The Disney Renaissance was the period from 1989 to 1999 during which Walt Disney Feature Animation returned to producing critically and commercially successful animated films that were mostly based on well-known stories, much as the studio did during the era of Walt Disney during the 1930s to 1960s. The resurgence allowed Disney's animated films to become powerhouse successes at the domestic and foreign box office, earning much greater profit than most of the Disney films of previous eras.
The animated films released by Disney during this period are: 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), Walt Disney Productions were left in the hands of Donn Tatum, Card Walker, and Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller. While critics and audiences alike awaited the birth of a new golden age for Disney animation after The Rescuers (1977), the films released over an 18-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 (1981), when long-time animator Don Bluth left Disney's animation department 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 (1982), whose story had originally been rejected by Disney 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 mid-1980s after narrowly escaping a hostile takeover attempt by businessman and financier Saul Steinberg. Michael Eisner, formerly of Paramount Pictures, became CEO in 1984, and was joined by his Paramount associate Jeffrey Katzenberg as studio chairman, while Frank Wells, formerly of Warner Bros. Pictures, became president. In 1985, Peter Schneider was hired as president of Disney's feature animation department, which was soon to be rebranded as Walt Disney Feature Animation. In the same year, 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 2 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 PG-rated The Black Cauldron (1985), the future of the animation department was in jeopardy. Going against a 30-year studio policy, the company founded a television animation division (now Disney Television Animation), which produced such shows as DuckTales. In the interest of saving what he believed to be the studio's core business, Roy E. Disney, who resigned from the company in 1984, persuaded Eisner to let him return and supervise the animation department in the hopes of improving its fortunes.
1986–88: Disney vs. Don Bluth
Disney released The Great Mouse Detective (1986) a few months before Don Bluth released An American Tail (1986). An American Tail outperformed The Great Mouse Detective and became the highest grossing animated film to that date. 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. As Disney and Don Bluth studios competed with each other, Disney's film The Brave Little Toaster (1987) would become a key production because it attracted a substantial amount of talent both new and old. Many of the cast and crew members went on to have successful careers in the animation industry. Co-writer Joe Ranft became a script supervisor at Pixar, while animators Glen Keane, Kirk Wise, and Kevin Lima animated and/or co-directed most of the future Disney films of 1989 and the 1990s. Oliver and Company (1988) would later be released on the same day as The Land Before Time (1988). Despite The Land Before Time becoming globally the highest-grossing animated film to that date, breaking the previous record of An American Tail, Oliver and Company outgrossed it in the United States, launching an era of increased theatrical turnout for Disney.
In the 1980s, Disney collaborated with filmmaker Steven Spielberg—producer of An American Tail and The Land Before Time and a long-time animation fan—to produce Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), a live-action/animation hybrid that featured animated characters of the 1930s and 1940s from many different studios together. The film was a critical and commercial success, winning three Academy Awards for Technical Achievement, and renewing interest in theatrical animated cartoons. In addition to the film itself, Spielberg also helped Disney produce three Roger Rabbit shorts. Disney moved to first place in box office receipts by 1988, with Who Framed Roger Rabbit being the summer's biggest hit.
The Disney Renaissance was prompted by competition with Don Bluth's animated productions, along with the evolution of overseas animation, most notably the Studio Ghibli anime productions from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. His Lupin the Third film adaptation, Castle of Cagliostro (1979), influenced the climax of The Great Mouse Detective, which in turn paved the way for the Disney Renaissance. The two-minute climax scene used computer-generated imagery (CGI), making it the first Disney film to extensively use computer animation, a fact that Disney used to promote the film during marketing. Glen Keane, a leading animator for Disney films, has also credited Miyazaki's work as a "huge influence" on Disney's animated films.
1989: The Little Mermaid
Disney had been developing The Little Mermaid (1989) since the 1930s, and by 1988, after the success of Touchstone Pictures' Who Framed 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 Little Shop of Horrors alongside now-Walt Disney Feature Animation president Peter Schneider (who served as company manager on the stage musical), became involved in the production, writing and composing the songs and score for the film.
Upon release, The Little Mermaid was a critical and commercial success and garnered a higher weekend gross than Don Bluth's All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), which opened the same day, eventually breaking The Land Before Time's record of highest-grossing animated film.
1990–91: The Rescuers Down Under and Beauty and the Beast
The Rescuers Down Under (1990) was released as the first sequel produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation. The film garnered mainly positive reception, but was not as financially successful as The Little Mermaid. However, it was notable for being the first fully digital feature film, being the first film to be completely produced using Disney's new Computer Animation Production System (CAPS). The rest of the traditionally-animated films during this period would be produced using CAPS.
Beauty and the Beast (1991) was Disney's next film and proved to be an immense critical and commercial success. It was the first animated film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, remaining the only animated film nominated for Best Picture when that category had only five entries (1944–2008), and won 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"). Beauty and the Beast also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound, as well as two additional nominations for Best Original Song. In addition to being Disney's highest grossing animated movie at the time, it was the first animated film to reach $100 million at the box office in the U.S.
1992–94: Aladdin and The Lion King
Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) followed, respectively, with both films having the highest worldwide grosses of their respective release years. Aladdin was the highest-grossing animated film at the time of its release, but later became second after being surpassed by The Lion King, which became the highest-grossing animated film at the time and remains the highest-grossing traditionally animated film in history.
Howard Ashman wrote several songs for Aladdin before his death, but only three were ultimately used in the film. Tim Rice ultimately joined the project and completed the score and songs with Alan Menken. Rice later went on to collaborate with Elton John and Hans Zimmer for The Lion King after ABBA had turned down the offer to write songs for the film. Both films won Academy Awards for Best Original Song ("Can You Feel the Love Tonight") and Best Original Score, and also like Beauty and the Beast won the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy). 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.
Between the two in-house productions, Disney diversified in animation methods and produced the stop-motion animated film 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.
1995–97: Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules
The next Disney animated film, Pocahontas (1995), opened to mixed reviews, though it still earned $346 million worldwide and garnered two Academy Awards for Best Original Musical or Comedy Score and Best Original Song ("Colors of the Wind"). However, its box office gross was far lower in comparison to what The Lion King earned the previous year. 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 (now serving only as lyricist to Menken's music) Stephen Schwartz.
When Hercules (1997), with songs by Menken and David Zippel, earned $252 million—$73 million less than The Hunchback of Notre Dame—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 and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it was still vulnerable to competition from companies such as DreamWorks Animation and Pixar.
1998–99: Mulan and Tarzan
Disney's next film, Mulan (1998), with a score by Jerry Goldsmith and songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, earned $304 million at the worldwide box office, restoring the commercial and critical standing of Disney's output.
The release of Tarzan (1999) is retrospectively seen as the end of the Renaissance era. With a score by Mark Mancina and songs by Phil Collins, Tarzan won an Academy Award for Best Original Song ("You'll Be in My Heart"), and 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.
Success in television animation (1985–1998)
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 the investment 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: The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1988-1991), Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers (1989–1991), TaleSpin (1990–1991), Darkwing Duck (1991–1993, also airing on ABC), Goof Troop (1992–1994, also airing on ABC), Bonkers (1993–1994), and the critically acclaimed and still-popular Gargoyles (1994–1997). TV animation also brought some animated feature film characters to Saturday morning, including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Timon & Pumbaa, Hercules and The Legend of Tarzan, the first three on CBS.
Critical and public response
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) and are referred to among critics as the "big four", while Pocahontas has the lowest reception of Disney's Renaissance films (with 55% of positive reviews).
|The Little Mermaid||Ron Clements
(8.1/10 average rating) (70 reviews)
|88 (24 reviews)||N/A|
|The Rescuers Down Under||Hendel Butoy
(6.2/10 average rating) (26 reviews)
|70 (19 reviews)||N/A|
|Beauty and the Beast||Gary Trousdale
(8.5/10 average rating) (116 reviews)
|95 (22 reviews)||A+|
(8.1/10 average rating) (74 reviews)
|86 (25 reviews)||A+|
|The Lion King||Roger Allers
(8.4/10 average rating) (128 reviews)
|88 (30 reviews)||A+|
(6/10 average rating) (56 reviews)
|58 (23 reviews)||A−|
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame||Gary Trousdale
(7.1/10 average rating) (56 reviews)
|74 (28 reviews)||A|
(7/10 average rating) (55 reviews)
|74 (22 reviews)||A|
(7.5/10 average rating) (77 reviews)
|71 (24 reviews)||A+|
(7.6/10 average rating) (105 reviews)
|79 (27 reviews)||A|
Box office performance
|United States||Foreign||Worldwide||All time domestic||(A)||All time worldwide|
|The Little Mermaid||November 17, 1989||$111,543,479||$99,800,000||$211,343,479||585||705||$40,000,000|||
|The Rescuers Down Under||November 16, 1990||$27,931,461||$19,468,539||$47,400,000||2,757||$27,000,000|||
|Beauty and the Beast||November 22, 1991||$218,967,620||$224,033,956||$443,001,576||158||134||251||$25,000,000|||
|Aladdin||November 25, 1992||$217,350,219||$286,700,000||$504,050,219||164||101||139||$28,000,000|||
|The Lion King||June 24, 1994||$422,783,777||$545,700,000||$968,483,777||22||19||39||$45,000,000|||
|Pocahontas||June 23, 1995||$141,579,773||$204,500,000||$346,079,773||381||363||$55,000,000|||
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame||June 21, 1996||$100,138,851||$225,200,000||$325,338,851||623||314||$100,000,000|||
|Hercules||June 27, 1997||$99,112,101||$153,600,000||$253,712,101||629||450||$80,000,000|||
|Mulan||June 19, 1998||$120,620,254||$183,700,000||$304,320,254||444||347||$90,000,000|||
|Tarzan||June 18, 1999||$171,091,819||$277,100,000||$448,191,819||228||179||$130,000,000|||
- (A) indicates the adjusted totals based on current ticket prices (calculated by Box Office Mojo).
Nine of the ten films in the Disney Renaissance were nominated for Academy Awards, six of which won at least one Academy Award; six Best Original Song and five Best Original Score, with the first five films won awards in both categories. Disney Renaissance is also notable for being its film Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture. Nine of the films were nominated for Annie Awards, with eight of them winning at least one:
|Year||Film||Academy Awards||Annie Awards|
|1989||The Little Mermaid||3||2||0||0|
|1991||Beauty and the Beast||6||2||2||2|
|1994||The Lion King||4||2||3||3|
|1996||The Hunchback of Notre Dame||1||0||13||0|
|Title||Release date||Peak chart positions||Certifications|
|The Little Mermaid||October 19, 1989||32||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||—||25||6× Platinum||3× Platinum|
|Beauty and the Beast||October 24, 1991||19||18||—||—||—||—||—||25||21||—||3× Platinum||Platinum|
|Aladdin||October 27, 1992||6||15||—||—||—||—||71||—||29||—||3× Platinum|
|The Lion King||April 27, 1994||1||3||4||16||5||1||7||6||1||1||Diamond|
|Pocahontas||June 1, 1995||1||19||35||32||11||—||79||—||8||36||3× Platinum||4× Platinum|
|The Hunchback of Notre Dame||May 7, 1996||11||—||—||—||—||12||—||—||—||—||Platinum|
|Hercules||May 27, 1997||17||—||—||—||—||28||—||—||—||—||Gold|
|Mulan||June 2, 1998||25||—||—||—||—||20||—||—||—||—||Gold|
|Tarzan||May 18, 1999||5||40||9||32||28||9||6||51||34||11||2× Platinum|
|"—" denotes a recording that did not chart or was not released in that territory.|
|Title||English-language performer(s)||Year||Peak chart positions||Certifications||Album|
|"Under the Sea"||Samuel E. Wright||1989||—||—||—||—||The Little Mermaid|
|"Beauty and the Beast"||Celine Dion & Peabo Bryson||1991||9||3||17||9||RIAA: Gold||Beauty and the Beast|
|"A Whole New World"||Peabo Bryson & Regina Belle||1992||1||1||10||9||RIAA: Gold||Aladdin|
|"Can You Feel the Love Tonight"||Elton John||1994||4||1||9||14||RIAA: Platinum||The Lion King|
|"Circle of Life"||18||2||60||11||RIAA: Gold|
|"Colors of the Wind"||Vanessa Williams||1995||4||2||16||21||RIAA: Gold||Pocahontas|
|"If I Never Knew You"||Jon Secada & Shanice||108||—||—||51|
|"Someday"||All-4-One||1996||30||14||—||—||RIAA: Gold||The Hunchback of Notre Dame|
|"Go the Distance"||Michael Bolton||1997||24||1||—||14||Hercules|
|"I Won't Say (I'm in Love)"||Belinda Carlisle||—||—||—||—|
|"True to Your Heart"||98° & Stevie Wonder||1998||—||—||73||51||Mulan|
|"You'll Be in My Heart"||Phil Collins||1999||21||1||43||17||Tarzan|
|"Strangers Like Me"||—||10||—||—|
|"Son of Man"||2000||—||—||—||—|
|"—" denotes a recording that did not chart or was not released in that territory.|
Impact on other studios
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 or Warner Bros. Feature Animation to replicate Disney's success by turning their animated films into Disney-styled musicals.
Beauty and the Beast, directed by Bill Condon, was released on March 17, 2017 as the first live-action adaptation of the Disney Renaissance. Alan Menken returned for writing a new score and new songs with Tim Rice. The film grossed over $1.2 billion worldwide, becoming the highest-grossing live-action musical film, second-highest-grossing film of 2017, and the tenth-highest-grossing film of all time. Beauty and the Beast received generally positive reviews from critics, with many praising its faithfulness to the original animated film, as well as elements from the Broadway musical, performances of the cast, visual style, musical score, songs, costume design, and production values, though criticism was drawn toward some of the character designs and its excessive similarity to the original.
Aladdin, directed and co-written by Guy Ritchie, is the second live-action Disney Renaissance adaptation theatrically released in the United States on May 24, 2019. Alan Menken returned again to write new music and songs with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. It grossed $1 billion worldwide, becoming the ninth-highest-grossing film of 2019. The film received mixed reviews from critics, with praise for its music, costume design, and the performances of actors, but criticism for Ritchie's direction and the screenplay.
The third live-action Disney Renaissance remake became CGI remake The Lion King (directed and produced by Jon Favreau). It was theatrically released in the United States on July 19, 2019. Hans Zimmer returned as composer, and Elton John and Tim Rice returned to write new songs with Beyoncé. It grossed over $1.6 billion worldwide, becoming highest-grossing animated film of all time, the highest-grossing musical film of all time, the highest-grossing remake of all time, the highest-grossing Walt Disney Pictures film of all time, the second-highest-grossing film of 2019, and the seventh highest-grossing film of all time. The film received mixed reviews from critics, with praise for its visual effects, music, and vocal performances, but criticism for its lack of originality, and facial emotion on the characters.
The fourth live-action adaptation, Mulan, was released on September 4, 2020. It was directed by Niki Caro with Harry Gregson-Williams acting as the new composer and songwriter for the film. Originally scheduled to be a wide theatrical release in March 2020, it was ultimately cancelled in the United States after being delayed multiple times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Disney instead premiered the film on September 4, 2020 on Disney+, for a premium fee in countries where the service had launched. The film had a traditional theatrical release in countries without Disney+ where theaters have re-opened. With a production budget of $200 million, the film was a financial disappointment (partially due to the pandemic), grossing only $70 million, not including digital earnings from Disney+. The film received generally positive reviews from western critics, who praised the action sequences, visuals, and performances but criticized the screenplay. It received unfavorable reviews from Chinese audiences, who criticized the character development, inaccurate depictions of Chinese history and mishandling of Chinese cultural elements.
The Little Mermaid is the upcoming fifth remake from the Disney Renaissance. Directed and produced by Rob Marshall, it is currently in production. Alan Menken also returns as the film's composer and will write new songs alongside producer Lin-Manuel Miranda.
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