This is Part 5 of my look back at the history of Disney animation. For more information on this project, check out the introduction, and the previous four posts which cover the Golden Age, Wartime Era, Silver Age, and Dark Age.
The Disney Renaissance refers to the films produced and released in the years between 1989 and 1999. There were eight films released in this period: The Little Mermaid (1989), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999).
We’re going to approach this a bit differently, folks. Ordinarily, I’d start with a brief overview of the history and then discuss the artistic trends in the era. This time, though, I want to dive into the big question that underpins Disney’s resurgence – why now? Other Disney eras changed based on larger political and economic events, but there were a number of less wide-reaching changes that combined to cause the changes at Disney. Changes in areas such as:
1 – Leadership
I said in my past installment of this series that The Great Mouse Detective (1986) was the first real movie of the Disney Renaissance. That’s because it was the first Disney movie made under the administration of Michael Eisner as CEO of Disney and Frank Wells as president, with Jeffrey Katzenberg in charge of motion pictures. Things at Disney animation were immediately shaken up when Katzenberg suggested that The Black Cauldron could be saved by editing it, a practice unheard of in animation. The painstaking process of animating a scene wouldn’t be done unless the scene had to be in the story, which really meant that a stronger hand was needed to edit at the beginning of the filmmaking process.
2 – Corporate culture
The vision of the high-powered business executive in a power suit running his company with an iron fist is almost a cliche of the 80s, but like all cliches, there was a grain of truth in that. At Disney, however, things were much more laissez-faire and easygoing. Long executive lunches and production schedules bred a culture very used to taking things at their own pace.
This changed immediately once Eisner, Wells, and Katzenberg entered the picture. Those three came from the broader Hollywood system and were the first outsiders brought into Disney at such a high level. They had been brought up in the corporate culture of the 80s and their prerogative was to turn around Disney using this model. This caused a lot of friction between them and many of the employees, but eventually, the new model won out.
3 – Broadway theater
The film musical in the United States is based on the aesthetic of the Broadway musical. The idea of the event film was largely built on the backs of high-profile adaptations of Broadway fare throughout the 1940s and 50s, adapting the plays of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe into lavish pictures that earned the studios lots of money. By the 1960s, however, exponentially increasing budgets, troubled productions, and middling returns ultimately led to the death of the classic Hollywood musical.
This was mirrored on Broadway as well. The Broadway musical left its roots in the big band and jazz standards of the 30s and 40s and began to embrace a more counter-cultural sensibility. From rock music and hippie protests in Hair to the darker themes and Brechtian approach of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret and Chicago, the Broadway show became much more experimental, which also made them more difficult to adapt to film. If done correctly, like in the case of Cabaret (1972), it could have been phenomenal, but that was a risk many studios didn’t want to make.
One composer who came into his own in this more experimental era, and helped usher in the new era of Broadway, was Andrew Lloyd Webber. His more experimental earlier works, like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, were commercially successful, even if they were sometimes controversial with critics. This strategy of appealing to popular tastes, even if the Broadway critics may turn up their noses, helped usher forth the era of the mega-musical.
Webber can’t take all the credit for this shift: one of the first mega-musicals was Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil’s Les Miserables, which opened two years before the musical largely responsible for this trend: the wildly popular Phantom of the Opera. These musicals were marked by huge spectacles and massive success, both in their initial runs and internationally. These movies revitalized interest in the Broadway musical as a genre, and many elements from these productions were ripe for adaptation in Hollywood.
4 – Aesthetics and marketability
There has always been a certain idea of the Disney brand, largely informed by the aesthetics of Disney animation. There has always been an idea of the “Disney style” and that has changed over the year. That said, there has also always been experimentation within that style. Throughout the Silver and Dark Ages, the classic Disney style was developed and played with to its fullest extent. Moving into the Renaissance, these aesthetics were refined and married to the ideas from artists like Al Hirschfeld, Gerald Scarfe, and Richard Purdum.
As the animation became more refined, so too did the story structure. Influenced by Broadway musicals as above, the stories of the Renaissance movies became much more structured than in years past. The Disney formula became very important to the creative process. It provided a backbone for animators to experiment with beautiful visuals while staying grounded narratively, it gave composers an easy framework to slot in songs (more on that later), and it gave the marketing teams new ways to take the world by storm.
Marketing for Disney movies became intense in this era. This initially started with the decision to release Pinocchio on VHS, a contentious choice that made truckloads of money. Eisner’s modus operandi was to turn Disney into a profitable empire, and part of his success was to milk each and every film for all they were worth.
Now, let’s bring all these disparate elements together and get back to history. Katzenberg and Eisner host a “gong show” for the animators to pitch ideas. Though the initial pitch of doing an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” by John Musker and Ron Clements is gonged, Katzenberg likes the idea and gives them the green light. Katzenberg remarks to animation head Roy Disney that he needs his own Katzenberg, someone to do the dirty work and act as a liaison to management. Roy brings in theater producer Peter Schneider from Broadway to help out. Schneider suggests bringing in Broadway lyricist Howard Ashman to help out on the production of Oliver and Company. Ashman gets wind that they’re developing Mermaid and is brought on to the project, bringing with him composer and writing partner Alan Menken.
Ashman’s firm hand in and enthusiasm for the production helped to fire up the animators. According to the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, after hearing Ashman’s demo of “Part of Your World,” animator Glen Keane practically begged to be given the lead on Ariel. To help speed up production, the animation was split between the main facilities in Glendale, California and a second unit at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando, Florida. The intensive special effects needed to make convincing underwater effects added a third unit to the production: Pacific Rim Productions, a Chinese-based firm with facilities in Beijing (which only gave the animators mild heart attacks once the protests in Tiananmen Square turned deadly.)
Disney executives were optimistic about the project, but warned the animators not to get too excited. They stressed that a movie aimed primarily at young girls was likely not going to do as well as their last film, Oliver & Company, which had been aimed at young boys. Katzenberg also got anxious after some incidents involving fidgeting kids at test screenings, though his suggestion to remove key song moments were ultimately ignored.
The Little Mermaid grossed over $84 million in its initial theatrical run and was lavished with praise by critics. It was nominated for three Academy Awards and four Golden Globes, winning both awards for Best Song and Best Score. Disney animation was back in a big way. But, could the momentum hold?
After some ups and downs in the production cycles, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King proved that Disney’s success was not a fluke. Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture and Lion King is still the highest grossing traditionally animated feature of all time. However, with success comes discontent.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, as head of motion pictures, began to take more and more credit for Disney’s success, much to Eisner’s chagrin. Articles from the production of The Lion King barely mention Eisner, while painting Katzenberg as the hero. Eisner and Katzenberg’s relationship was deteriorating rapidly, and things came to a head in 1994 when Frank Wells died in a tragic helicopter crash. Katzenberg had been promised Wells’ position and came to Eisner in the aftermath to make good on this promise. Eisner felt Katzenberg had come too soon, though he likely wouldn’t have given him the job anyway. Katzenberg would leave Disney after the premiere of The Lion King in 1994.
Post-Katzenberg, some of the magic seemed to leave the Disney studios. Eisner began consolidating power, delegating less and less to subordinates. The following films did decently well, but none reached the same levels of critical and commercial success as those at the beginning of the Renaissance. But, how do they hold up nowadays?
10. Rescuers Down Under (1990) – This movie is only a Renaissance movie by association. It’s better than The Rescuers (1977), but that still just makes it mediocre. I really like this movie’s style and it marks the first use of the digital coloring system CAPS in a Disney movie, but, much like its predecessor, there’s just not much to it. It’s so low only by the sheer bad luck of its release year.
9. Pocahontas (1995) – This movie was going to be the movie for Disney, the one that finally broke the glass ceiling and win Best Picture. It’s high art, it’s a classic story, it’s West Side Story with Native Americans. And what we got is a fairly bland movie with bland, stoic characters, a weak score, admittedly some gorgeous imagery, and a window into 90s ideas of racism and American history. Now, I’m not saying we needed a truly realistic and horrifying depiction of American colonization, but the “both sides-ing” this movie does has not aged well. Regardless of your politics though, it’s an overly serious movie that needed some deft hands at every point to make it fully work.
8. Hercules (1997) – The story behind this movie is more intense than the actual movie itself: star directors Musker and Clements were tasked to make an insane hit in order to get their passion project off the ground. The result is a mess of a movie, designed to appeal to as many people as possible and instead turning out something jumbled and misguided in its ideas. Its biggest problem is its flawed themes, as the combination of superhero and sports story never really gel. The art style is incredibly unique and it has some of the best supporting characters of the Renaissance, so it’s at least an enjoyable mess.
7. Mulan (1998) – A beautiful movie that takes a completely different stylistic approach from the rest of the Renaissance, there are some major plot problems. We don’t really get going until the second act, and the music is never quite on par with the rest of the Renaissance. It pains me to put this movie so low as it was my favorite movie by far as a child, but as this whole project is pretty much designed to confront my nostalgia, so I can’t make excuses. I still love this movie, even if it is a little weaker than the rest.
6. The Little Mermaid (1989) – The movie that started the Renaissance is a solid piece of cinema that was just overshadowed by the movies it inspired. Everything here set the template for how to succeed in this era – the characters, the story, the art style, and the music. This is one of the better scores of this period and it’s used in such an effortless and natural way that it almost makes you side-eye musicals that do this wrong. This movie was a breath of fresh air in this rewatch. It’s only so low because everything above it learned from what this movie did and ran with it.
5. Tarzan (1999) – With some impressive animation and a quite engaging story, this was the big surprise for me in how much I like this movie. The characters are well-realized and well-performed and there are some honestly stunning bits of animation. What keeps this movie from going any higher is the soundtrack, which for a Disney musical, is important. I’m fine with most of the songs in isolation, but the way they’re used in the movie as overlays and not woven into the story makes the music feel distant.
4. The Lion King (1994) – An excellent movie with simply breathtaking visuals that is also the namesake of what I call “The Circle of Life Problem.” Both on screen and onstage, “Circle of Life” is a song number to end all song numbers, where the most creative ideas and beautiful work was placed to create a showstopping number. The problem is, even if the rest of the movie is a solid 10 the whole way through, it feels like a let down because we started at 11. And Lion King is not a 10 all the way through, with some pacing issues and general tone strangeness towards the second act. Still a wonderful film with a pretty decent soundtrack.
3. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) – This gorgeous film rivals The Black Cauldron (1985) in terms of tonal darkness, but it actually manages to make that tone work with an amazing score and some of the most beautiful animation I’ve ever seen. And while it’s always good to break up the darkness with some more light-hearted elements, especially in a Disney film, the way Hunchback does it really just feels out of place and holds it back from being as good as it needs to be.
2. Aladdin (1992) – It was a close call between this and my number one film, as both are perfect marriages of animation, music, and story. Aladdin‘s biggest strength is its speed. There is not a moment of this movie that feels too slow. The animation is all snappy and just moves with such a speed that I’m left in awe by it. Watching this movie feels like going on a high-speed magic carpet ride and you’re left breathless by the end.
1. Beauty and the Beast (1991) – I’m biased here as this movie means a lot to me, but I truly believe this is one of the best films I have ever seen. Not best animated film, not best Disney film, best film period. Everything about this film works for me: the gorgeous animation, the incredible performances, one of the best musical scores in film, all of it just comes together to create a movie that makes me tear up from how beautiful it is. Where Aladdin was punchy and energetic, Beauty and the Beast is stately and elegant, which is just an aesthetic I’m a little more a fan of. If this movie doesn’t wind up being my favorite of all the Disney canon, I will be thoroughly surprised.
The Disney Renaissance was the peak of Disney animation and only foretold great things for the company to come. But, even the brightest stars must eventually fade. The Renaissance films had seen increasingly diminishing returns post-Katzenberg, so how will they fare once the goodwill truly runs out? Next time, we will be covering the ever-so creatively named Second Dark Age to find out.
Those interested in learning more about Disney under the administration of Michael Eisner should check out James B. Stewart’s DisneyWar. It’s a fantastic read that really delves into the political dealings that went on in the company that made these movies we all know and love. I didn’t think I’d be a fan of such a dense book, but Stewart’s writing helps keep everything easy to understand and enjoyable to read. It gets a hearty recommendation from me.