Mermaids, Beasts, Genies And Lions: The Reawakening Of Disney Animation



Originally published on on June 21st, 2017

I’m a massive animation fan. I think we finally live in an age where animation isn’t looked down upon with a superiority complex as if it’s a lesser form of art. Having taken a few animation courses, myself, I have come to realize just how time-consuming and difficult it is to produce great animation.

That being said, it should come as no surprise that I am also a massive admirer of Disney Animation. It’s been incredible these past seven years to see Disney Animation go through such a resurgence. The recent successes of movies like FrozenZootopia, and Moana can be attributed to a time period known as the Disney Renaissance. It’s an era of not just Disney history but also animation history that is worth taking a look at.

The History Leading Up To The Renaissance

It is hard to imagine a time when the groundbreaking animation studio that brought audiences Snow White and the Seven DwarvesPinocchioFantasiaCinderella and the recent runaway success Frozen would have, at one point, been in trouble and on the verge of being shut down. After Walt Disney’s death in 1969, animation declined over the coming decades. The studio’s output slowed to producing a movie about every four years. The box office numbers were not the same as they were in the golden years when Walt Disney was alive, and along with that, many of the old animators started to retire. In 1975 Disney Studios started to bring in new young animators from CAL Arts, but things did not improve overnight.

'The Black Cauldron' [Credit: Disney]
‘The Black Cauldron’ [Credit: Disney]

After a corporate shakeup and Disney’s animated film, The Black Cauldron, bombed both critically and commercially, the animation studio needed a resurgence in order to save themselves. Over the next few years the animators would push the studio to make their movies better and faster to rebuild their brand. The resulting films were The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver and Company. These films, along with the release of the huge success Who Framed Roger Rabbit? saw a resurgence in animation. Disney’s biggest successes were still yet to come. “The Disney Renaissance” would set the model and template for not just their films but American animation as a whole, and the impact is still being felt to this day.

The Little Mermaid

'The Little Mermaid' [Credit: Disney]
‘The Little Mermaid’ [Credit: Disney]

The Little Mermaid was the first to be released in this sequence of films that would come to be known as the “Disney Renaissance.” It followed the release order that was set out by the heads of the studio following the previous year’s success of Oliver and Company. It was the first Disney feature to bring on Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to compose the music for the film.

Menken previously worked on the off-Broadway hit Little Shop of Horrors. He brought a Broadway sensibility to the movie. Oliver and Company did have a number of song and dance sequences, but they consisted mostly of modern rock anthems (with Billy Joel heading the impressive cast). The Little Mermaid was written in a more classical, timeless way. The big Broadway showstoppers became an instant staple of the type of movies Disney would make.

After The Little Mermaid, nearly all movies that Disney Animation produced from 1989–1999 (with the exception of The Rescuers Down Under and Tarzan) all followed this formula. This formula was readapted by Disney (after seemingly going on hiatus for much of the 2000s) with the release of The Princess of the Frog and Tangled in 2009 and 2010. Their biggest film success, Frozen, followed (and subverted in many ways) the formula that Little Mermaid established upon its release. Not only that, but Frozen brought back the classic style of Disney Animation with its smooth lines and enriched color palate. The Little Mermaid was a runaway success for Disney at the box office, and it was a critical success upon its release as well. Famed critic Roger Ebert would go on to give his highest film grade, four stars, saying:

Walt Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ is a jolly and inventive animated fantasy – a movie that’s so creative and so much fun it deserves comparison with the best Disney work of the past…Watching ‘The Little Mermaid,’ I began to feel that the magic of animation had been restored to us.

Disney’s next film follow-up, The Rescuers Down Under, would prove to be important for animation’s future, but for different reasons than Little Mermaid.

Two Mice, Computers, And Pixar

'The Rescuers Down Under' [Credit: Disney]
‘The Rescuers Down Under’ [Credit: Disney]

The Rescuers Down Under was Disney Animation’s first ever sequel and the follow-up to The Little Mermaid. The movie didn’t follow the formula that made The Little Mermaid a success and bombed heavily at the box officeDisney pulled all advertising for the film after its poor release, yet it remains one of the most important films to be released in that time period.

The Rescuers Down Under was the first film to ever be produced digitally using the “CAPS” system (or Computer Animation Production System). It allowed painted backgrounds to be scanned into the computer and made the coloring process easier, even allowing for a more controlled environment. Cell animation was easier to layer and allowed for dynamic camera movement that couldn’t be achieved without the existence of the computer. CAPS could allow filmmakers to fix small animation mistakes in the post-production process.

 John Lasseter [Credit: Nicolas Genin via Wikimedia Commons]
John Lasseter [Credit: Nicolas Genin via Wikimedia Commons]

The system was created with a partnership with the startup computer animation division Pixar who was led by a former Disney animator that was fired in the mid-1980s, John Lasseter. Not only would this CAPS system prove instrumental to Disney features moving forward (as the next few films took advantage of its technology), but it helped start a working relationship between Pixar and Disney.

Disney would go on to distribute Pixar’s movies, and through that, Pixar made the first ever theatrically released 3D computer animated movie in 1995 with Toy Story. This movie itself made a huge impact within the animation community and led the studios away from 2D, hand-drawn animated films to full 3D animated movies.

Disney would eventually purchase Pixar entirely in 2007 and John Lasseter would become the head of Disney animation, overseeing both studios. The genesis of those events started with The Rescuers Down Under. Without taking this small step to build a relationship between Disney and Pixar, animation today would not be the same. We as an audience might be deprived of the great films Pixar has made and the 3D animation that we’ve accustomed to could still be a dream.

Oscars And The Beast

'Beauty and the Beast' [Credit: Disney]
‘Beauty and the Beast’ [Credit: Disney]

The next movie Disney released was Beauty and the BeastBeauty and the Beast originally weren’t supposed to be made into a musical like The Little Mermaid, but after scrapping the first 20 minutes of the film it was rearranged into one. Alan Menken worked on the musical score along with his longtime collaborator Howard Ashman.

Beauty and the Beast proved to be a cumulative success. The movie took advantage of the CAPS system and Disney’s newly established formula. The movie was uncompleted at the time it would be screened for the New York Film Critics, and received a standing ovation. The movie had a growing amount of anticipation and became a smash hit at the box office, grossing over $145 million in its domestic run. The movie’s biggest accomplishment, however, was during the Oscar season, where it became the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture. It was a feat that didn’t happen again until Pixar’s Up would get the nomination in 2009. It was a validation from the industry that animation mattered.

The Star Power Of Robin Williams And The Genie

Robin Williams as the Genie. 'Aladdin' [Credit: Disney]
Robin Williams as the Genie. ‘Aladdin’ [Credit: Disney]

Disney followed Beauty and the Beast up with Aladdin in 1992, which grossed over $217 million. More animated films were being released after studios started to see their huge box office appeal. Aladdin caused a stir when many started to question whether Robin Williams should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his voice work as the Genie. Robin Williams also gave rise to the practice of getting megastars to do the voice work on the animation projects. Disney’s next movie, The Lion King, was filled with established Hollywood talent doing the voice acting, such as Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, and Jeremy Irons.

Cash Grabs, Dreamworks, And Videos

The Rivals [Credit: Disney, DreamWorks]
The Rivals [Credit: Disney, DreamWorks]

After a fallout from behind the scenes of Disney and the success of Pixar and Toy Story, Dreamworks Animation made a push to became a power player. They became Pixar’s biggest competitor, pushing out films like Antz (in the same year Pixar’s A Bug’s Life came out, which help spark a feud between Disney/Pixar and ), ShrekKung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon.

In this period of animation revitalization, Disney opened a new animation studio separate from the main Disney Animation Studio that would later become known as DisneyToon Animation Studios. This studio would take advantage of the new surging home video market to create direct-to-video sequels to their popular movies like Aladdin and Lion King. These movies would vary in quality but were mostly seen as cheap “cash grabs.” Occasionally Disney would release a film into theaters, like A Goofy Movie in 1995.

The form of direct-to-video animation sequels would be adopted by other studios, pushing out cheaply made sequels that could easily make their money back. Disney started to team up with other animators to bring in even more animated projects like A Nightmare Before Christmas. This practice continues to this day with movies like Frankenweenie and A Christmas Carol.

'A Goofy Movie' [Credit: Disney]
‘A Goofy Movie’ [Credit: Disney]

Somehow these cartoons of lines and colors and movements can create a kind of life that is more archetypal, more liberating, than images that are weighed down by human bodies and the gravity that traps them. — Roger Ebert (‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ review)

The Lion King And The Beginning Of The End For The Renaissance

The sun sets on this time. 'The Lion King' [Credit: Disney]
The sun sets on this time. ‘The Lion King’ [Credit: Disney]

The biggest success for Disney animation in this period was the release of The Lion King in 1994. The movie is the most successful 2D animated film of all time with (at the time) domestic gross of over $312 million. The Lion King continued the style of animation started with The Little Mermaid.

The massive wildebeest stampede scene took almost a full year to be animated, taking full advantage of the computer (and CAPS), allowing hundreds of wildebeest to be animated without any running into each other.

Their next film, Pocahontas, would signal the beginning of the end for the Disney Renaissance. Pocahontas had a sharp drop in the box office totals and failed to bring in the same critical success that Disney Animation had grown accustomed to. The mixed feedback from their following feature The Hunchback of Notre Dame continued to signal a decline. The era would not truly end until the year 2000.

'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' [Credit: Disney]
‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ [Credit: Disney]

2000 was the start of the transition from 2D to 3D animation. Shrek and Monsters, Inc. came out in the same year — two critical and commercial success — before 2D animation began to decline from then on. Fantasia 2000 didn’t fare well at the box office and The Emperor’s New Groove didn’t fare much better. There weren’t a lot of big box office 2D animated hits in the following years. Part of this is because the quality of the CG movies being released at this time. Pixar was putting out movies at a near masterpiece level during this time. It was also new.

Culturally, people at this time tended to view hand-drawn animation as children’s entertainment. CG animation was still animation but it was vastly different from a perception standpoint. It had a realistic look to it. More adults were drawn to this form of animation, especially when movies like Shrek were aimed at an older audience (with a lot of jokes that only adults would pick up on). After 2005, all 2D productions with Disney Animation Studios have shut down in favor 3D computer animation. It would be some time before we saw another 2D Disney animated film.

A Second Renaissance?

'Tangled' [Credit: Disney]
‘Tangled’ [Credit: Disney]

Recently, some have been making the claim that Disney animation has been going through a second Renaissance ever since the release of Tangled. It’ll take some time to see if this latest resurgence of success will have the same or similar impact that the first Renaissance did. In any case, these latest films are building off what worked and what was most successful in the past. That success can be stemmed back to the original Disney Renaissance.

Other studios tried to replicate its success and it helped increase the number of animated films being released every year. The ramifications of this period are still being felt to this day and the importance of that cannot be overstated or undersold.

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