It was a quarter of a century ago today when Walt Disney Animation Studios released a film called The Little Mermaid. However, unlike most film anniversaries, this one has a special importance beyond being a marker for another family film classic. It also represents what was the first film in a very crucial movement, affectionately known as "The Disney Renaissance." With this specific Broadway styled film, Disney's animation department roared back to life, and the role of feature-length animation in pop culture changed in such a profound way that it is affecting us to this very day.
The Disney Renaissance ushered in a genuine and avoidable rebirth for the genre and form to a new generation, just as The Little Mermaid also raised questions about how the studio created it--and then fell out of favor at the end of the Renaissance 10 short years later. Indeed, it's only recently that Walt Disney Animation Studios has reasserted itself in favor above chasing dull live-action recreations, such as Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent. The decade long rise and fall of the Disney renaissance is, indeed, a story unto itself. And as a self-professed child of the 1990s, with all the Disney nostalgia that entails, it is one I am going to arrogantly try to explore below. For however fleeting, the Disney Renaissance (and the film that started it) has left an impact to this day.
Disney was in a bad place during the 1980s. At the start of the decade, founder Walt Disney had been dead for 14 years. Their last animated fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty (1959), was even older than that. Following Walt’s passing, there were some animated successes, but much like the company’s live-action oeuvre, the studio failed to produce anything substantial during the 1970s. Things became so dark that members of Disney’s Board of Directors began plans for a hostile takeover that would lead to the company’s assets being sold off. With dissolution seemingly inevitable, Roy E. Disney, son of Walt’s brother, quit the board and brought in Paramount wunderkinds Michael Eisner and Frank Wells to run the company. The shake-up saved the brand from utter destruction in 1984 and laid the groundwork for its reinvention.
After the dust settled and corporate brinkmanship ended, one final Paramount exec came to the House of Mouse: Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg, an up-and-comer who was charged with running Disney’s motion picture division, discovered an animation department that was being maintained more like a memorial to the studio’s glory days than as a vibrant creative force. The beleaguered cartoon staff was a generational clash of hungry college grads wanting to make their bones and old legends who thought their newest release, The Black Cauldron (1985), was just peachy.
Cauldron flopped horrifically at the box office. What made it even worse for the animation studio was that by the end of the decade, ex-Disney animator Don Bluth was succeeding in their market with hits like The Secret of NIMH (1982) and the Steven Spielberg-produced An American Tail (1986). By the time Bluth’s The Land Before Time (1988) came out, Katzenberg had long demoralized the entire animation staff by exiling them from the building Walt built for them and off the studio grounds to make room for more office space.
The artists, relocated to a sketchy neighborhood and decrepit building, should have been facing the end of feature animation. But a miraculous thing happened. After a falling out with Bluth, Spielberg produced a movie called Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). Of course, Disney’s actual animation team had little to do with it because they were so downsized. Work on the movie had to be exported to London animators. Still, that movie’s use of mature themes and adult-friendly humor mixed with classic cartoon tropes for children proved a box office bonanza. A year after CEO Eisner patiently explained to Diane Sawyer that they continue to make animated features only due to Walt’s legacy, Roger Rabbit showed that audiences were hungry for feature length animation if it was good. Back at Disney, the animators also just happened to be working on another film called The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid’s incredible success seemed to be a perfect storm of events. Despite Katzenberg greenlighting it in 1984, the exec was cautious about Mermaid’s box office potential due to it being a “girl’s film.” But after Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s returns, Walt Disney Animation Studios had an influx of new talent and resources. The movie’s biggest boon came with the addition of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to the creative team. The inclusion of the Broadway collaborators meant turning the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale into a musical. Obviously, the idea of a Disney cartoon with songs is nothing new. But Ashman had a very clear vision for reinventing the form at a studio that was then relying on stunt pop music casting like Billy Joel and Bette Midler to sell other middling animated flicks.
Ashman cast Jodi Benson, a little-known Broadway thesp who had appeared in his last Great White Way flop, as the voice of his leading lady. He had the animators change a proper English crab, the mermaid’s animal sidekick, into a Jamaican Rastafarian, thereby creating more musical diversity. This also led to the Oscar winning showstopper “Under the Sea,” as well as the calypso crooner “Kiss the Girl.”
The Broadway formula was likewise added to the pacing of the movie. The protagonist is introduced as unique and apart from the other chorus girls during the opening song. Instead, she gets her own solo that explains why she is so special, and why you should root for her. The song, “Part of Your World,” became a point of contention between Ashman and Katzenberg when the latter thought it killed the pacing of the movie. Instead, it defined what would become the Disney formula for the next 10 years of the Renaissance:
First, the story must introduce its heroine as being a world apart, then she sings a song about what she wants in life (usually revolving around love) and finally she has to overcome a villain to get it. But not before a big chorus number or two led by comedic supporting characters. Ashman and Menken were bringing the traditional Broadway-style musical back to cinemas after the genre died even harder than animation did in the 1970s. The Little Mermaid opened in 1989 to glowing reviews and an amazing box office run of $86 million domestically, three times what Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven made in the same year. The winning plot coupled with the most gorgeously drawn Disney art in nearly a third of a century birthed a juggernaut of a formula. One that would carry Disney to its greatest heights before it came crashing down.
Disney, now seeing the potential in animated films, embraced the art form in a way that even Walt had stopped doing later in life. By making these massively budgeted musicals that played just as well for adults, teenagers on a date, and children, Disney created new content to merchandise. More merchandise meant more brands that would lure families to the theme parks. More theme park attractions meant more demand for direct-to-video sequels. It was a vicious, lucrative cycle. The next Disney film that carried on this style was Beauty and the Beast (1991).
Beauty and the Beast became the jewel in the studio’s crown. A bigger budget and the use of some computer animation (based on a program created by Pixar) made it even more visually breathtaking. Thematically, they tried to further free themselves from the continuing complaints of sexism. In Mermaid, Ariel is much more proactive than previous Disney princesses like Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) or Snow White--all of whom literally sat around all day, singing that their prince would come. Yet in the end, Ariel’s actions are all in pursuit of a pair of legs so she can get a man between them (read any feminist paper on it, ever).
With Belle, the beauty in the second movie’s title, Disney wanted to create a modern woman who wasn’t after love but some sense of self-fulfillment. She obviously doesn’t look to fall in love with a beast, but she has an intellectual curiosity, and it just happens because of a relationship built on more than him being a conventionally handsome prince. Now, I could also easily argue that Disney inadvertently created a film that romanticizes Stockholm Syndrome and told the story of how a poor girl, kidnapped by a monster for six months, finally snaps and becomes infatuated with her tormentor…but at least they were trying?
In any case, the movie clearly worked for the critics, because it became the first animated movie to ever be nominated for Best Picture by the Academy Awards (and not like today where there are ten nominees, so Pixar can get a token spot). Beauty and the Beast also marked a sad note for the studio. Howard Ashman, who again collaborated on the songs with composer Alan Menken, died of AIDS eight months before the film’s release.
The last Disney movie that Ashman contributed to was Aladdin (1992). He wrote half the songs with Menken, who then finished the remaining musical numbers with lyricist Tim Rice. Aladdin continued the old school Broadway formula, but this time with a male protagonist. Even so, he sings a ballad early about what he wants out of life (money) to his sidekick (talking monkey) and how he intends to get it (palace). The movie was even more beautifully drawn than the last and included more noticeable CGI animation, provided for by Pixar’s programming.
However, one major difference between Aladdin and the previous two Renaissance pictures was the inclusion of a major celebrity voice. Cast in the role of the Genie, Robin Williams steals the entire movie as a fourth-wall shattering stand-up comedian. Thanks to the miracle of animation, visuals were finally able to keep up with Williams’ spitfire improvisation. Ironically, this was the first kind of celebrity-branded voice casting that would eventually play a role in the end of Disney’s fairy tales. But for that moment, like the previous two films, Aladdin worked due to the sheer exhilaration of self-discovery by the animators and other talent. It followed the formula, but no more than a normal Broadway show would. With the Genie character and other Arabian flourishes blanketing Disney’s style, they were creating something new in the genre. Not unlike modern movie trends (ahem—superhero origin stories—ahem), the story beats were becoming a little too obvious, yet it still worked, even if the next one would have to be different.
The Lion King (1994) is the crowning achievement not only of Disney animation, but also American animation in general. One of the only two Renaissance films to break with Broadway tradition, the movie also marked a transition for the era as the first project that Howard Ashman had no role in. In fact, it is also one of only a few that even Alan Menken was not involved in. With songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, and a score written by Hans Zimmer, The Lion King is creatively the odd one out. This was intentional.
When production for The Lion King and 1995’s Pocahontas began concurrently, Katzenberg sat all the artists down to discuss the projects. Pocahontas was going to be their next Beauty and the Beast. A film that dealt with big emotions and big ideas! It was going to be for adults…and big! The Lion King? That one was kind of a weird experiment that somehow got greenlit. Hence, every artist wanted to be on the Pocahontas team, and The Lion King became the project for the also-rans.
However, there was something special about the lion picture. First, it was not based on any pre-existing story, fairy tale or otherwise. This gave the writers and artists enormous freedom. The second advantage was that since it's the “experimental” one, they could actually experiment. Slowly, the artists involved added elements from the Bible like the tales of Moses, Joseph and Cain and Abel. Ultimately, it also became very influenced by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet…except with lions.
An uncle murders a father to assume the throne. The son goes into the wilderness until he is ready to accept his divine right. It deals with ideas like mortality, legacy and familial responsibility as opposed to simply a love story. These facets, combined with Zimmer’s much more ponderous and menacing score, created a tone unlike any other Disney film ever produced. Audiences ate it up and with a worldwide box office of $951 million, it is the most successful hand drawn animated movie of all time. It also gave the Disney Renaissance an opportunity to grow in a new direction. Unfortunately, Disney took the wrong lessons from it.
The Lion King marked several other major changes for the company. Before its release, Frank Wells died in a tragic helicopter crash. Wells played superego to the regular egos of Eisner, Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney. Shortly after his death, Katzenberg demanded Wells’ job of COO and President. But after years of the press crediting Katzenberg for the Disney Renaissance over Eisner and Roy E. Disney, that clearly wasn’t going to happen. It is still disputed whether Katzenberg quit Disney or was fired, but either way he left to form DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen (say hello to Shrek in a few years). Given the lesser success and eventual ruination of the Disney features that followed, a popular narrative has formed that it was the loss of either Katzenberg or Wells that brought an end to the Disney Renaissance. I disagree.
While there is no denying that Katzenberg’s obsessive drive on the Walt Disney Animation Studios after 1989, as well as clearing house in the mid-80s, helped push them to new heights, he was also there when the first seeds of its destruction were planted. Enter Pocahontas.
The follow-up to The Lion King read none of its signs. It again starred a pair of young lovers who dreamed of being together. It didn’t help that unlike Aladdin, Jasmine, Ariel, Belle or any of the other Renaissance protagonists, Pocahontas and John Smith were deadly dull personalities. Other formulaic conventions that were cute in the past, like a Jamaican Rastafarian crab playing wingman to a mermaid or a smartass monkey being a street rat’s partner-in-crime, became toxically overdone in Pocahontas. Pocahontas has a pet sidekick raccoon; the villain has a pet sidekick dog. Eventually the dog becomes the raccoon’s sidekick. And none of it is cute.
The worst problem for all this was that Pocahontas is based on actual history. Disney has never been afraid of changing the source material before. However, it is substantially different when you rewrite the ending to the original Little Mermaid fairy tale (spoiler alert: she dies) than when you rewrite U.S. history (spoiler alert: Pocahontas does not live happily ever after with John Smith, and there are no mountains in coastal Virginia!)
Even worse, most of the changes were patronizing stereotypes. The Native Americans are just such noble, noble savages in the movie. That’s why they can do things like jump off waterfalls, take baby cubs away from momma grizzly bears and literally talk to trees who give them magical powers like, oh, learning new languages in five seconds! Assuming most audiences might buy that the Virginia Company landed in a swamp to dig for gold is one thing, but thinking they’ll accept talking trees in a story based on history? It’s not just stupid. It doesn’t work; no matter how pretty Alan Menken’s music is in the film.
This is what became the major problem for the second half of the Disney Renaissance. Most of the films produced between 1995 and 1999 by Disney’s animation division were based on stories that simply did not lend themselves to the Disney formula. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) is a dense, complex work of literature by Victor Hugo, and it is not a fairy tale that can be so easily tinkered with. When you add comical, talking gargoyles (not unlike the talking candlestick and pots in Beauty and the Beast), you take away from the tragedy of the work.
Also, while I’m sure there is some Hans Christian Andersen scholar out there enraged that Ariel lives happily ever after instead of committing suicide, giving Quasimodo a happy ending is a might-bit different. It’s not a fairy tale, and the whole point of his character, like almost all Hugo characters, is his endless suffering. Ending said suffering kind of defeats the purpose. Let’s not even get into how Disney’s Hercules (1997) avoids the whole, “Your dad raped your mom while disguised as her husband” thing.
Contrary to industry wisdom, I do not think that the formula quit working or that audiences really grew tired of hand-drawn animation. There is no denying that the formula was incredibly played out by the end of the 1990s. So much so, that real gems like Mulan (1998) disappeared under the radar when it actually was not about a girl in search for a guy (though she does find one as a bonus at the end). Audiences show a vast willingness to see the same story again and again, as Disney’s newer acquisition of Marvel Studios can attest. The problem is the formula was too blatant after one fairy tale romance almost every year. It was also starting to be used on material that was far too incongruous with the Disney brand, thus creating films that were at odds with themselves.
The sad thing is, Disney did lay out how to do its musicals freshly with The Lion King. You can take inspiration from existing stories, but not be beholden to any source material if you put them in a striking new context. In many ways, The Lion King’s use of Hamlet and biblical archetypes laid the groundwork for Pixar’s enchanting model. What is Toy Story (1995), but a buddy cop movie complete with the cocky rookie and weary veteran? How many times have you seen a father search for a missing child before or after Finding Nemo (2003)? Up (2009) didn’t exactly invent the concept of an old man accepting his mortality after losing his wife. The Pixar formula is to take a convention you may know and reinvent it in the astonishing way that only animation can. That convention can even be a love story with musical numbers (2008’s Wall-E).
I won’t say that Katzenberg's absence was the reason the formula collapsed on itself by the time the final Disney Renaissance film, Tarzan (1999), was released. After all, he was the one who thought Pocahontas was the next Oscar-winning West Side Story. Rather, the early Renaissance films took wild chances and created massive success. Ashman insisting on mixing calypso and Broadway ballads in The Little Mermaid was a risk. Making Aladdin’s biggest supporting character Robin Williams on overdrive was stepping out there. Turning Hamlet into a story about lions could have gone sideways real fast. The only chances Eisner took in the second half of the 1990s were in directly adapting material that could never work as a Disney film.
In the 2000s, Eisner saw the success of the Shrek movies and the failures of the last several awful hand-drawn Disney pictures that came after the Renaissance and declared traditional animation dead. Everything had to be CGI like Pixar and ironically self-aware like what Katzenberg was doing at DreamWorks.
Yet, what was Disney’s biggest animated success in the last decade? A little movie from 2010 about a girl in a tower with really long hair. She even feels locked away by a domineering parent who won’t let her be…part of your world. Tangled may be CGI, but it follows the formula right down to the Alan Menken songs. And while I’d argue its story is a little too close to The Little Mermaid—save that instead of a touching parable about a father letting go of his grown-up daughter, we’re back to the evil stepmothers of the 1950s—it clearly wasn’t for audiences when it made nearly $600 million worldwide. Incidentally, that’s also the best a non-Pixar animated Disney movie has done since The Lion King. At least until Disney made its first unabashed musical with one of the composers from Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon. By chance, have you heard of Frozen?
Since this article was originally published, Disney has gone from testing the waters of animated fairy tales again to fully sumberging themselves in it with Frozen's important $1 billion gross. The result can be seen with the quickly moved up Moana, Disney's next princess movie, from 2018 to 2016. But they still seem to think another good bet is to follow the trends of other studios by remaking their own classic movies in live-action, just minus the wit and charm that made them classics.
I cannot help but wonder if we're at the beginning of another 1989-styled revival and that could let Walt Disney Animation Studios lead American animation again, instead of timidly following the competition. I hope so, because ultimately it was the Disney Renaissance that convinced Hollywood that feature animation could play to more than children and do amazing business. It cleared a path for Pixar, DreamWorks and everyone else Disney followed for the last decade. And as I think about these things that nostalgia comes rushing back to me. This child of the ‘90s is ready to go back under the sea. It's good to see that Disney finally is too.
***This article was originally published on January 18, 2013.