Sequels are just a recent product of an unimaginative Hollywood, right? Wrong! …well not just anyway. Sequels, prequels, spinoffs, franchises, etc. have been a part of the movie money machine since the beginning. Paul Wegener’s great silent German expressionist classic about a rampaging Jewish clay man, The Golem (1920), was actually the third movie in a series. Snack on that. There are at least two other movies before 1920 about a rampaging Jewish clay man.
Whenever you see a list of great movie sequels you invariably run across many repeating titles. You’d have to be an idiot not to include The Empire Strikes Back (1980), The Godfather: Part II (1974), or The Bride of Frankentstein (1935). These films in particular are wonderful because of their ability to not only recapture the magic and what was great about their original incarnations, but because they were able to expand upon the mythos and even improve on their themes. They created new, complex conflicts built upon stones already laid. It is not too terribly often that one gets to see a sequel that surpasses its predecessor, but it might happen more than one might think. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), Mad Max: the Road Warrior (1981), Star Trek: Wrath of Khan (1982), Clear and Present Danger (1994), Legend of the Drunken Master (1994), and I’ll argue Iron Man 3 (2013) are only a few movie followups that, in my humble opinion, improved on the originals. The Toy Story and Back to the Future franchises also did a fine job of retaining their integrity throughout. The Four Musketeers (1974) was the perfect continuation (although I wonder if it should count because it’s just the second half of the book), and Hellboy II: the Golden Army (2008) has even more monsters than the original and is funnier (I am biased towards more monsters and being funnier).
Then there’s your more divisive ones. From Russia With Love (1963) is technically a better film than Dr. No (1962), but it’s only because Dr. No derails itself in the last act and gets really campy in the homestretch. I still probably prefer Dr. No though. Superman II (1980) is a good sequel because it uses the established characters to present a novel dilemma (the one ripped off by Spiderman 2) and because it keeps a far more consistent tone. If the first Superman did not shift gears and become too cartoony after Lex Luthor showed up, the first movie would have still been better. And Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is still a far better sequel than Temple of Doom (1984).
If memory serves Ewoks: The Battle for Endor (1985) was the better of the two made-for-tv ewok movies, but it really doesn’t matter because both were pretty awful.
So what’s this all about? A good sequel should expand, not simply rehash. I just wanted to remind everybody that not all sequels are complete garbage. Furthermore, I would like to share some of my favorite movie sequels that sometimes get forgotten or missed when people think of sequels.
12.) Technically 1985’s Return to Oz is not a better movie than Wizard of Oz (1939), but it’s such an off the wall departure from the tone of the original that it deserves to be mentioned. Made by a completely different studio decades after Wizard, Return to Oz was directed by Walter Murch and even if it seems a bit random, it’s completely in keeping with L. Frank Baum’s world. It’s a much darker and stranger tale with a much younger Dorothy (GOING IN FOR SHOCK THERAPY!!!!) and although it is actually more uneven and more dated than Wizard of Oz, it has a lot of its own charm. Dorothy was played by a very young Fairuza Balk. The real stars of this film are the wonky 80s special effects and cool puppetry from the Jim Henson studios.
11.) Jacques Tati‘s Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953) was followed by three sequels starring the bumbling Mr. Hulot (Tati). All are wonderful, but the first sequel, Mon Oncle (1958), is regarded by many as his best. It is quiet and subtle and beautifully set up. Tati’s penchant for comic juxtaposition and clever mise-en-scène is as sublime and sharp as ever. The color photography is textured and pretty, and the amusing clash between the rustic, old world and sterile, malfunctioning modernity makes for wonderful satire. Playtime (1967) might beat it though for sheer breadth of and scope of comic beauty and satirical examinations of alienation in society.
10.) Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa knows his period action epics. The man behind such fantastic movies as Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), Ran (1985), and many others served his sequels up pretty good too. 1961’s Yojimbo starring Toshiro Mifune was remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars so you’re probably familiar with the storyline of a super cool nameless warrior who lives by his own rules and plays warring gangs against each other. It’s sequel Sanjuro (1962) continues this ronin’s story and—because of a malfunction that ended up looking really cool—it introduced the blood spray geyser gimmick for a whole generation of action and samurai films to copy.
9.) Before Sunset (2004) is the excellent sequel to Richard Linklater’s classic romantic drama Before Sunrise (1995). The first movie followed two strangers, a young American guy (Ethan Hawke) and a young French chick (Julie Delpy), as they simply walk around Vienna for one magical but short-lived night. Even though they know they will probably never see each other again they cannot help but plant the mysterious seeds of romance. The sequel picks up a decade later after the American has written a book about that magical night and is touring around. The girl meets him in Paris at a signing. The sequel goes in real-time and it is the perfect second installment for these two characters. They have aged and they have grown and life is more complex than it was, but that special connection that existed between them is still powerful and captivating. It is a pleasure to revisit these two endearing personalities. I eagerly anticipate Before Midnight (2013).
8.) I love The Muppet Movie (1979), but Jim Henson’s The Great Muppet Caper (1981) might be even more fun. It was a successful follow-up to The Muppet Movie because it gave the characters a chance to go overseas and get mixed up in a heist storyline with all the classic moves…only with Muppets. Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, Gonzo, Animal, everybody is back and in Great Britain. The Muppet Movie is still great and you can’t beat the song Rainbow Connection, but Caper is directed with more style and it seems to be having more fun playing with the conventions of the crime genre and it’s less episodic. Another personal note: it’s still before Gonzo became too front and center. Gonzo was always my favorite, but I liked him better as a side character. When he’s the main focus he loses his mystique. I feel the same way about the Fonz on Happy Days.
7.) Joe Dante’s Gremlins—along with Temple of Doom—resulted in the MPAA employing the PG-13 rating system in 1984. Gremlins is a dark and cynical horror-comedy, and so is 1990’s Gremlins 2, but it’s much more anarchic and cartoony. It’s more satirical than merely cynical and it manages to effectively parody itself, it’s predecessor, consumerism, TV, and sequels in general. It’s wilder and more unhinged and if Christopher Lee’s presence isn’t enough, Tony Randall voices the Brain Gremlin. People still like Gremlins, but for my money the sequel is far more daring and fun. Gremlins, as I always understood them, were more mischievous and wild than simply horrific. I hearken back to the classic 1943 Bob Clampbett cartoon Falling Hare starring Bugs Bunny and one of his few devilish matches: a gremlin.
6.) Chan wook Park’s vengeance trilogy does not share characters so much as it shares themes…of vengeance. Oldboy (2003) is the second film in the trilogy (sandwiched between Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Lady Vengeance) and it is the most famous in the west and I’d say it’s my favorite of the three as well. It’s a dark and complex revenge story of man who is kidnapped and upon his release he must figure out who abducted him and why. Memories, love, loss, pain, anguish, action, chills, suspense, tragedy, you name it. This intense South Korean flick has got it all.
5.) The Rescuers (1977) never got me. I liked some of the songs and the animation is strong and emotive (the last time animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston would work together for Disney), but the colors are yucky, the villains are ugly and uncharismatic, and the whole mood of the film feels a little off-putting…but I liked the mice. In 1990 they brought back Bernard and Bianca (voiced once again by Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor) for The Rescuers Down Under. Evenrude the dragonfly is gone, but funnyman John Candy plays an obnoxious albatross and George C. Scott is a mean poacher out to get a giant eagle. The memorable mouse duo embarks on a dangerous mission to Australia to rescue a young boy. It’s a sleight film, but it works and I like it a lot more than the original. It’s fun, funny, and the animation is great.
4.) Here’s a fun one. Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki won me over with Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), which was a surreal comedic tale of Finland’s worst band and their road trip to the states to obtain an audience, but the sequel Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994) is just as good. Their old manager allegedly has been born again as Moses and so goes on a mission to find all of the Leningrad Cowboys and take them back to Europe…but not before stealing the nose off the Statue of Liberty. Just as surreal the second time around this sequel gets a littler kookier to boot. This movie also has one of the best sight gags I’ve ever seen.
3.) If you like your horror with a side of humor then you already agree with me when I include Sam Raimi’s 1987 classic, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (a half-remake, half-parody type sequel of the first Evil Dead). The first film was more a straight horror film with some campiness, but the sequel plays with the material in much bolder ways. It’s kinetic, gory, AND FUNNY, and the special effects are better. I wish the whole movie could have been just Ash (Bruce Campbell) alone in the house fighting the demons of the Necronomicon…I suppose they needed a bigger body count though. The scene where Ash battles and cuts off his demon-possessed hand and replaces it with a chainsaw is hilarious. As much as I enjoy this super energized tribute to supernatural slasher flicks (complete with gratuitous homages to the Three Stooges), I might even like the next sequel Army of Darkness (1992) even better.
2.) Satyajit Ray made a stellar directorial debut with Pather Panchali (1955), and he continued to do something truly special with the followup films Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959). The story follows the development of Apu, a young boy growing up in squalor in 1920s India. It is a powerful and potent trilogy. You will run the emotional gamut watching it. What makes the sequels so interesting is that as the character of Apu grows, so does Ray as a filmmaker. Pather Panchali is almost documentarian in its approach and style, while Aparajito becomes more a narrative-driven plot and finally Apur Sansar is almost Hollywood-esque with its calculated rises and falls (the good Hollywood).
1.) The best sequel of all time I list here. It is one that I am shocked and appalled does not appear on more lists. It is Troll 2 (1990). I know what you’re thinking. Troll 2 is an odious train wreck of a film that completely disregards anything concerning the previous movie…and most things concerning any movie. Everything about it is terrible. Acting, writing, direction, production, special effects, dialogue, structure, you name it, it has screwed it up royally. It is so terrible that it’s actually quite wonderful. Who am I kidding? I love this movie! I really love it. Where the first Troll (1986) was simply a really bad, forgettable movie (that curiously featured Sonny Bono, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and a character named HARRY POTTER), Troll 2 is a devastating rape of the art-form and has developed a huge cult-following. Nobody even remembers that there was another Troll. Troll 2 completely eclipses all previous troll efforts. How many movie sequels can totally obliterate the first movie? People love Troll 2. People have Troll 2 parties. There’s a documentary about it called Best Worst Movie (2009) which is also pretty awesome. Few bad movies have had the impact and staying power on the cult fan base that Troll 2 has. So while some may say it’s a failure as a movie, I wouldn’t say it’s a failure as a sequel.