This is Part 4 of my look back at the history of Disney animation. For more information on this project, check out the introduction, and the previous three posts which cover the Golden Age, Wartime Era, and Silver Age.
The Dark Age of Disney animation refers to the films produced and released in the years between 1970 and 1988. There were eight films released in this period: The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977), The Rescuers (1977), The Fox and the Hound (1981), The Black Cauldron (1985), The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver and Company (1988).
Walt Disney Studios in this era is a company at a crossroads. The Silver Age was a string of successes, with the final film in that era, The Jungle Book, on its way to becoming the seventh highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time (when adjusted for inflation). Yet, Disney is also a company reeling from the loss of its two leaders: first Walt in 1966, then brother Roy in 1971. Under the direction of men like Donn Tatum, Card Walker, and Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller, everyone at Disney, from the board of directors to the individual animators, struggled with the same burning question: what would Walt do?
The answers they came up with didn’t really work out. Top brass at the company felt pressured to maintain the Disney brand, a brand that even Walt had felt was limiting. He famously lamented after a screening of To Kill a Mockingbird “I wish I could make movies like that.” The focus on family entertainment, on wholesome values, on the kind of idyllic Americana Walt had famously enshrined in Main Street, U.S.A., came back to bite Disney where it really hurt: their bank account. Miller’s pitch for Touchstone Pictures, a more adult-oriented film branch for the company, was blocked by Walker for years before finally being allowed. Previous flop collaborations with Paramount, like Popeye and Dragonslayer may have helped push off this pitch as long as it did.
Or maybe it was simply a case of old ways and ideas coming into conflict with the new world. When the board proposed raising parking fees at Disneyland, Walker refused, citing Walt’s intents to make Disneyland the happiest place on Earth. Walker’s refusal to aggressively market and advertise their films, instead relying on word of mouth to generate buzz, led to a long dry spell at the box office. Walt may have said “the only publicity worth the money is free,” but this attitude led to them writing off much of the budget for Tron after it failed to make waves.
Simply put, Disney’s old aesthetic and ways which we now regard as timeless and nostalgic, must have seemed hopelessly old-fashioned at the time. “Uncle Walt” with his fairy tales and belief in the power of dreams and a good honest work ethic fit right at home in the monoculture that exploded out of the 50s. But in the 60s and 70s, the era of second-wave feminism, protests for black, Latinx, and gay rights, rising divorce and gas prices and failing economies? Snow White and Cinderella must have seemed quaint to the mass audience.
There was also the issue of costs. Inflation had more than caught up with Disney’s operations. Walt Disney World opened in 1971, with its big expansion in EPCOT opening almost exactly a decade later. Tokyo Disneyland, the first venture internationally for theme parks, opened in 1983. Though these brought in revenue, it wasn’t enough to keep up with costs, as maintenance and expansion inside the park continued. Costs on the film side increased as well. 1985’s The Black Cauldron, a movie often blamed with nearly killing Disney Animation for good, was the most expensive animated movie ever made at that point. It barely made half of its eventual $44 million costs. Clearly, something needed to be done.
In 1977, Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, left the Disney company, citing dissatisfaction at the leadership under Walker and Miller. By 1984, blood was in the water, and the corporate raiders were swarming like sharks. As a last ditch effort to avoid a hostile takeover, Roy led a boardroom coup that forced Miller’s resignation and led to the naming of Michael Eisner of Paramount and Frank Wells of Warner Brothers as chairman and president of the Walt Disney Company, the first time an outsider had been brought into the Disney bureaucracy at this high a level. With Eisner came his assistant, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who took over as head of the motion pictures division.
This, to me, is the turning point for Disney animation, the real change from the Dark Age into the new Golden Age. For all their flaws, and there are many, Eisner and Katzenberg brought just the right kind of new energy the studio needed to get back on track. Success came almost immediately, with The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver & Company (1988) grossing over $50 million each, though the former lost big at the box office to a different movie about a mouse done by ex-Disney animators, An American Tail.
This is where I’m going to stop the history section of this post as this story really gets going in the next part. Instead, we’ll clumsily transition into talking about the artistic elements of the movies released during the Dark Age.
The majority of the Dark Age films are the culmination of the classic Disney aesthetic from the Golden and Silver Ages. This is the era when the old guard who had been working since the beginnings of the company began to retire and were replaced by new upstarts who would become animation rockstars in the following years; people like Glen Keane, John Lasseter, John Musker & Ron Clements, Tim Burton, and Brad Bird to name a few. 1981’s The Fox and the Hound marks the end of this era, as it was the last film to feature animation from any of the Nine Old Men. It was also the last film to feature animation by Don Bluth, who left Disney with a number of animators during production. They went on to challenge Disney at the box office throughout the 80s with films like The Secret of NIMH (1982) and An American Tail (1986).
Most Dark Age movies feature the classic Disney style seen in movies like The Jungle Book. However, there was less of an emphasis on creativity as there was in the old days. Several sequences throughout these films feature recycled animation, a practice not new to Disney, but that has become much more noticeable to me doing this retrospective.
Not to say there was no creativity at all. Innovations in computer animation were put to great use in the later movies in this period, like The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver and Company (1988). Still, the preoccupation on doing what Walt might have done prevented the company from experimenting too much. Producer Don Hahn described the films of this era as “lighthearted comedies for kids” in his documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009) and, while that can put money in the bank (even though here it didn’t), it doesn’t usually leave much of an impression.
But was this era more stagnation or refinement? Well, let’s see what the rankings have to say:
8. The Aristocats (1970) – Well, we’re certainly starting this ranking off with a bang; the first movie in this era is my least favorite. The Aristocats is the best example of the “lighthearted comedy for kids” moniker used as a pejorative. It’s cute and sweet and nice to put on the keep the kids entertained for an hour, but the animation and music are nothing to write home about. The story also has some of the worse plot cul-de-sacs I’ve seen so far in this rewatch. So many of these older films have scenes and characters who come into the movie, barely affect anything, and then just disappear. They’re not subplots because they aren’t developed at all, and they aren’t memorable or enjoyable enough to stand on their own merits. That said, “cute but boring” is more than I can say for a few movies I’ve seen so far. And hey, we can only go up from here.
7. The Rescuers (1977) – The Rescuers is second-to-last on this list largely by virtue of being “pretty but boring.” There are some nice sequences, I generally like the aesthetic of the film, and the relationship between Bernard and Bianca is fun to watch at times. That said, this is probably the dullest of all the movies in this era. At least the scenery’s nice and the plot, though pretty sparse most of the time, is fairly straightforward. I dunno, there’s not much to this movie.
6. Oliver and Company (1988) – Oliver is really just The Rescuers but better. A supposed adaptation of Oliver Twist, it also happens to share the basic structure with the number 7 entry on this list. A group of talking animals helps rescue a little girl from the clutches of a greedy, one-note villain. Despite an all-star cast and one of the best Billy Joel songs of all time, this movie just fell victim to release order, finding itself sandwiched in between two much better films, one of which I’ll talk about shortly.
5. The Black Cauldron (1985) – The movie that nearly killed Disney by being so expensive and taking nearly six years to come out. They were already coming in with the odds against them; a tonally dark adaptation of the five Chronicles of Prydain books into one film was going to be a hard sell even if it was amazing. The movie we get has some excellent visuals but a really poor story, as all that condensing leaves the characters just kind of floating. Had they waited two decades and taken lessons from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, this could have been the animated answer to that phenomenon. As it is, we’re left with the pieces of a better film trapped inside. Disney still has the rights to these, so maybe they’ll be able to do it right this time.
4. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) – Too many early Disney movie try to have both an episodic story with a lot of side characters and also have one solid narrative. This movie is the only one I’ve seen do it right. It’s an episodic narrative where the throughline is that all the episodes focus on the same characters. The episodes are fun and wholesome and the movie is very enjoyable. Definitely good for a rewatch, though it’s probably exactly how you remember it as a kid.
3. The Fox and the Hound (1981) – This movie hits a lot of the same tonal and atmospheric beats that made Bambi really work for me. It’s somber and rustic, and really subtle in the way it handles its larger themes. This one is a tearjerker, but it’s so good that you won’t really mind having your heart ripped out at the end.
2. Robin Hood (1973) – This is the best example of the “lighthearted comedy for kids” meant as a compliment. Robin Hood is an extremely enjoyable romp through a good old-fashioned medieval tale. The Robin Hood story is such a staple in film that most people will have a basic idea of what’s going to happen going in, but that still doesn’t sap any enjoyment out of the film. This was one of my biggest surprises in this rewatch, and it’s one I’ll be revisiting soon after I finish.
1. The Great Mouse Detective (1986) – For my money, this is the movie that started the Disney Renaissance. The directorial debut of Musker & Clements, this film really nailed what a Disney movie should be. The plot is engaging, though it does slow down a bit much in the middle, the animation is incredible, and the dynamic between the hero Basil and the villain Ratigan is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Ratigan especially is one of the most enjoyable villains in all Disney-dom, and his song is one of the catchiest. This movie is severely underrated, and if you haven’t checked out many of the Dark Age films, this is the one to watch.
As we leave the Dark Age behind, things are beginning to look up for Disney. In the next part, we will see the true rebirthing of Disney Animation, watch it reach its highest heights and see how it falls victim to its own success when we cover The Disney Renaissance.
If this has interested you in any way, I recommend checking out the documentary I mentioned in this post, Waking Sleeping Beauty. It’s a fantastic look into the transitions that went on in the Disney company between 1984 and 1994. Highly recommended if you’re a fan of animation history (which I assume you are if you’re reading this post.) Until next time!