The year: 1989. The movie: The Little Mermaid.
After a string of movies in the 1980s ranging from bland to downright horrible (that’s you, The Black Cauldron), this was the movie that single-handedly revitalized the Walt Disney Animation Studios. It’s hard to look back at the 1990s and picture it any other way. “Disney” became a way of life back then, it’s animation output some of the best we had ever seen. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King followed, each bigger and more spectacular than the last. From 1995 onwards, the string of hits continued, albeit at a somewhat modest level. Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan and Fantasia 2000 rounded off what is retrospectively known as the decade of the Disney Renaissance.
As we entered the new century, however, the animated output started to decline considerably. We had some good movies like Lilo and Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove, but the bad ones overtook the good. Thus we had Brother Bear, Home on the Range, and the infamous Chicken Little.
It looked like Disney’s little brother Pixar was now dominating the scene, with their own original CGI movies like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, both of which were record hits at the box office.
Was there anything that could save Disney Animation once again? Perhaps. The Walt Disney Company purchased Pixar Animation Studios in 2006 for $7 billion. In addition to owning Pixar’s fantastic library, Disney now promoted Pixar chief John Lasseter (director of Pixar’s Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Cars) to Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios as well.
The result? Lasseter’s passion for classic Disney animation propelled the suffering studio forward. Beginning from 2007, we saw animated Disney movies that seemed so much better than previous ones. Meet The Robinsons even featured Walt Disney’s “Keep Moving Forward” quote, a sign that animation was still the crown jewel of The Walt Disney Company. 2008’s Bolt was cute and fun, but also delivered strong emotional value and a well written script.
Fans were mourning the apparent death of traditional hand-drawn 2D animation, which was last seen only in 2004’s flop Home On The Range and was retired after being deemed not popular enough for feature films. Under Lasseter’s guidance, Disney returned to their roots, releasing the acclaimed The Princess and the Frog.
One thing was still missing, though: box office returns. Meet The Robinsons, Bolt and The Princess and the Frog all received warm reviews, but failed to generate enough revenue to be called a “hit”.
In 2010, that changed, thanks mostly to a little film we might have heard of. Does the name Tangled ring a bell? A slick, modern adaptation of the classic fairytale Rapunzel, Tangled turned out to be an instant hit, resonating with audiences around the world. One of the best-reviewed Disney animated films in the past decade, Tangled went on to gross nearly $600 million worldwide. In fact, today there isn’t a single child below the age of 10 who isn’t a fan of this movie. Tangled–which also happened to be Disney’s 50th Animated Feature–was a bigger return to Disney’s roots than The Princess and the Frog intended to be. The first CGI-musical fairytale in history, it felt old-fashioned but forward-looking at the same time. In other words, an instant classic.
Things didn’t stop with Tangled. 2011’s Winnie the Pooh wasn’t a big hit (mostly because it opened against the final Harry Potter), but it was a sweet reminder of Pooh and friends’ existence.
In 2012, though, it looks like things have changed for good. Pixar’s Brave was a disappointment, while Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph was a big hit with critics and fans alike. A love letter to video games of the past and present, Wreck-It Ralph resonated not just with kids of the current generation, but also with adults who grew up with video games in the 80s and 90s. Box office returns were impressive too, with the movie currently boasting a worldwide total of $436 million–far from what Tangled grossed–but still above many animated films of the year.
Which finally brings me to my question–are we witnessing a new beginning for Disney Animation right now? All signs seem to be pointing to it. Their output keeps getting better with every new release. Lavish visuals, emotional stories and fun new characters make today’s Disney fare feel similar to what it was back in the early 1990s.
The public, too has woken up to the fact that Disney is back and is producing animated movies of the same caliber as they were back in the 90s. Tangled is mostly deserving of the thanks–it put the Disney Princess image back into public consciousness, and essentially, the Disney animated movie. Yes, there are still people who will call Wreck-It Ralph a Pixar film, but if Disney keeps creating movies such as these, they are well on their way to becoming a dominant force once again.
Today’s animation industry is drastically different from what it was back in the 90s. We have Pixar, DreamWorks and even Sony Pictures Animation, Blue Sky Studios and Illumination Entertainment producing top-notch animated features. Standing out among the crowd is not an easy task. Disney is not relying on nostalgia and a devotion of fans to the Disney brand alone–it’s actually doing what should be done–making good movies. As we speak, the folks at Disney Animation are busy working on a wide variety of projects.
There’s Frozen—a CGI musical fairytale inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. John Musker and Ron Clements are tight-lipped about a “top-secret” project (it is 2D? Is it CGI? Is it a 2D/CGI hybrid?). The groundbreaking style of the Oscar-winning Paperman has inspired talk of a feature film blending hand-drawn animation and CGI. An adaptation of Marvel’s Big Hero 6 is also reportedly in development. How about an adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin called The Name Game? Yep, that might be happening too! People at Disney are passionate about animation like never before. If recent films like Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph are anything to go by, Disney Animation can compete with the big guns like Pixar and DreamWorks in an extremely crowded and competitive marketplace. In short, there’s magic back at the revered studio–and it’s set to reclaim its title back from Pixar.
With its 53rd Animated Feature, Frozen set to release this November, it’s already generating so much buzz that it’s sure to be another Tangled-sized hit. I think we can easily say that yes, we are indeed in the midst of a second Disney Renaissance. Things are looking good once again for the studio we’ve always loved and owe so much of our childhood to.