and who she seemed legitimately excited to marry before spending two days walking through the woods with some smelly bears.
At least the makers of Brother Bear 2 spared Kenai the awkwardness of struggling with feelings of attraction toward bears that had always been bears. Instead, his spouse is a bear he found attractive when they were both humans, so he can feel less odd about also finding her enticing while she’s in bear form.
Original Film: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Sequel Film: The Hunchback of Notre Dame II (2002)
Original Problem: Esmeralda, the uncomfortably attractive (for a Disney film) Romani dancer and entertainer gratefully accepts Quasimodo’s assistance in saving her life, but instead falls in love with the dashing Captain Phoebus, which understandably breaks the hunchback’s heart. This makes Quasimodo the only Disney film hero not to get the girl in the end.
Problem Solved: Quasimodo falls in love with Madellaine, a stunning circus performer and thief, who’s aghast at Quasimodo’s appearance but then falls deeply in love with him, perfectly following the path that many viewers thought Esmeralda should have taken during the course of the original Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Problem Created: First, in the original source material for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, nobody gets the girl in the end, so Disney vastly attenuated the ending of the first film simply by permitting Esmeralda to breathe at the end of the movie. Second, the sequel’s even insulting to the intelligence of children, all of whom know that gorgeous women generally don’t fall in love with men they consider to be physically revolting over the course of a single day, no matter how kind those men prove themselves to be. Finally, this was easily the worst animation ever attached to a title shared by a major Disney motion picture; it looks like a badly drawn Saturday-morning cartoon. Either way, if there were any truth in titling, this film would have been called The Hunchback of Notre Dame II: Quasi’s Got a Girlfriend.
Original Film: Pocahontas (1995)
Sequel Film: Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998)
Original Problem: John Rolfe was the real-life romantic interest (and eventual husband) of Pocahontas, and not John Smith. There’s no historical evidence of any romantic involvement between Smith and the daughter of the Powhatan chief.
Problem Solved: Pocahontas is brought to England by Rolfe, collaborates with him to save Smith from execution, and then formally breaks up with Smith in favor of Rolfe.
Problem Created: When left on its own, the original Pocahontas was a fine alternate-reality animated retelling of one of the first interactions between European adventurers and the Native Americans of the Mid-Atlantic United States. However, when Disney decided to respond to critics of the original film by trying to insert more truthful elements, they were highly selective about which history they chose to include and what they opted to omit. In reality, Pocahontas was married to Rolfe and bore him a son before she ever departed for England, and then died long before reaching America during her return voyage.
None of this goes addressed in Pocahontas 2, and knowing the truth makes the happily-ever-after sequence at the end of sequel ring particularly hollow. Also, John Smith was an admirable character in the first film, and Pocahontas 2 goes out of its way to portray him as a jerk so that we’ll cheer for Pocahontas to ditch him in favor of Rolfe. Tearing down established, beloved characters for the sake of propping up new ones is never an effective strategy, and risked souring viewers on the entire series.
Original Film: Mulan (1998)
Sequel Film: Mulan II (2005)
Original Problem: Mulan may have been a hero of the Chinese Empire, but despite demonstrating the prowess of women in battle, she didn’t strike any blows against real-life issues within Chinese society in her era, like concubinage and arranged, loveless marriages.
Problem Solved: Mulan’s friends Yao, Ling and Chien-Po fall in love with the three princesses they’ve been recruited to deliver for an arranged marriage with princes from a Mongol kingdom, and Mulan sides with true love and assists the women in their quest to break with tradition and marry the men they want.
New Problem Created: In most Disney films, a villain is fought, and in the process, a lesson is learned. This movie is essentially villainless and actionless, and is driven by an hour-long quarrel between Mulan and her betrothed, Lu Cheng. At the conclusion of the film, all of the social ills of ancient China are solved by the miniature dragon, Mushu, who poses as “The Golden Dragon of Unity,” and essentially proclaims that the princesses can marry whomever they like. If you’re too lazy to write organic changes of heart into your movie script, there’s nothing like taking the deus ex machina approach to correcting complex social issues on a national scale. If only it had been that simple to enact such sweeping changes in real life; concubinage continued in China until 1949.
Original Film: The Jungle Book (1967)
Sequel Film: The Jungle Book 2 (2003)
Original Problem: Mowgli didn’t decide to enter into civilized society because he wanted to escape from the interminable dangers of the jungle. Instead, he ambled into the village with a water jug on his head because he thought a local girl was hot. He gave up on a life with his “Papa Bear” Baloo without a moment’s hesitation the instant he discovered a member of the opposite sex. I always thought this was cute, but apparently, some people thought it was a rude and abrupt way for him Mowgli to ditch his loyal friends so that he could pursue a lady.
Problem Solved: Mowgli’s returned to the jungle by Baloo after finding life in the village boring, and finding the girl—Shanti—to be stifling and annoying. Later, Mowgli comes to terms with the fact that he does appreciate life in the village alongside with Shanti and her younger brother, Ranjan. Mowgli and Baloo reach an understanding, and Mowgli is permitted to visit Baloo on the jungle’s outskirts on a regular basis.
New Problem Created: This sequel negates the cute simplicity of the first film’s ending, and this time Mowgli reasons his way into a life in the village instead of being driven by the onset of puberty. However, since The Jungle Book 2 resurrects almost all of the key characters from the original film, including the villainous tiger Shere Khan, it becomes an ineffectual retread of the vastly superior original, and like most Disney sequels, it has no real reason to exist. This is one of the cases where Disney took what should have been a direct-to-DVD film and released it in theaters, meaning it made a $115 million profit on the silver screen before presumably raking in a similar haul once it was released on DVD.
Two other flawed elements of the film need to be addressed: In The Jungle Book, Mowgli could presumably speak the language of the animals because he’d spent his entire life in the jungle, so he shouldn’t have been able to speak the language of the villagers because he’d never heard it before. That would’ve been an issue worth exploring. Instead, in the sequel, all of the villagers can understand all of the animals, and vice versa, so… problem solved, I guess. Also, it goes completely unaddressed as to why Shanti’s parents are perfectly accepting of her having a live-in boyfriend at the age of 10.
Original Film: Aladdin (1992)
Sequel Film: Aladdin: The Return of Jafar (1994) and Aladdin: King of Thieves
Original Problem: Disney needed to kick off an animated series based on the Aladdin film. Since Iago the parrot (memorably voiced by Gilbert Gottfried), one of the most child-friendly and comedic elements from the first film, was trapped in the lamp along with Jafar at the conclusion of the original film, they needed to get him out of the lamp to explain his appearance in the animated series. I’m not kidding.
Problem Solved: Jafar returned in the form of a vengeful genie before being graphically slain as a result of Iago kicking Jafar’s black genie lamp into a river of lava.
Problem Created: None, aside from the clearly inferior animation, and the fact that Disney made hundreds of millions of dollars off of projects devised to bookend a television series. Both Return of Jafar and its follow up, King of Thieves, sold in excess of 10 million copies.
Original Film: Cinderella (1950)
Sequel Film: Cinderella II: Dreams Come True (2002) and Cinderella 3: A Twist in Time (2007)
Original Problem:There was no problem to speak of, but with more than 50 years having elapsed and modern Disney audiences growing accustomed to their princesses doing more than singing and cavorting with mice and birds, Disney’s animators clearly wanted to inject some life into the least action oriented of all the Disney classics.
Problem Solved: WhileCinderella 2 really does nothing of consequence (except for allowing Disney to accumulate $120 million in DVD sales), Cinderella 3 turns both Cinderella and Prince Charming into bona fide action stars in sequences so over the top in their displays of athleticism that Charming puts Tarzan to shame.
Problem Created: Not only are we forced to endure tedious dialogue between Cinderella and Charming as they pretend their relationship has great depth and isn’t based on the fact that Cinderella was objectively the most classically stunning woman in the kingdom, we’re forced to watch as Cinderella goes out of her way to help her stepsister Anastasia find love with a local baker during Cinderella 2. I suppose it’s fine for Cinderella to be the bigger person, even if Anastasia’s actions against her during the first Cinderella film—if they’d happened in real life—would’ve resulted in her conviction of first-degree kidnapping and conspiracy to commit fraud.
Lady Tremaine is the most underrated Disney villain of them all. If you don’t have a wicked stepmother, you undoubtedly know someone who does. Cinderella 3 goes the further step of turning Lady Tremaine, the wicked stepmother, into an Ursula-level sorceress. As a result, they took the most relatable, realistic, and in some ways the most terrifying of all the Disney villains, and made her just like every other magic-wielding witch in Disney’s rogues’ gallery.
Original Film: The Lion King (1994)
Sequel Film: The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride (1998)
Original Problem: Due to depictions of hyenas that many people considered to be steeped in negative stereotypes of underrepresented minority groups, along with a message that some deemed to be non-inclusive, a small undercurrent of social criticism surrounded the original The Lion King despite its many accolades.
Problem Solved: Simba’s daughter Kiara falls for Kovu, who is totally not her cousin despite being the heir of Simba’s murderous uncle, Scar, and despite him looking exactly like a young Scar. Kovu was raised in the Outlands by his mother Zira, alongside a group of lion outcasts that once sided with Scar, and who are all plotting their revenge against Simba and the other occupants of the Pride Lands. Kovu ultimately allies himself with Simba and Kiara, and Kiara helps Simba to see that there are no real differences between the lions of the Pride Lands and the occupants of the Outlands. Simba gives the union of Kovu and Kiara his blessing, and the lion pride is unified.
Problem Created: As far as the music and animation of Disney’s direct-to-video releases are concerned, this is the best film they ever produced, and it sold more than 12 million copies. Sadly, the more you learn about lions, the harder it is for you not to get hung up on the problematic familial elements of this sequel.
All of the females within a pride of lions are related by blood, and male lions eventually leave to take over the prides headed by other lions, if they’re able to supplant the leading lion. Since Kovu’s mother, Zira, and Kiara’s mother, Nala, were supposedly lionesses from the same pride at one point, they would have to be sisters, or have an aunt-niece level of relationship. This means, no matter what, Kiara and Kovu are close relatives. Then, when you mix in the inescapable hints that Kovu is Scar’s offspring—even though the film goes out of its way to tell you he isn’t—you realize that Kovu and Kiara may actually be cousins on both sides. Therefore, The Lion King II goes out of its way to promote inclusion, right up to the level of first-cousin incestuous relationships.
Original Film: Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Sequel Film: Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure (2001)
Original Problem: The Tramp didn’t reason his way into civility; he fell in love with a girl. He demonstrated some noble and heroic qualities, but his character never expressed any desire of wanting to live the life of “the leash and collar set.” Instead, he saved a baby from a rat, was himself saved from extermination at the pound, and the next thing you know, he’s a fully civilized daddy living on “snob hill.”
Problem Solved: The Tramp’s forced to deal with the desire of his son, Scamp, to run away from home and join a street gang known as “The Junkyard Dogs.” Tramp is forced to confront the street dogs that think he turned his back on them, and to explain to his son that the actions of his scandalous past were wrong. After Scamp is betrayed by the leader of The Dogs, he accepts that his father is correct, and he returns to the home of Jim Dear and Darling, along with his new girlfriend, Angel.
New Problem Created: This sequel is fraught with problems. The premise of the original Lady and the Tramp was held together by Lady being tempted to run the streets as a result of problems at home that were beyond her control. Also, she’d blossomed into a legitimate young lady, hence the Tramp’s inestimable attraction to her. In the sequel, Scamp is still very much a tiny puppy (probably still only a few months old), and all of the problems driving him to resent his home are of his own creation. This also makes it especially creepy when he manages to snag a girlfriend, and makes things even more troublesome when that girlfriend ultimately moves in with him at the end of the movie.
The original Lady and the Tramp was grounded in the physics of the real world, whereas in the sequel, the animals are brushing off electrocution from fuse boxes and riding baby strollers down hills of trash like it’s an episode of Scooby Doo. This stripped some of the elegance from a classic. Moreover, it’s difficult to get over Jim Dear and Darling actually referring to the Tramp as “Tramp.” He was called “The Tramp” in the first film because he lacked a name, and that’s what the other stray dogs named him. How two humans were able to miraculously affix his dog-given street name to him as a formal name is something that I’d love to know more about.
Original Film: Peter Pan (1953)
Sequel Film: Peter Pan: Return to Neverland (2002)
Original Problem: The original Peter Pan left us under the assumption that the trip made to Neverland by Wendy, John and Michael was all a dream of Wendy’s. Also, as a representation of women in the realm of the Lost Boys, Wendy does precisely nothing of value aside from acting as a burdensome killjoy, and playing a classic damsel in distress while waiting for Peter Pan to rescue her at the end of the film.
Problem Solved: Wendy’s daughter Jane is kidnapped from her London home by Captain Hook and the pirates, who dodge at least a dozen RAF planes in the process. Upon arriving in Neverland, she is freed almost instantly by Peter Pan, and eventually becomes a fully integrated Lost Girl amongst the Lost Boys after saving their collective skins, including Peter Pan’s.
New Problem Created: The film immediately blasts to bits any notion that Neverland and its residents merely inhabit the dreams of children by having Captain Hook and the pirates interact with World War I-era planes in the skies of London. At the conclusion of the film, Peter even reunites with an adult Wendy at her second-story window, and greets her by saying “You changed,” as an open lamentation of the fact that she got older. Okay, we get it; it’s real. Well, if that’s the case, why is Hook’s ship able to fly in the real world and not in Neverland? His ship could only fly at the end of the last film because it had been doused with pixie dust. I guess that stuff lasts forever. Once it returns to Neverland, it never flies again, and its convenient ability to fly in the beginning of the film is never mentioned.
Can we talk about Tinkerbell for a moment? Again, since the events of this sequel are supposedly real and not taking place in a dream, why is Tinkerbell’s literal life force solely dependent upon whether or not the only real human girl in Neverland believes in fairies.
I never expected to begin watching a film hoping it would establish that Neverland existed in the real world, only to leave the film desperately searching for an excuse to shove it back into the dreams of a 14-year-old girl.
Original Film: The Little Mermaid (1989)
Sequel Film: The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (2000)
Original Problem: There really was none. This movie is just an excuse to get Ariel back into her mermaid form and have her play the role of parent while making some questionable decisions.
Problem Solved: Again, there was no problem with the first film; it was basically perfect. But, to get Ariel back in the water, they erect a convoluted plot involving Morgana—the sister of Ursula the sea witch—and a looming threat on the life of Ariel’s daughter, Melody. If Morgana ever finds out Melody is in the water, she’ll kill her. Therefore, Ariel and Prince Eric construct a wall around their castle to prevent Melody (or anyone else) from getting in the water. Obviously, Melody ends up in the water anyway, and Ariel goes in to get her. Morgana’s plot is foiled, the wall is torn down, and everyone winds up happy.
New Problem Created: Where do I even begin? Ariel’s exposed as an atrocious parent, and everyone else just goes along with what she says without questioning how her decisions are thoroughly illogical. Rather than simply explaining to her daughter, “Hey, Melody… you can’t go in the water because a crazy sea witch might kill you, so let’s come up with some other activities for you to engage in besides swimming,” Ariel decides to punish everyone in the kingdom by building a wall around the palace, keeping Melody under house arrest, not telling her about her mermaid heritage, and not allowing her grandfather to visit her. Brilliant parenting.
In addition, if you follow the premise of the film, King Triton’s an all-powerful being with vast resources and a massive military force at his disposal, but he can’t manage to hunt down Morgana for 12 years despite her being an inferior spellcaster to Ursula. Also, he can change Ariel back and forth from human to mermaid at will, multiple times, but he somehow can’t give himself legs for 15 minutes so that he can walk up on land and visit his granddaughter? Nothing hurts the legacies of classic films more than watching characters you adored and admired behaving like complete morons for the convenience of advancing an aimless plot. No wonder this movie has a 33% “Rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Original Film: The Fox and the Hound (1981)
Sequel Film: The Fox and the Hound 2 (2006)
Original Problem: Despite their brief friendship as children, Todd the fox and Copper the dog have their friendship ripped apart after Copper becomes a trained hunting dog and becomes an accessory to the murder** of several game animals, including foxes. Copper willfully assists his owner in hunting Todd, only to take pity on Todd after Todd protects Copper from a bear, and prevents his master, Amos Slade, from shooting Todd at point-blank range. The two part as “friends,” based on the close friendship of their shared youth, but also with the tacit understanding that they can never truly be active friends in the traditional sense ever again.
**—This isn’t intended as an indictment of hunting at all. This is meant to be a representation of what a pile of fox carcasses would signify to a fox like Todd, who was capable of human-level reasoning.
Problem Solved: No problem was solved in The Fox and the Hound 2. It’s total schlock centered around a silly “lost adventure” from the childhoods of Todd and Copper, shoehorned into the narrative to theoretically give their backstory greater depth.
New Problem Created: In terms of opportunities that were lost while Disney was churning out sequels to its major motion-picture classics, this might be the greatest lost opportunity of them all. How would Copper react to having a child and being asked to train it to hunt foxes? If Copper had a change of heart and ran off into the forest, would Todd rest easy at night with a former fox-killing hunting dog lurking so close to his own children? Instead of tossing meaty, substantive plot points like this into a sequel, Disney chucked those things aside and gave us the answer to the question no one was asking: “What would happen if baby Copper was befriended by the performers of a traveling dog show?”
Original Film: Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Sequel Film: Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997) and Beauty and the Beast: Belle’s Magical World (1998)
Original Problem: There were none. This film is basically perfect.
Problem Solved: There was no problem to solve, but that didn’t stop Disney from capitalizing on one of their most critically acclaimed properties by selling 7.6 million copies of the Christmas special in 1997 alone.
New Problem Created: These videos radically and clearly lengthen the amount of time Belle spent in the Beast’s castle to a period of several months. If she’d been there for even a two full weeks it would have caused a few lapses in logic. First, Belle’s father Maurice waited much too long before making a legitimate attempt to rescue his daughter from the Beast’s castle. More importantly, Gaston the hunter was so thoroughly obsessed with Belle to the point where he was certifiably depressed by her rejection of him, and plotted tirelessly to come up with ways to win her heart. Yet, for despite his relentless fascination with Belle, the narcissistic brute somehow failed to notice that Belle was missing from town for months, nor did he take Belle’s father seriously when he first mentioned that his daughter was being held captive in a far-off castle. I mean… he didn’t even look into it! Preposterous.