From 1989 to 1999 Disney released a number of their most iconic films, including The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Mulan (to name just a few) and in a decade now known as ‘The Disney Renaissance’ clawed back their dominance of the animation industry, reclaiming their place at the top after a number of struggling years. In this ‘A Brief(ish) History Of…’ we’ll take a look at the events leading up to, during and after the now fabled era of the Disney Renaissance
By the late 1980s Disney were struggling through a turbulent time in their long and previously successful history, having not seen a huge success in a number of years. Arguably the studio had struggled ever since the death of Walt Disney himself in 1966, and then his older brother (co-founder, and business partner) Roy O. Disney a few years later in 1971.
In the years that followed Disney kept releasing animated feature films, but none of them reached the levels of success Disney were used to in the Walt years, and so the future of Disney’s animation division came into doubt. Another big blow came for Disney in the mid-eighties when Don Bluth, a key animator who had worked on a number of Disney’s biggest features including Sleeping Beauty, The Sword in the Stone, and Robin Hood left the studio. To make matters worse Bluth left to form his own studio, taking a number of Disney’s most talented artists with him, and quickly became the top level completion for Disney in an already difficult period.
Then, after a huge failure in 1985’s The Black Caldron, which was Disney’s first PG-13 film and didn’t even make half of its production budget back at the box office, Disney’s next film was The Great Mouse Detective. Although it proved a hit it went up against Don Bluth’s An American Tale (another mouse themed story), and clearly lost, not doing as well critically or financially.
And so whilst Disney fought off Don Bluth on the animated front, with his company going on to make animated classics such as An American Tail, The Land Before Time, All Dogs go to Heaven, and Anastasia, they also had to fight off a takeover bid behind the scenes, eventually appointing Michael Eisner to the position of CEO (where he stayed for over twenty years).
Eisner pushed Disney to start making television animation (despite a thirty-year policy against doing so), where they quickly started to see some success. The next big step for the studio came after the part live action, part animated Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Oliver and Company (an animal-themed take on Oliver Twist), both of which reaffirmed the potential in feature-length animated movies. Leading on from these successes, Disney decided to refocus their efforts onto more musical features, especially those based on older, pre-existing stories.
The following year saw the start of what would come to be known as ‘The Disney Renaissance’, a ten year period in which Disney dominated theatrical animation, gaining widespread critical acclaim for everything from the animation and storylines to the soundtracks and their impact upon the industry as a whole.
The start of this Disney golden era began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. Going through various stages of production for decades, dating back to when Walt was still in charge, The Little Mermaid was to be an adaptation of the classic Hans Christian Anderson fairytale. The version we finally got tells the story of Ariel, a mermaid princess who wants to visit the human world. The story takes some artistic liberties from the source material, and, in an effort to streamline the overall narrative, gets rid of Ariel’s siblings, and overlooks the idea of Mermaid’s not having souls that go onto heaven as humans do.
The movie was met with critical acclaim, with everything from the quality of the animation, to its characterisation and in particular the music, being praised. The film received a number of Golden Globe and three Academy Award nominations, going on to win two of the Oscars (Best Song and Best Score), with Under the Sea beating another track from the film, Kiss the Girl, for Best Song.
Continuing the momentum started by Oliver and Company a year earlier The Little Mermaid rocketed Disney back to the top of feature-length animation, breaking the trend of Disney movies lacking in critical or financial success, greeting a global box office haul of just over $210 million, from a budget of $40 million.
In itself, that’s an impressive figure, but when compared to 1985’s The Black Cauldron, which was made from an even bigger budget of $44 million, but only made half of that back at the box office. We can see that The Little Mermaid’s made ten times more than the Black Cauldron, along with earning a number of awards, and boasting some chart-topping songs. In short, Disney were back, and they weren’t going to let that lead go, or so they thought.
The next step in the Disney Renaissance period is a little strange, and definitely not what you’d expect the second part of Disney’s return to form would be. 1990’s The Rescuers Down Under was the only theatrical sequel the studio produced during the Renaissance era of 1989 to 1999. And as the continuation of 1977’s The Rescuers, has earned itself the status of ‘the Disney Renaissance movie that isn’t really a Disney Renaissance movie’.
The Rescuers Down Under is often overlooked, and arguably doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the era at all. It isn’t based on an old fairy tale or story, doesn’t have any songs, and is the sequel to an earlier Disney movie. Adding that to a relatively lacklustre box office performance (with a global take of $47 million, from a budget of $27 million) there is no denying that it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the Renaissance films.
By the next year however, Disney’s comeback was back on track, bringing with it an even bigger hit than The Little Mermaid and The Rescuers Down Under combined in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. Returning to the formula of new feature films based on old fairy tales (that would go on to define the Renaissance period), Beauty and the Beast saw Disney’s take on ‘La Belle et la Bête’, a 1740 story by French author La Jeune Américaine et les contes marins, which was later abridged and re-popularised by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.
The Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (just like Oliver and Company, and The Little Mermaid before it) made the story significantly more light-hearted than the original source material, taking out Belle’s other siblings, adding living tableware and furniture to the Beast’s castle (where the original book had only ‘invisible’ servants), the idea of Gaston as a jealous suitor of Belle who wants to hunt down and kill the Beast, and of course a number of songs.
Beauty and the Beast proved to be Disney’s biggest hit yet, beating The Little Mermaid’s already impressive amount of award nominations and wins, and made from an even smaller budget grossed over $420 million globally.
With The Little Mermaid reaffirming Disney’s ability within the animation industry, Beauty and the Beast solidly put them back on par with not just animation, but live actions movies too. Disney’s latest film beat live action movies for academy awards, whilst pushing the boundaries of animation, and made setting a new standard for the medium look easy.
Keen to continue with this winning streak Disney’s next feature film was 1992’s Aladdin, which took its influence from ‘Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp’, an Arabic folk tale from the book ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. Disney again made a number of audience-appropriate alterations to the source material, fitting it to both a younger and more modern audience.
Aladdin proved yet another smash hit, receiving a number of awards and nominations for its animation, storytelling and music, and became the first ever animated film to gain over half a billion dollars at the global box office. In fact, although domestically Aladdin took in around a million less than it’s predecessor, Beauty and the Beast, globally it made a total of just over $500 million which is over $80 million more than Beauty and the Beast, showing Aladdin to be a bigger financial hit worldwide.
There is no denying that a lot of Aladdin’s success came down to Robin Williams’ performance as the Genie in the Lamp, who in 1992 was at the height of his fame, and provided an instant fan favourite with his interpretation of the Genie (in a way that no one else could). Despite some fallings out with the studio as to how they used him to advertise the film, which eventually led to Williams not returning for the direct to video sequel ‘The Return of Jafar’, Disney did make up with Williams in time for him to feature in the third and final film ‘Aladdin and the King of Thieves’.
Even with a pattern forming, with each new Disney feature topping the last (excluding The Rescuers Down Under), and Aladdin being the studio’s biggest hit yet, nothing could have prepared audiences (or Disney) for what was coming next, and in 1994 Disney’s biggest feature yet was released to even more critical acclaim, success, and money than any Disney film before it (and even a lot since).
The Lion King combines another all-star cast (led by the likes Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Rowan Atkinson, and Whoopi Goldberg), with music from Elton John and Hans Zimmer, and a return to humanised animals as the main characters, all adding up to a lion based reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Interestingly The Lion King was in many ways a product of a number of let downs, and problems. ABBA was the original choice for the music, and when that fell through Elton John came on board, all of the animation was produced by the second tier of Disney’s animators with most of the more experienced artists working on Pocahontas (which was being produced simultaneously), and even Jeremy Irons only joining the film as Scar after Tim Curry couldn’t be in The Lion King and Home Alone 2 at the same time.
The Lion King dominated the global box office for months and again received numerous awards and nominations. In terms of money The Lion King made has made a staggering $968,483,777 at the box office to date, which is nearly double Aladdin (which at the time was already Disney’s biggest film in years), in short, The Lion King raised the already resurgent Disney to completely new heights.
With The Lion King being so successful, this new era of Disney domination was really going to go one of two ways, it could continue getting even bigger and better, or it would take a hit, with the next few movies getting less money, costing more and even causing a little controversy (or at least noticeably more than previous films had) – unfortunately for Disney, of the two options, it was the later.
In fact, although in many ways 1995’s Pocahontas was a success, it was the worst (critically) received Disney movie in years, and stands as the lowest rated of the entire Renaissance period, with a large number of critiques aimed at it’s historical inaccuracy, and how it portrayed a pretty terrible period of human history.
Telling the story of real-world Native American Pocahontas, and her meeting of John Smith (a settler to the new world), the film once again made the actual story much more family-friendly, with love interest styled overtones that proved a little too much for many critics.
The changes were critiqued much more than alterations Disney had made in their past adaptations as this was the first of the Renaissance period to be based on a real-life historical figure, and not just a story. In reality Pocahontas would have been closer to ten years old when she met John Smith, whether or not she saved his life has been contested, and as far as her treatment in real life goes, Pocahontas was actually captured by colonists a few years after John Smith returned to England.
Interestingly with a number of Disney’s top animators working on Pocahontas rather than The Lion King (thinking it would be a musical and romantic hit in a similar way to Beauty and the Beast, and that The Lion King wouldn’t), and a budget of ten million more, Pocahontas only made a third of The Lion King’s box office take at just over $346 million. Failing to come close to even smaller Disney hits like Aladdin, or Beauty and the Beast. All issues aside however Pocahontas still received two oscars, and a number of other awards and nominations, with Disney’s streak in technical achievement and great songs continuing despite a more negative reaction to the full film.
From this point the movies, although still a huge success (financially and critically), continue the downward trend that Pocahontas started, all having bigger budgets than the early nineties movies, but failing to make anywhere near the amount of money.
The next entry to the Renaissance era is 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an adaption of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel. Again a solid success, but still one of the least well received of the period (although it admittedly got significantly better reviews than Pocahontas). Hunchback again drew criticisms for it’s interpretation of the source material, which is pretty understandable given the focus on religion and dark nature of the original book (which, among other things, in a very un-Disney way has almost all of the main characters dead at the end).
Hunchback was the first film in years to not have a specific song nominated for an academy award or golden globe, gained the least amount of awards in a long time, and actually got nominated for a golden raspberry award. With a budget of $100 million (over double The Lion King’s) The Hunchback of Notre Dame made just over $325 million at the global box office, which is even less than Pocahontas, but from a much bigger budget. And so, although still a key part of the Renaissance period, and doing better critically than Pocahontas, it was the lowest earner for Disney since The Rescuers Down Under.
Taking a break from adapting classic novels, or historical figures Disney’s next feature instead reimagines the story of the Greek gods of Olympus and Hercules (or Heracles as he was in Greek, with Hercules being his Roman name) but with a Superhero-esque theme. Boasting another all star cast (perhaps the biggest since The Lion King), with Tate Donovan as Hercules, Danny DeVito as Philoctetes, Rip Torn as Zeus, and James Woods as Hades, which was the stand out performance of the movie and even drew comparisons to Robin William’s Genie.
Hercules takes a superhero-esque approach to the fabled Greek hero (with a particular emphasis on Superman), with him falling from the sky as a baby, being adopted an older couple who couldn’t’ have kids on their own, being a clumsy dork when he grows up, and turning into a caped super star with a huge weak spot for his love interest.
Hercules was well received by critics (getting significantly better reviews than either Pocahontas or Hunchback), but it again under performed at the box office, continuing the downward trend from the previous two films making just over $252 million (from an admittedly smaller budget than Hunchback). Comparatively this is just over The Little Mermaid’s box office take eight years earlier, and was blamed on the lack of full family appeal in the way movies like Aladdin, The Lion King or even ‘date’ movies like Beauty and the Beast had – with Hercules instead focussing on a more comic book superhero theme theme (something that would likely do much better in today’s more comic book centric box office than did in the late nineties).
Hercules received even less awards and nominations than Hunchback, but still proved enough of a hit to get it’s own tv show and direct to video prequel (which led into the show), becoming one of Disney’s late nineties tentpole franchises.
The penultimate entry to Disney’s golden era returns to a ‘Disney-fied’ look at history, and similarly to Pocahontas focuses on an important female figure of history (albeit a fictional one); Mulan. Taking a look at ancient China, 1998’s Mulan, is based on the legend of Hua Mulan, a woman who took her fathers place in the army, going on to became one of it’s most prominent warriors.
Disney’s adaptation brings with it a number of expected alterations from the original story/poem, ranging from a miniature dragon companion (played by Eddie Murphy), to adding a love story between Mulan and her commanding officer Li Shang, and the idea that Mulan runs away in secret from her family rather than them allowing her.
In reaction to a string of box office disappointments the advertisement budget for Mulan was half of Hercules’ (coming in at somewhere around $30 million) but had a bigger production budget so came in around a similar figure. Despite this however Mulan had a significantly bigger box office take, coming in at just over $300 million globally. And so although it didn’t even match the likes of Hunchback, it was the first Disney film since the Lion King to make more money than it’s predecessor.
Although receiving numerous awards and nominations, and being solid hit for Disney the film was poorly received in China, critiqued for being too westernised, dashing any hopes the studio had for building some solid ties to the Chinese market.
The final film of Disney’s Renaissance era was 1999’s Tarzan, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs iconic character. The film marks Tarzan’s first foray into animation (having already starred in a number of live action films, tv shows, radio programs, video games and stage shows), took a significant departure from the source material in having Tarzan stay on the island (never leaving for London) and fighting the hunter Clayton (a character created for the film) to protect the apes.
One of Tarzan’s most notable features was a soundtrack written and performed by Phil Collins, which went on to become one of Disney’s most successful soundtracks in years. Interestingly it’s the only film of the Renaissance era (excluding The Rescuers Down Under) to have none of the on screen characters singing, with Phil Collin’s vocals acting more like narration or an internal expression rather than an all out singing and dancing musical. This was an intentional choice form the films directors as they decided it would better suit Tarzan’s character.
Tarzan yet again received a number of awards and nominations (but more in line with the last few Disney movies, and no where near the amount earlier film were getting), one thing Tarzan did bring back however is box office revenue. Even though it got only slightly better reviews than Mulan or Hercules, Tarzan made over $440 million at the global box office, and made around $5 million more than Beauty and the Beast. One thing that does take away from this achievement however, is Tarzan’s production cost, over $130 million, which at the time made it the most expensive animated film in history.
During this ‘Disney Renaissance’ the studio managed to prove that even box office disappointments, controversially altered storylines, and even battling with their own legacy can all be over come by some great animation and some catchy tunes. There is no denying this really was a golden era for Disney, releasing not just one or two but nearly ten of their best and most iconic films almost sequentially, thoroughly righting the Disney ship, and setting them back on the path to global domination.