Such a nice long break we've had, away from the foetid world of Disney direct-to-video sequels; plenty of time to ponder with increasing desperation the return of the series with one of the darkest moments in the whole vile history of the things. I refer to Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, which was dumped on an unsuspecting countryside in February, 2002, and represents a significant shift in the fortunes of the Disney DTV project: prior to this, the general response to the films from those who could be bothered to have any response at all was generally of the opinion that they were not much good, but easy enough to ignore and mostly harmless, but with Dreams Come True, we arrive at the current "nuke the entire site from orbit" stance that most animation fans hold toward the movies. And not without good reason: as bad as the depths that the films we've visited with thus far have managed to plumb, Dreams Come True really is some kind of nightmarishly awesome new abyss, a screaming black vortex of total, irredeemable awfulness. It fails to be the worst of the DTV films up to that point solely because Belle's Magical World, to which our current subject bears unholy similarity, is just as wretched conceptually and also looks like a Korean knock-off made for $15; Dreams Come True is ugly, but not really any more so than Pooh's Grand Adventure or the theatrical Return to Never Land. It's just cheap television animation that ill-advisedly attempts to replicate characters first drawn by men like Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl at the height of their powers, looking all the worse for the comparison.

The film opens some time after the events of the beloved Cinderella from 1950, to find friendly little clothed, talking mice Jaq (Rob Paulsen) and Gus (Corey Burton) running to hear a story told by the Fairy Godmother (Russi Taylor), who is apparently just a run-of-the-mill member of the household now, instead of a potent magic being who comes only in time of extreme crisis. Sadly, the two mice don't make it to the library until just after storytime is done (incidentally, I can't tell where this is meant to take place: the interiors in this sequence all look exactly like locations in the chateau from the first film, but the narrative implication is that it's the royal palace now), and their disappointment is only assuaged when the Fairy Godmother guides them in the direction of making a brand new book of Cinderella-based stories, retelling what happened after she married her handsome, personality-deprived prince at the end of the last movie. In a sequence that will not make a single living soul forget about the dressmaking scene in the original, particularly since a good deal of animation is directly copied, the mice construct a blank book and then get to illustrating it.

It's right about here that we start to notice quite awful about Dreams Come True: its existence. But we can narrow it down even more than that. The film, as it will turn out, consists of three distinct stories (except in that they share a cast of characters), just exactly like Belle's Magical World or later sequels like Tarzan & Jane and Atlantis: Milo's Return, all three of which were either stitched-together episodes from TV series, or the leftover scraps from failed TV series. There is, however, no indication that a Cinderella TV series was ever in the planning stages, or at least if there was, Disney has swallowed up the evidence good and tight; lord knows what it would have looked like, because from the evidence displayed here, three distinct half-hour narratives was already two more than the studio had material for. At any rate, the point is that Dreams Come True is literally, episodic: three pointless little stories about life after the royal wedding in which the conflicts are all banal as hell and only vaguely involve Cinderella two-thirds of the time, anyway. The middle sequence, in particular, is so desperate for any kind of drama that it feels less like one-third of a pilot for a show than an episode written deep into its run, after all the good and then passable ideas had been burned off.

There are no titles to the individual sequences, but the first one is identified in the credits as "Aim to Please", written by Tom Rogers and Jill E. Blotevogel (the whole shebang was directed by John Kafka). The very moment that Cinderella (Jennifer Hale) and her new husband, Prince Charming (Christopher Daniel Barnes) return from what was undoubtedly a sexless honeymoon, she is informed that as princess, her main job is going to be to plan the virtually non-stop parties hosted in this kingdom, which makes a whole lot of sense, actually. Cinderella is, already, the most unadulterated dose of whatever mutation of reality that Disney sells to little girls under its "Disney Princess" umbrella, and given that the rest of the brand involves dressing pretty and hosting things and having all sorts of pink-related fun, it's sort of perversely logical that the life of a princess in this series is thus about hosting parties as a job. Cinderella even pokes fun at it herself, in one of the stories, a moment of self-awareness that is dangerously unstable in a project like this.

Anyway, the conflict here is that Cinderella, remembering her days as a commoner-

Oh, for fuck's sake, Disney. A whole lot of what follows, in all three parts, involves Cinderella, woman of the people, remembering the simple peasant's life when she was scullery maid to her wicked stepmother and wicked stepsisters. Which ignores the fact that her father was a wealthy landowner and unspecified member of the aristocracy, and the only reason Cinderella was a servant was as a means of humiliating her and keeping her down, so that her stepmother would be able to control the family name and titles herself. And yet it's supposed to be some big damn egalitarian deal that she married the royalty, instead of being a fairly obvious target for the royal family's attentions on that front.

Remembering her days as a "commoner", Cinderella wants to bring a note of peasant fun to the party, but this is absolutely forbidden by the prim head of castle decorum, Prudence (Holland Taylor), or whatever her title is supposed to. She's the starchy, unpleasant taskmaster whose role in the story is to be shown the error of her ways by Cinderella's free-spirited way of thinking, basically. But before that can happen, Cinderella has to be very sad and wonder if being a princess is really fun and dresses and prettiness, or if she has in fact gotten herself trapped in a horrible prison. Literally.

Not the most savage French Revolution drama could make a royal woman behind bars look that distraught and agonised.

Of course, Disney isn't looking to call into question the desirability of being a princess, so things all turn out well; Cinderella befriends the dumpy little fat handmaid who is Prudence's third-in-command - Dreams Come True is bizarrely obsessed with making fat people into sad sacks, comic relief, and generally pathetic figures - and is from there able to change the system inside out, bringing a spirit of equality to the court. Or, at least, having a party for all her peasant friends, because that's what being a princess is about: parties! With dresses and decorations!

After the inane misunderstanding of how monarchies work in "Aim to Please", we get the truly insipid and stupid "Tall Tail" (written by Rogers and Jule Selbo), in which little mouse Jaq decides that he is sick and tired of not being able to help Cinderella out any more, now that she has a whole castle of attendants. And so, a chance encounter with the Fairy Godmother - if Dreams Come True was actually meant to be a series, and the interstitial scenes with the Fairy Godmother reading to the mice was added after the fact, this very random insertion of the character into the proceedings would be even more aggravating than it already is - results in the mouse being transformed into a grotesquely horrible human being with mousy features, in which Paulsen's command of the character's voice starts to slip until he sounds like the same actor's Yakko Warner going through meth withdrawals.

It's the most ungainly, miserable sort of cartoon boilerplate: promote up a side character with "learn to be yourself (peon)" plotline, and it plays just as rote and lifeless as it sounds. It is the nadir of an awful movie, and it is elevated solely by its weird sexual dynamic: in the midst of one of the most lust-free Disney franchise of all, we have all sorts of smutty bedroom eyes going on here.

You know, just in case that's something you feel like your Disney movies have been lacking. Little mice women making jackets for their mice boyfriends to keep him from straying towards thoughts of having an affair with a human princess. God, I hate this sequence. I hate the unmentionable character design of Human Jaq, I hate the ridiculous over-the-top action setpiece that ends it - Cinderella's town fair is spoiled by an out-of-control elephant - and I hate the way that the Fairy Godmother is wedged in, a propos of nothing we already know about her character.

Move on, then, to "An Uncommon Romance", written by Rogers alone, which is still a pretty dreadful bit of nonsensical fluff, but compared to the two sequences preceding, it's such a breath of fresh air that it honestly feels almost worthwhile, as you're watching it. We return to Cinderella's old family home, where stepmother Lady Tremaine (Susanne Blakeslee, sounding about as much like the magnificent Eleanor Audley as I do like Bing Crosby) is still scheming to get her ugly daughters Drizella (Russi Taylor again) and Anastasia (Tress MacNeille) married off to noblemen, this time at the latest big-ass ball happening at the castle, to which they have been invited by a startlingly forgiving Cinderella. Except that Anastasia has unexpectedly fallen in love with a simple baker (Rob Paulsen again, as well) in town. Because even ugly women deserve love, as long as it's with somebody poor and fat.

Anastasia has to thus simultaneously dodge her mother's severe, dictatorial attitude towards her offspring's marriages, while asking Cinderella for help on courting a man. This in turn raises the question of what the hell sort of relationship exists between Cinderella and her abusive ex-family, and frankly, it would certainly be more interesting to pursue that subplot than keep peeking in as Cinderella plans different parties. Also, Cinderella spends almost the entire movie wearing street clothes and pretending to be a poor woman, for reasons that are not sufficiently explained.

Also, the mice, in the B-plot help Lucifer the cat (Frank Welker), who apparently didn't die in the first movie the way I've always assumed, court the pampered palace cat Pom Pom (also Frank Welker, which is gross, if you stop to think about it), and along the way, this happens:

Dreams Come True is just awful. Fucking pure liquid evil awful. The Anastasia story is decent merely because it explores the universe of the original movie in some meaningful way, rather than just inexpertly cramming characters from that film into prefabricated kiddie TV plots, but even then, it's hardly interesting. The animation is across the board sloppy and cheap - for the movie was made at Disney's Japan studio, where all of the weakest television animation happened - and there are so few good moments, visually, that I can count them:

They come at the very beginning of the movie.

In the middle of the abysmal Jaq-turns-human sequence.

And at the very end.

Two of those, mind you, are background plates of a static building, which tells us a lot about the state of the visuals in this production.

The whole thing is grinding, pointless nonsense: a commercial cash-in of the baldest sort, not even bothering to pretend that it's expanding the story of Cinderella, just rehashing the characters because Disney had a vested interest in selling more products emblazoned with their likenesses. I'm not even a particular fan of the original movie, and this was still unspeakably galling to me: it's the least respectful sequel imaginable, looking ugly and running through a completely worthless plot on its way to cheap moral lessons about how to be the most lovely and independent princess in the kingdom. Not a moral lesson of much applicability to anybody not wearing an overpriced Disney Story costume with sequins on it, methinks. Anyway, Dreams Come True lacks any and all value, and if it is not the nadir of the DTV sequels, it is surely close; also, if it is not the nadir, there are going to be some dark patches in the next couple of months.