Ten Legendary Years: The Disney Renaissance of the ’90s

Many of the great periods in the history of art are short, intense bursts of creativity. The decade from 1989 to 1999 was perhaps the peak of Disney’s magic. From The Little Mermaid to Tarzan, so many memorable movies were made in this decade that it has become known as the Disney Renaissance, opens a new window. This was both the beginning of the modern Disney today’s children will recognize and the last great period for traditional cell animation from an American studio. All the movies of the Disney Renaissance can be found in CRRL’s collection. Join us for a journey back to the decade that defined Disney for a generation!

Dawn of the Renaissance

The 1980s did not begin on a good note for Disney. The company had invested over a decade in the production of The Black Cauldron, opens a new window, an adaptation of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain, opens a new window series, loosely based on Welsh mythology, only for it to become a massive financial flop in 1985 when it finally released. The film was such a poor performer that it was outgrossed by The Care Bears Movie, opens a new window that summer, forcing new studio head Michael Eisner to drastically change the course of Disney animation. Luckily, Disney had a secret weapon already in pre-production. Although the rights had been acquired under Disney’s old president Ron Miller, it was Eisner who greenlit Who Framed Roger Rabbit, opens a new window after bringing on Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment to produce and Robert Zemeckis to direct the movie. Partly made as a means to “save” Disney’s animation division, the live-action/animation hybrid featured the work of Richard Williams, opens a new window, which gave its imaginative world a spark of creativity and excitement. Its clever tale of a human detective working with a “toon” to solve a murder in 1940s Hollywood made for a massive hit, achieving the highest opening weekend, opens a new window for Disney up to that point. But the task of proving that Disney animation was truly back would fall on a very different, completely animated film.

Disney had considered making an animated movie out of the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Little Mermaid” since the 1930s, but it would take until 1985 when production would finally begin. Director Ron Clements, opens a new window got the film greenlit in 1985, after finding a copy of Andersen stories in a bookstore and submitting a treatment of the story to Jeffrey Katzenberg. Work on the film was delayed until 1987 because Disney chose to make Roger Rabbit first. 1987 would also see the biggest change in the film’s style during development when the British crab-butler character Sebastian, opens a new window was changed to Caribbean and the score changed to match his new persona. Many iconic design elements of the film were controversial during the production. Animator Glen Keane, opens a new window had to push for Ariel’s hair to be red to match her fiery personality; Disney executives of the time thought “mermaids have blonde hair.” The Little Mermaid, opens a new window was the last, opens a new window Disney film from the main studio to use animation cels, which made production labor intensive; the storm sequence where Ariel first finds Prince Eric took a year to create. The hard work paid off when Disney released the film in November 1989; the movie went on to gross 84.4 million dollars, earned three Academy Award nominations, opens a new window, and sold two million copies of the soundtrack by September 1990! But as successful as The Little Mermaid was, Disney’s releases from the early 1990s would surpass it and become the first true animated blockbusters.   

Of Lions and Legends: The Height of the Renaissance     

Disney’s releases of the early 1990s were vibrant, memorable films that defined the childhoods of a generation of children and scaled new heights in the medium of animation. The first of these was Beauty and the Beast, opens a new window, and this movie marked Disney’s early interest in computer animation and new production techniques. Pre-production first started in 1987 towards the end of work on Roger Rabbit, but the first version of Beauty and the Beast was scrapped in 1989, forcing a tight production schedule to make its 1991 release date. The movie made heavy use of Disney’s CAPS, opens a new window animation system, the first digital ink and paint system for feature animation. CAPS made it possible to more easily integrate CGI and hand-drawn art in scenes, which Disney animators used to stunning effect in the dance sequence, opens a new window. It was also Disney’s first film to use screenwriters, opens a new window rather than storyboards to plot out the film. Sadly, it was also the last Disney film to feature the work of Howard Ashman, who had also worked on The Little Mermaid. Ashman was hired, opens a new window onto the film in 1989; though his pet project was actually Aladdin, he put all his remaining efforts into Beauty and the Beast and completed his work on the score before his death on March 14, 1991. Though Ashman never saw the finished film, director Kirk Wise said, opens a new window he was the “one person responsible for the Disney renaissance.”  

Disney’s follow-up to Beauty and the Beast would go on to become the first animated super-blockbuster and an iconic film in its own right. Attempts to make Aladdin, opens a new window began in 1988, but a greenlight was only granted in 1991. The directors’ choice to cast Robin Williams as the Genie’s voice actor made for a unique, chaotic production. Unlike most animated films, the dialogue Williams used for the Genie was mostly improvised; his takes lasted much longer than the scenes were originally written, forcing the directors to rely heavily on their editor to choose the best material. The Genie had always been intended for Williams, but the 30 hours of dialogue, opens a new window he recorded changed the character from a supporting player to a main character. The Genie became the element that defined, opens a new window the film; Williams made the Genie feel alive and much more like a personal performance than the tightly scripted characterizations in other Disney movies. Aladdin appealed as much to adults and Williams’ fans as it did to children, and it became the highest grossing film of 1992, opens a new window, proving to Disney that animation should be for everyone. 

Disney never had a friend like Robin–a fact they knew all too well, opens a new window. Williams agreed to voice the Genie out of gratitude for his success on Touchstone’s Good Morning, Vietnam, opens a new window on the stipulation that Disney could not use his name or image for marketing Aladdin, that the Genie could not take up more than 25% of space on the movie’s ads, and that he be the only actor allowed to voice the Genie. Disney quickly disregarded the agreement and heavily featured the Genie on print and TV ads for the movie. The relationship between Williams and the studio was damaged and never truly recovered, and Williams only reprised the Genie in one other feature-length production, 1996’s Aladdin and the King of Thieves, opens a new window. The Genie has been portrayed by other actors since the original film’s release, but none have recaptured the magic in a lamp that Robin found. 

Disney’s next film, perhaps the greatest success of its Renaissance era, was a true underdog story. The Lion King, opens a new window was not initially treated as a guaranteed success within Disney; most of the experienced animators were assigned to Pocahontas, opens a new window instead by the time it went into production, opens a new window. As Disney’s first animated movie based on an original concept, creating an animated world that felt authentic proved to be a challenge. The animation crew observed real animals and studied their movements and actions, and some of the crew even visited a national park in Kenya, opens a new window to pattern the Pride Lands after. Disney’s investment in CGI was put to new use in The Lion King, as Disney made use of computer programs, opens a new window to simulate tracking shots, achieve the perfect coloring and lighting balance, and create the wildebeests in the stampede sequence. Production of the film was made even rougher by the Los Angeles earthquake of January 1994, opens a new window, which forced the animators to complete the work on the movie in their homes since the studio was shut down! The animators’ hard work paid off when The Lion King finally released in June 1994, as the film went on to become the highest grossing hand-drawn animated film, a record it holds to this day. The film is still the biggest animated movie, opens a new window of the past 50 years in terms of ticket sales, making Simba a true king among the Renaissance legends.

The Magic Fades: Decline of the Renaissance

The Lion King proved a success impossible for Disney to top, as their next animated films could not approach it in terms of box office sales or cultural impact. Disney had films that had flopped even during its early '90s hot streak (both DuckTales the Movie, opens a new window and The Rescuers Down Under, opens a new window had failed in 1990), but the mid-'90s are often considered the “cold” part of the Disney Renaissance. Pocahontas finally released in 1995, but was considered a divisive film, opens a new window even on release, with some historians and critics taking issue with the film’s historical accuracy. The film was a particular sore subject in Virginia because of the perceived “Disneyfication” of Virginia history, leaving some Virginians upset over the canceled Disney’s America, opens a new window theme park. Disney’s next release was The Hunchback of Notre Dame, opens a new window in 1996. Though less divisive among critics than Pocahontas and more financially successful, Hunchback still suffered from the problem of adapting a Gothic novel not intended for children. Numerous differences, opens a new window between Disney’s film and Hugo’s novel, opens a new window made for a difficult whiplash in tone and made the film a target of criticism from some fans of Hugo’s original story. 1997 saw the release of Hercules, opens a new window, the least financially successful film from Disney’s mid-'90s run. Hercules featured excellent voice acting (especially James Woods as Hades), but the animation style, opens a new window and musical score did not receive the acclaim of Disney’s other Renaissance films.   

The Last Embers Still Burn: Late Renaissance Hits

The last two entries in the Renaissance Era would see a return of the Disney magic to the studio’s movies. The first of these was 1998’s Mulan, opens a new window, where Disney made use of imaginative visuals inspired by Chinese watercolor paintings. Mulan was the first Disney film made at its studio in Florida, opens a new window on the Disney-MGM Studios backlot, and visitors to Disney World could see the animators working on the production during their visits. Originally written as a romantic comedy, opens a new window, Mulan became a more serious film over the course of its production at the urging of Chris Sanders. As the Head of Story for the film, Sanders pushed for a storyline closer to the Chinese legend where Mulan was forced to leave her father. In choosing to go with Sanders’ preferred story, the filmmakers created a more selfless and proactive heroine that appealed to a younger generation. One element from the old treatment remained: the dragon Mushu. Most of the writers, opens a new window and story department saw Mushu as an obligatory “funny animal sidekick” and didn’t want him in the movie, but Roy Disney and Michael Eisner insisted on him. Mulan managed to outgross Hunchback and Hercules at the box office, although it did not match the results of Disney’s early '90s releases. Its true legacy for the studio was in both creating the first East Asian Disney princess and in featuring the most heroic female character of the Disney Renaissance era.

The last film of the Disney Renaissance was an old-school jungle adventure that featured Disney’s most dynamic use of CGI to date. To create a vivid jungle world for Tarzan, opens a new window to swing through, Disney developed a new CGI tool called Deep Canvas, opens a new window. Deep Canvas was used to interpret through a 3D database, opens a new window where brushstrokes would appear in a painting and replicate the painting through different camera angles. By using this, the film’s artists and animators could create a 3D image from a 2D painting, giving Tarzan’s jungle a sense of depth rare in 2D animation. The film’s exciting settings and sense of motion made its animation a major selling point, and Tarzan ended up being second only to The Lion King in the box office grosses, opens a new window of Disney Renaissance films. 

A worthy end for the Renaissance both in terms of quality and financial success, Tarzan closed the book on the era when Disney truly reigned supreme in animation. The 21st century would see a much more competitive animation landscape, when green ogres, dragons, and superheroes would arise to steal Disney’s thunder, and the studio would struggle at times. But that is another story…