The Disney Renaissance is the era from 1989 to 1999 during which Walt Disney Feature Animation (renamed Walt Disney Animation Studios in 2006) experienced a creative resurgence in producing successful animated films based on well-known stories, which restored public and critical interest in The Walt Disney Company as a whole.
During this decade, the studio produced and released 10 animated films: 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).
After the deaths of Walt and Roy O. Disney (in 1966 and 1971, respectively), The Walt Disney Studios were left in the hands of Donn Tatum, Card Walker, and Ron Miller. The films released over an eighteen-year period following this change of management did not perform as well commercially as their prior counterparts. An especially hard blow was dealt during production of The Fox and the Hound when long-time animator Don Bluth left Disney to start his own rival studio, Don Bluth Productions, taking eleven Disney animators with him. With 17% of the animators now gone, production on The Fox and the Hound was delayed. Don Bluth Productions produced The Secret of NIMH in 1982 (whose story idea Disney had originally rejected for being too dark), and the company eventually became Disney’s main competitor in the animation industry during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Disney made major organizational changes in the 1980s after narrowly escaping a hostile takeover attempt from Saul Steinberg. Michael Eisner, formerly of Paramount Pictures, became CEO in 1984, and he was joined by his Paramount associate Jeffrey Katzenberg, while Frank Wells, formerly of Warner Bros., became President. In 1985, to make more room for live-action filmmaking, the animation department was moved from the main Disney lot in Burbank to a “temporary” location in various hangars, warehouses, and trailers about two miles (3.2 km) east in nearby Glendale, where it would remain for the next ten years. Thus, most of the Disney Renaissance (in terms of where the films were actually made) actually took place in a rather ordinary industrial park in Glendale, the Grand Central Business Centre.
After the box office failure of the 1985 PG-rated feature The Black Cauldron, the future of the animation department was in jeopardy. Going against a thirty-year studio policy, the company founded a television animation division (now Disney Television Animation) which was much cheaper than theatrical animation. In the interest of saving what he believed to be the studio’s core business, Roy E. Disney persuaded Eisner to let him supervise the animation department in the hopes of improving its fortunes.
In 1986, Disney released The Great Mouse Detective, while Don Bluth released An American Tail. An American Tail outperformed Mouse Detective, and became the higher-grossing film on its first release. Despite An American Tail
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.1em;”>’s greater level of success, The Great Mouse Detective was still successful enough (both critically and commercially) to instill executive confidence in Disney’s animation department.
In 1988, Disney collaborated with Steven Spielberg, a long-time animation fan and producer of An American Tail and The Land Before Time, to produce Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a live action/animation hybrid which featured animated characters from the 1930s and 1940s from many different studios together. The film was a critical and commercial success, winning three Academy Awards for technical achievements and renewing interest in theatrical animated cartoons. Other than the film itself, Spielberg also helped Disney produce three Roger Rabbit shorts.
Disney had been developing The Little Mermaid since the 1930s, and by 1988, after the success of Roger Rabbit, the studio had decided to make it into an animated musical, much like many of its previous animated movies, but with a more Broadway feel to it. Lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, who worked on Broadway years earlier on productions such as Little Shop of Horrors, became involved in the production, writing and composing the songs and score for the film. Released on November 14, 1989, The Little Mermaid was a critical and commercial success and garnered a higher weekend gross than Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven, which opened the same weekend, eventually breaking The Land Before Time‘s record of highest-grossing animated film. It won two Academy Awards for Best Original Song (“Under the Sea”) and for Best Original Score, earning an additional nomination for Best Original Song for “Kiss the Girl.”
The Rescuers Down Under was released one year later and was the first canon sequel produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. The film garnered mainly positive reception, but was not as financially successful as The Little Mermaid.
Beauty and the Beast, often considered to be one of the greatest of all Disney animated features, followed in 1991. It was the first animated film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, losing to The Silence of the Lambs. Beauty and the Beast did win the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) and two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. Beauty and the Beast also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound, as well as two additional nominations for Best Original Song.
Aladdin and The Lion King followed in 1992 and 1994, respectively, with both films having the highest worldwide grosses of their respective release years. Aladdin was the highest-grossing animated film up until that time, but was later surpassed by The Lion King, which became the highest-grossing animated film ever at the time and remains the highest-grossing traditionally animated film in history (fifth overall in history after additional gross from a successful 2011 3D re-release, behind Toy Story 3, Frozen, Minions and Zootopia ). Both films won Academy Awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Score. Aladdin also earned an additional Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song and nominations for Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing, for a total of five nominations. The Lion King earned two additional Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song, giving it a total of four Academy Award nominations. Howard Ashman wrote several songs for Aladdin before his death, but only three were ultimately used in the film. Tim Rice joined the project and completed the score and songs with Alan Menken. Tim Rice went on to collaborate with Elton John and Hans Zimmer in The Lion King. Between these in-house productions
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, Disney diversified in animation methods and produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) with former Disney animator Tim Burton.
Thanks to the success of the early films of the Renaissance era, Disney management was able to allocate sufficient money to bring Feature Animation back from its ten-year exile to Glendale. A 240,000-square-foot building designed by Robert A. M. Stern opened across the street from the main Disney lot in Burbank on December 16, 1994.
The next Disney animated film, 1995’s Pocahontas, opened to mixed reviews, though it still earned $346 million worldwide and garnered Academy Awards for Best Score and Best Original Song for “Colors of the Wind.” The following year, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney’s first animated film produced at a budget over $100 million, opened to better reviews than Pocahontas, but a lower total box office of $325 million. Both films feature composer (now serving only as lyricist to Menken’s music) Stephen Schwartz. When Hercules, released in 1997, earned $252 million—$73 million less than Hunchback—at the box office, news media began to openly suggest that Disney animation was on a downward trend of their animated film releases. Although it gained more positive criticism than Pocahontas, it was still vulnerable to competition from companies such as DreamWorks and Pixar. All three films featured songs by Alan Menken.
Disney’s next film, Mulan, with a score by Jerry Goldsmith and songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, came out in 1998 and earned $304 million at the worldwide box office, raising the commercial and critical standing of Disney’s output. 1999’s Tarzan, with songs by Phil Collins, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “You’ll Be in My Heart,” became Disney’s most commercially successful film since The Lion King, earning $448 million at the box office and widespread positive reviews. Tarzan was also Disney’s most expensive animated feature to that date at $130 million, much of which went to developing new processes such as the computer-assisted background painting technique known as “Deep Canvas”. It was also the first film since the start of the Renaissance era that was written, developed and produced at the studio’s new home in Burbank; all the other films had either been made entirely in Glendale or had started development in Glendale and moved with the studio to Burbank.
While achieving success in animation motion pictures, Disney created huge strides in television as well during this time period. After 30 years of resisting offers to produce television animation, Disney finally relented once Michael Eisner, who had a background in TV, took over. The first TV cartoons to carry the Disney name, CBS’ The Wuzzles and NBC’s Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears, both premiered in the fall of 1985. Breaking from standard practice in the medium, the productions enjoyed substantially larger production budgets than average, allowing for higher-quality writing and animation, in anticipation of recouping profitably in rerun syndication. While The Wuzzles only lasted a season, The Gummi Bears was a sustained success with a six-season run.
In 1987, the TV animation division adapted Carl Barks’ Scrooge McDuck comic books for the small screen with the syndicated hit DuckTales. Its success spawned a 1990 theatrical film entitled DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp and an increased investment in syndicated cartoons. The result of this investment was The Disney Afternoon in 1990, a two-hour syndicated television programming block of such animated shows as Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers (1989–91), TaleSpin (1990–91), Darkwing Duck (1991–93, also airing on ABC), Goof Troop (1992–94, also airing on ABC), Bonkers (1993–94), and Gargoyles (1994–97). TV animation also brought some animated feature film characters to Saturday morning, including The Little Mermaid and Aladdin both on CBS.
The release of Tarzan is retrospectively seen as the end of the Renaissance era. Though Disney released a total of eleven animated features during the post-Renaissance era, many of them were not as well-received critically or commercially, and created lesser successes such as Fantasia 2000, The Emperor’s New Groove, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire and the studio also suffered significant box office losses such as Treasure Planet and Home on the Range. Dinosaur, Lilo & Stitch, and Brother Bear were the only major box office successes during this time, Lilo & Stitch being the most prestigious of the three films (spawning a franchise with three sequel films and two TV series). In addition, Disney found itself facing even more ferocious competition in the form of DreamWorks Animation and its successful Shrek series.
In 1995, Disney partnered with Pixar to create Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated film. In the early-mid 2000s, many of Pixar’s films, such as Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Monsters, Inc., garnered box office results and critical acclaim similar to those of the Disney Renaissance films of the early 1990s, while Disney’s own animated films in the same period were considerably less successful, with analysts suggesting that Disney was relying heavily on Pixar for creative content that could be used for consumer products and television. Pixar was responsible for creation and production, while Disney handled marketing and distribution, with profits and production costs split 50-50, not including the distribution fee collected by Disney. However, in this partnership agreement, Disney exclusively owned all story and sequel rights, which soon became the most onerous issue for Pixar and set the stage for a contentious relationship. The contract between Disney and Pixar expired in 2004, and that year negotiations on a new agreement stalled. Pixar insisted on control over films already in production under their old agreement including The Incredibles and Cars, Disney refused to grant such control, and Pixar declared that it was actively seeking partners other than Disney.
In response to the success of Pixar, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner decided that public tastes had changed, and that it was time to get out of hand-drawn animation altogether after Home on the Range in 2004. In 2005, Chicken Little, the studio’s first full CGI animated feature, received mixed reviews from critics though it performed well at the box office, whereas their second CGI feature in 2007, Meet the Robinsons received favorable reviews, but had a modest box office performance. Chicken Little‘s box office success suggested that Disney did not need to depend entirely upon Pixar for quality CGI films, and gave Disney some leverage during negotiations to continue their partnership.
In 2006, Disney purchased Pixar for $7.4 billion, and Pixar executives Edwin Catmull and John Lasseter became, respectively, president and chief creative officer of Disney Animation (in addition to also continuing to manage Pixar). The subsequent reorganization also affected many projects currently being developed at Walt Disney Animation Studios, most notably American Dog which was written by Chris Sanders. As Lasseter took creative control at Walt Disney Animation Studios, he also reviewed American Dog and made a series of suggestions and creative changes which ultimately led to the movie’s story and artistic direction being reimagined, and the name being changed to “Bolt”. In the process, Chris Sanders (who purportedly refused many of the creative changes) was replaced by Chris Williams and Byron Howard as directors for the movie. Lasseter was quoted saying “Chris Sanders is extremely talented, but he couldn’t take it to the place it had to be.” According to Lasseter, he and Edwin Catmull also changed the way project screenings were managed by setting a mandate that everyone present speak openly and issued a proclamation that every employee’s opinion was welcome, no matter their experience or position.
You could see it in the animation of 2008’s Bolt, the first film Lasseter and Catmull touched: The characters were more visually appealing, more believable, funnier than the characters in Disney’s previous film, Meet the Robinsons. And crucially, the acting was more nuanced: The characters didn’t feel like caricatures.
In 2008, Disney’s first CGI feature made after the Pixar acquisition, Bolt, was released to critical acclaim and was a box office success. With an 88 percent critics’ approval rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, Bolt was the highest rated Walt Disney Animation feature in almost a decade (since Tarzan in 1999) in terms of critical reception. Many critics also attributed the movie’s quality to the new creative direction. One such journalist, Kenneth Turan from Los Angeles Times, wrote “At the end of the day, Bolt is a sweet Disney family film, but Lasseter’s oversight has made it smarter than it otherwise would have been.”
Some journalists have attributed Bolt and Disney’s new direction to the first glimmer of a new, oncoming Disney renaissance
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. In an article published in the magazine Wired, which included interviews with Chris Williams, John Lasseter and Edwin Catmull, the writer Caitlin Roper summarized Pixar influence: “You could see it in the animation of 2008’s Bolt, the first film Lasseter and Catmull touched: The characters were more visually appealing, more believable, funnier than the characters in Disney’s previous film, Meet the Robinsons. And crucially, the acting was more nuanced: The characters didn’t feel like caricatures.” Bolt was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
When Lasseter took creative control of the animation division with the purchase of Pixar, Disney announced they would return to traditional animation with the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, loosely based on The Frog Princess, which was largely well received by critics and audiences alike and a financial success (grossing over $267 million). It was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Animated Feature. Today, The Princess and the Frog is seen as the modern turning point for the studio, and the beginning of the new revival era of Disney animated films, though it should be noted that some people disagree with that statement.
In 2010, Disney released its 50th animated feature, Tangled, which continued the new direction for the studio and the trend of positive critical reception. Following the tradition of the 1990s animated films, Tangled was a musical fairy tale loosely based on the story of Rapunzel. The film received nominations for several awards and was highly successful critically and commercially, earning more than $500 million worldwide and reigniting interest in Walt Disney Animation Studios. Winnie the Pooh followed in 2011 and was critically acclaimed, but received modest returns at the box office. In 2012, Disney saw another critical release with Wreck-It Ralph, which was released to similar critical and commercial success as Tangled. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars and the Golden Globes.
In 2013, the studio released Frozen, a musical film loosely based on the fairy tale The Snow Queen, which was released to widespread acclaim and broke box office records during its first weekend of release. It went on to become the first film from Walt Disney Animation Studios to gross $1 billion worldwide and also the highest-grossing animated film of all time. Frozen also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, as well as the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Let it Go.”
In 2014, the studio released Big Hero 6, a film inspired by the Marvel Comics superhero team of the same name. The film received critical acclaim upon its release and was a box office success, grossing over $657 million and becoming 2014’s highest-grossing animated film. It also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
In 2016, the studio released Zootopia to considerable international critical and commercial success not only for its artistic excellence, but also for being a sophisticated beast fable about prejudice and stereotypes that proved exceptionally timely in the contemporary American political environment. It also scored the biggest worldwide opening for an animated film. Zootopia become the fourth animated film and third Disney animated film in history to cross the $1 billion mark worldwide.
Most of the films Disney released in the Renaissance era were well-received, as in the film critic site Rotten Tomatoes, four out of the first five—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King—have the best critical reception (with over 90% positive reviews), while Pocahontas has the lowest reception of Disney’s “renaissance” films (with 56% of positive reviews).
The success of the Disney Renaissance attracted the attention of many animation studios and film studios. Major film studios established new animation divisions such as Amblimation, Fox Animation Studios, Turner Feature Animation, and Warner Bros. Feature Animation to replicate Disney’s success by turning their animated films into Disney-styled musicals. However, most attempts met with largely mixed to negative reviews from critics and poor box office results, with Hans Christian Andersen’s Thumbelina, Quest for Camelot and The Swan Princess being major examples. However, Anastasia (produced by 20th Century Fox), The Prince of Egypt (produced by DreamWorks Pictures) and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (produced by Paramount Pictures) were the only films that achieved the same level of musical and filmmaking quality as the Disney films.
Nine of the ten films in the Disney Renaissance were nominated for Academy Awards, six of which won at least one Academy Award; and nine of the films were nominated for Annie Awards, with six of them winning at least one: