What Was The First Disney Renaissance?
‘The Disney Renaissance’ is a term used to describe the period from 1989 to 1999 in which Walt Disney Animation Studios underwent a creative revitalisation that changed the success of the Disney company, and which established Disney as an icon.
Put simply, the Disney Renaissance is made up of the following movies, which were all released in the same decade:
- The Little Mermaid
- Beauty and The Beast
- The Lion King
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- Mulan The Rescuers Down Under
The production of these films ushered in what is now known as ‘The Disney Renaissance’ – a decade which had a distinct rise and fall…a decade which would change animation forever.
The Renaissance Recipe
Though Disney released more than the films above in the decade between 1989 and 1999, it is these films that are considered part of the Renaissance canon. This is not simply because these films performed better than others, but also because they all contained common threads.
Firstly, most of the films of the Renaissance are based on classic fairy tales, stories or legends. This secured a princess for most of the films and made the stories familiar and relatable to audiences both young and old.
Secondly, Renaissance films took pride in their ability to knock out not only a feature film, but an outstanding soundtrack to boot. The songs from the films of this era have stood the test of time, and continue to be among some of the most popular show songs on the planet –so popular in fact that several of them have even been taken to Broadway.
As well as award-winning music and lyrics, Disney renaissance films were known for the pop-version release of their signature songs. Movies such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas and Hercules were all released with featured tracks recorded by popular artists such as Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera and Vanessa Williams.
Thirdly was the inclusion in some films of a major celebrity voice. The decision to cast stars such as Mel Gibson, Robin Williams, Demi Moore and Matthew Broderick meant that fan bases were building around the films before they were even released, and continued to draw audiences at the box office.
Lastly, films of the Disney Renaissance have a traditionally animated look. With the advent of CGI techniques and Disney’s collaboration with Pixar, animation has moved away from the conventional appearance that these movies possessed. Despite such advances in animation, there is still something soothing about the old-style Disney animation which makes the films of the Disney Renaissance so visually pleasing.
How Did the Renaissance Come About?
Disney’s renaissance was ushered in by the production of several full-length animated films all based on well-known fairy tales and stories. The choice to make these films resulted in a powerful resurgence in public interest in Disney films, and the Disney Company, in general.
Though it had not yet been brought to fruition, Disney’s The Little Mermaid had been in development since the 1930s. In 1988, following the success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit the film was finally pushed forward with the help of Broadway song writers Ashman and Menken. The film was released on November 14, 1989 – a date which marks the success of not only The Little Mermaid, but of a decade of animated films in which Disney would reign supreme. The Broadway-style film was a commercial success, breaking the record for the highest-grossing animated film and taking out multiple awards. This film became the first in a long line of films which detonated the animation department back to life, and changed Disney forever.
In the shadow of The Little Mermaid’s success, Disney embraced large musicals and continued to create new content which would appeal to children, teenagers and adults.
The following years saw the release of films such as Beauty and the Beast, Hercules, Aladdin and The Lion King, all of which broke box office records and grossed higher worldwide than any other films released in the same years. To this day, The Lion King is the highest-grossing traditionally animated film in history.
These films dominated not only the box office but the major Hollywood awards and accolades. The success of the Renaissance era films also allowed Disney to allocate spending towards much needed assets such as a large building across the street from the main Disney lot in Burbank. Purchases such as these enabled Disney to expand and further develop the films, and the branding.
As well as knocking out a large number of box office smashes, Disney also managed to created huge strides in television in the same decade.
Though Disney had initially resisted the idea of broadcasting on television, Michael Eisner, who came on board with a background in TV pushed for the migration to television. What followed was a string of television successes including The Wuzzles, The Gummi Bears, Ducktales, TaleSpin and many more. The high calibre of the animation and quality of writing gave the shows a distinctive edge in the market, and led to a full syndicated block called ‘The Disney Afternoon’ in which Disney shows such as Darkwing Duck and GoofTroop were broadcast back to back. The success of The Disney Afternoon also led to the introduction of animated feature films such as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin being developed for TV.
After the Renaissance
Tarzan’s release in 1999 marks the end of the Disney Renaissance era and the features which characterised this era of potent animated film-making at its best. At this point Disney ceased to release any more of the Broadway-style musical films that had dominated the box office so well and also found itself in competition with other highly successful animations such as the Dreamworks Shrek series, which Disney’s success in animation had paved the way for.
Disney’s partnership with Pixar in the late 90s lent much success to the brand, regaining much of the critical acclaim and box office results of the renaissance but the films lacked the qualities of those released in the decade before. Disney’s partnership with, and eventual acquiring of Pixar made Disney films a sensation for modern children all over the world, but these films differed from the renaissance films.
A Second Renaissance
After many years of experimentation with new technologies, and partnerships with companies such as Pixar, Disney did something unexpected: they released a film which paid homage to Disney films gone by– Enchanted. Enchanted featured traditional animation and the Broadway-style music of the Renaissance combined with fairy-tale elements and features from classic Disney films that brought out nostalgia of times gone by. The film’s main character, Giselle, was a combination of princesses such as Ariel from The Little Mermaid and many of the film’s smaller roles were filled by Disney princesses of the Renaissance, including Belle, Ariel and Pocahontas. Just as the success of the live-action/animation hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit launched Disney into the first renaissance, Enchanted was about to launch Disney into its second. Disney was changing.
When Disney purchased Pixar, the creative direction was shifted and it was decided that Disney would return to a more traditional style of animation. This culminated in the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, a musical loosely based on the classic fairy tale ‘The Frog Prince’ which grossed over $267 million and was nominated for three Academy Awards. The release of this film marked the beginning of Disney’s second renaissance, and a turning point for Disney – back to the traditional animation that brought so much success in the past.
One year later, another film was released which reinforced this new direction. The film had a Broadway-style soundtrack, another new princess for the Disney canon line-up and a plot based on another classic fairytale. Tangled’s return to archetypal characters such as the evil stepmother and Alan Menken style music made it a success, and paved the way for what was to come. Though Tangled reignited a fresh interest in Disney and allowed the studio to top its competitors, it was not until 2013 that Disney studio’s topped even itself.
The 2013 release of the full-length animated musical feature Frozen, based on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’ was an immediate hit, breaking box office records during its first weekend and going onto become the highest grossing animated film of all time. In Frozen, critics saw many of Disney’s earlier elements and echoes to classic renaissance films such as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid and The Lion King. Bilge Ebiri of ‘Vulture’ stated that “Frozen managed to capture the classic Disney spirit of the Disney Renaissance films and early classics such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella,” and Scott Davis of ‘Forbes’ credited the film's commercial success to its soundtrack. Alonso Duralde of ‘The Wrap’ saw Frozen’s music as the first soundtrack to capture the Disney renaissance sound, and wrote that it was “the best animated musical to come out of Disney since the tragic death of lyricist Howard Ashman, whose work on The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast helped build the studio's modern animated division into what it is today." These features which paid off so well during the renaissance contributed to the worldwide Frozen-mania, and to the second Disney renaissance.
"Frozen is both a declaration of Disney's renewed cultural relevance and a reaffirmation of Disney coming to terms with its own legacy and its own identity.”
- Scott Mendelson
Films such as The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Frozen contain the quintessential Renaissance recipe: breath-taking musical soundtracks that contain pop song counterparts, underlying classic fairy tales and celebrity voices such as Oprah Winfrey, Mandy Moore and Kristin Bell.
The return to these renaissance style films was not only a smart move financially, but has resulted in Disney being hailed worldwide, once again, for its ability to transcend animation on a global scale. With the glow of Frozen still shining from every toy and DVD store on the planet, Disney has already lined up their next princess movie Moana, set for release in 2016. Moana will follow a Polynesian explorer at heart, who sets sail with the legendary Maui, in search of a fabled island. The fan base for Moana is already growing at an enormous rate and is quickly becoming the most talked about film on the internet.
Disney has more than proven itself with the overwhelming success of Tangled and Frozen. Not only is Disney able to completely resurrect and reinvent itself, but it is able to transport its audiences back to a golden era in film where Hollywood was brought to its knees by feature animation.
Here's to the Second Renaissance
There’s a reason why children of the 80s and 90s are more nostalgic about Disney than any other generation...we were raised in the Disney renaissance. To grow up in this era was to be a part of cinematic history that, up until recently, appeared to be gone forever. However, the releases and successes of films such as Tangled and Frozen prove that not only was Disney ready for this revival, but its audiences were also.
Here’s to the next generation of children who are being raised in the second renaissance, who will laugh till they cry, sing till they’ve lost their voice and dance around like they are under the sea, just around the river bend or exploring a whole new world. If these children are affected by Disney the way that I was, then no matter what age they are…they will always have Disney shaped hearts.
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