The Disney Renaissance is a term referring to an era from 1989 to 1999, during which Walt Disney Animation Studios experienced a creative resurgence in producing successful animated films, restoring public and critical interest in The Walt Disney Company as a whole. During this decade, the studio produced and released 10 animated films including; 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).
Pre-renaissance era (1977–88)
After the deaths of Walt and Roy O. Disney (in 1966 and 1971, respectively), Disney Studios was 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, taking eleven Disney animators with him, to start his own rival studio, Don Bluth Productions. 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. 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 TV animation division 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. Don Bluth's An American Tail outperformed Mouse Detective, and became the higher-grossing film on its first release. Despite An American Tail'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. Two years later, Disney released Oliver & Company on the same weekend that Universal released Don Bluth's The Land Before Time. The latter's opening weekend gross of over $7,526,000 broke all records, becoming the top grossing opening weekend for an animated feature. The film out-grossed An American Tail and became the highest-grossing animated film at that time.
Renaissance era (1989–99)
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 successes of Roger Rabbit and Oliver & Company, the studio had decided to make it into an animated Broadway-like musical. 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. The film was released on November 14, 1989 and garnered a higher weekend gross than Don Bluth's All Dogs Go to Heaven, which opened the same weekend. It went on to break The Land Before Time's record of highest-grossing animated film. The Little Mermaid was a critical and commercial success. 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 Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) and two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. Beauty and the Beast also received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and 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 (second overall in history after additional gross from a successful 2011 3D re-release, behind Toy Story 3). 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, Disney diversified in animation methods and co-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) with former Disney animator Tim Burton.
The next Disney animated film, Pocahontas (1995), 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 (1996), 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 Stephen Schwartz. When Hercules (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.
Mulan (1998), produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios Florida with a score by Jerry Goldsmith and songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, earned $304 million at the worldwide box office, and restored the commercial and critical standing of Disney's output. Tarzan (1999), with songs by Phil Collins, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song with "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 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".
The success of the Disney Renaissance attracted the attention of other animation studios, many of whom tried to replicate Disney's success by turning their movies into Disney-styled musicals. However, most attempts met with mixed to negative reviews from critics, with Quest For Camelot from Warner Bros. being a major example. However Anastasia from Fox, The Prince of Egypt from DreamWorks and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut from Paramount were the only films that achieve the same quality of Disney's movies.
Post-renaissance era (2000–present)
The release of Tarzan is retrospectively seen as the end of the Renaissance era. Though Disney did continue to release lesser successes such as Fantasia 2000, The Emperor's New Groove, and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, they were all not as well-received critically or commercially as the earlier films of the 1990s were, and the studio also suffered significant box office losses with Treasure Planet and Home on the Range. Dinosaur, Lilo & Stitch, and Brother Bear were seen as the only major box office successes during this time, with Stitch as the more prestigious film of the three. In addition, Disney found itself facing a new more competitive period beginning with the rise of DreamWorks Animation as a potent sustained rival with its successful Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon series.
In 1995, Disney partnered with Pixar to create Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated feature. In the 2000s, many of Pixar's films, such as Finding Nemo, WALL-E, and Up, garnered the same box office results and critical acclaim that the '90s Disney Renaissance films had. With 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 ending with Home on the Range. In 2005, Chicken Little, the Disney Studios' first full CGI animated feature, received mixed to negative 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. In 2006, Disney purchased Pixar for $7.4 billion and promoted Pixar's co-founder, John Lasseter, to oversee all of Disney's animated projects. In 2008, Disney's first CGI feature made after the Pixar acquisition, Bolt, was released to critical acclaim and was a box office success.
When John Lasseter took over 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, which was largely well received by critics and audiences alike and a financial success (grossing over $270 million). With a few more films under their belts, in retrospect, this film is seen as a modern turning point for the studio, and the beginning of the new Disney Revival era of films. In 2010, Disney released its 50th animated feature Tangled, which marked a new direction for the studio, blending 3D CGI animation with traditional techniques. Following the tradition of the 1990s animated films, Tangled was a musical fairy tale loosely based on the story of "Rapunzel." The film was a highly critical and commercial success, 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, Wreck-It Ralph 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. Frozen also won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature as well as the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Let it Go."
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 Little Mermaid||92%
(8.2/10 average rating) (65 reviews)
|The Rescuers Down Under||68%
(6.2/10 average rating) (25 reviews)
|Beauty and the Beast||93%
(8.4/10 average rating) (101 reviews)
(8.1/10 average rating) (64 reviews)
|The Lion King||90%
(8.2/10 average rating) (110 reviews)
|83 (14 reviews)|
(6.0/10 average rating) (52 reviews)
|58 (23 reviews)|
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame||73%
(7.1/10 average rating) (51 reviews)
(7.0/10 average rating) (49 reviews)
(7.5/10 average rating) (73 reviews)
|71 (24 reviews)|
(7.6/10 average rating) (102 reviews)
|79 (27 reviews)|
Box office performance
|United States||Foreign||Worldwide||All time domestic||All time worldwide|
|The Little Mermaid||November 17, 1989||$111,543,479||$99,800,000||$211,343,479||#464||#515||$40,000,000|||
|The Rescuers Down Under||November 16, 1990||$37,931,461||$29,500,000||$67,431,461||#2344||N/A||N/A|||
|Beauty and the Beast||November 22, 1991||$218,967,620||$206,000,000||$424,967,620||#110
|Aladdin||November 25, 1992||$217,350,219||$286,700,000||$504,050,219||#116
|The Lion King||June 24, 1994||$422,783,777||$564,700,000||$987,483,777||#11
|Pocahontas||June 23, 1995||$141,579,773||$204,500,000||$346,079,773||#286||#248||$55,000,000|||
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame||June 21, 1996||$100,138,851||$225,200,000||$325,338,851||#567||#271||$100,000,000|||
|Hercules||June 27, 1997||$99,112,101||$153,600,000||$252,712,101||#573||#395||$85,000,000|||
|Mulan||June 19, 1998||$120,620,254||$183,700,000||$304,320,254||#398||#302||$90,000,000|||
|Tarzan||June 18, 1999||$171,091,819||$277,100,000||$448,191,819||#201||#151||$130,000,000|||
Nine of the ten films in the Disney Renaissance were nominated for Academy Awards, six of which won at least one Oscar:
|1989||The Little Mermaid||3||2|
|1991||Beauty and the Beast||6|
|1994||The Lion King||4|
|1996||The Hunchback of Notre Dame||1||0|
|1989||The Little Mermaid||33||6× Platinum|
|1991||Beauty and the Beast||19||3× Platinum|
|1994||The Lion King||1||Diamond|
|1996||The Hunchback of Notre Dame||13||Platinum|
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