Ah, “Disney Movies” — a staple of the childhood of pretty much any American child from the 1990s. These animated films — mostly Broadway-inspired musicals — produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios (née Walt Disney Feature Animation) became one of the most trusted brands in all of cinema thanks to a fantastic run of films starting in 1989.
Setting the stage: Disney’s animated movies pioneered the genre back in 1939 with Snow White, which — along with Disney’s subsequent films Pinocchio, Bambi, and Fantasia — was considered the undisputed high mark of animated features for half a century.
Then WW2 happened, the money in animation dried out, and the unique and inspired animators making feature-length movies were few for almost 50 years.
But it became easier and more rewarding to make animated movies starting in the mid-1980s as computer technology finally reached the point where they could improve the quality of animation and save animators lots of time.
This so-called “Renaissance” of Disney’s brand of animation is usually attributed in large part to the vision of Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was a chairman of Disney’s movie branch from 1984-1994. Under Katzenberg, the quality (and profitability) of Disney’s movies skyrocketed. With Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and The Little Mermaid (1989), animation was back on the map as fertile creative territory for movies that could appeal to both kids and adults.
Another key component in the Renaissance was the partnership of musicians Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who together created the two prototypes for Disney musicals to come: The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (along with a couple tracks for Aladdin). The pair wrote the songs as if they were creating a stage musical, with an emphasis on orchestral-choral compositions (as opposed to pop songs) and giving each film’s score a distinct “flavor.”
The tide turned in 1994, and Disney’s undisputed monopoly on first-rate lost steam. Katzenberg was passed over for a promotion and left to found Dreamworks. Ashman died of AIDS. And Pixar Animation Studio — whose partnership with Disney was orchestrated by Katzenberg before he departed — took the headlines that used to be Disney’s with its groundbreaking Toy Story.
The ensuing five years of Disney films was also marvelous, but not quite as critically spotless as the musicals from the previous half decade. Starting with Tarzan — the general consensus for the end of Disney’s Renaissance Era — the musicals began to less resemble stage shows. Movies like The Emperor’s New Groove featured songs, but mostly as background music.
At the turn of the millennium, Disney pumped the brakes on the brand of animated musicals that had reviatlized it a decade earlier in favor of comedies and adventure. Most of the Disney animated films from 2000-2007 were poorly-reviewed, moderate successes (with a couple of gems). But the overall direction and brand seem to be lacking.
It all swung back towards Disney in 2006 when John Lasseter, one of Pixar’s head honchos, was given control of the studio, including that coveted “green light authority” to approve, reject, and nurture film ideas. This came as part of Disney’s purchase of Pixar.
Since Lasseter took over leadership of Walt Disney Animation Studios, the stream of acclaimed features has been consistent, successful, and acclaimed. As I noted in my How To Train Your Dragon entry in this countdown, films from Disney’s studio have a higher Rotten Tomatoes average than films from Pixar’s over the stretch of 2008-2013. I like to call the era of Lasseter’s tenure so far the “Disney Re-Renaissance.”
Now is probably as good a time as any to point you to the countdown list that Brian, Colton, and I put together recently, which I will be citing for the rest of this article…
Let’s walk through my favorite Disney movies of the Renaissance and Re-Renaissance era. I thought about making this a countdown, but even for someone as list-obsessed as me, that proved too difficult. There’s just too much greatness here. So here they are, ordered (mostly) chronologically.
The Disney Renaissance, Part 1: The Peak (1989-1994)
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Mermaid is probably the third most important animated film of all time, behind Toy Story and Snow White. It re-launched the animation craze that had sputtered with Cinderella back in 1950, updating the technology and the attitude. But that’s not why I love it: It’s the comedy, the characters, the story, and – egads – the music. Three of its four signature songs placed in the top ten of our list, with “Under the Sea” and “Part of Your World” placing #2 and #3 respectively. The Little Mermaid was also the most beautiful animated film to date (with Snow White, Pinocchio, and Bambi the only possible exceptions), and it still dazzles.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
As far as I’m concerned, this is probably the most enjoyable animated movie ever made. It has a crackerjack script, incredible music, wonderful characters (how can you not love the household objects come to life?), and a magical, sweeping sense of adventure that is not easy to manufacture. It remains the only animated movie ever nominated for Best Picture during the five-picture era (Up and Toy Story 3 have been nominated since the field expanded to ten). It probably deserved that nomination from the “Gaston” song sequence along.
Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin are timeless fairy tales, informed by classic fantasies of yore. Aladdin flips the script, bringing Robin Williams in to riff and do impressions and, in general, be Robin Williams. Except, this time, he’s not bound by the laws of reality, and so we end up with a movie whose hysterical, nonstop gag pacing matches the adventurous feeling. The music is again legendary (our #1 is “A Whole New World”), and the plot is remarkably exciting. One of the best.
The Lion King (1994)
One of animation’s biggest successes ever, both commercially and critically. This one is rightfully a classic. Brian summarized it better than I could in his description of “The Circle of Life” (#6 on our list), so I’ll just quote him here:
Though billed as Disney’s first “original” story for an animated feature (rather than one adapted from a folktale or novel),The Lion King borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Disney’s own Bambi. It’s something of a fusion. “Hambi,” if you will. But the film manages to capture the best aspects of both works: From Bambi, we have detailed animal animation developed from research in the field, and an emphasis on the cyclical nature of life, death, and the seasons. On the Shakespearean side, we’ve got oodles of brooding, plotting, and other courtly intrigue.
The Disney Renaissance, Part 2: The Plateau (1995-1999)
One thing I always admired about the previous four “Peak” Disney movies is that, despite their apparent status as kids movies, they never beat you over the head with their morals. The same cannot be said for Pocahontas (as Colton pointed out, the song “Savages” — #36 on our list — contains the lyric “They’re different from us / Which means they can’t be trusted!”). But there’s still plenty to love here, with the “Colors of the Wind” sequence one of Disney’s most gorgeous ever, and the character model for Pocahontas is one of the most memorable you’ll see.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Much like “Colors of the Wind” singlehandedly justifies Pocahontas, Hunchback would be worth it alone for the sequences of “God Help the Outcasts” or, hauntingly, “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire.” But there’s a lot to like on top of that. This is the darkest animated Disney movie. The tone is Gothic and fearless, the story and characters far from predictable. Perhaps its biggest flaw is one previously noticeable in Pocahontas, and one that has frequently recurred since: heavy leaning on wacky sidekicks at the expense of the movie’s dramatic tone. It’s a shame; otherwise it’d be a dark horse pick for best movie of the Disney Renaissance.
I know I called Beauty and the Beast the best of this lot, but Hercules may just be my favorite. It’s hilariously animated and voiced, with a breakneck pace and plenty of jokes for grown ups. Meg and Hades rank with The Genie and Stitch and Kronk as my favorite animated Disney characters. The gospel-driven soundtrack is fresh and catchy; Meg’s “I Won’t Say I’m in Love” is a particular highlight. Some people took offense with the butchering of the myth (as if the other movies are loyal to their origin fable?), but it doesn’t bother me. Hercules is a grand, well-animated adventure with a heavy emphasis on “fun.”
Another favorite. This gender-bender about a teenage girl who saves all of China has the trifecta of great story, great comedy, and great music. The worst part of Mulan, in theory, is Eddie Murphy’s out-of-place sidekick dragon, but I love Mushu too much to complain. The best part of this movie is easy – “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.”
Tarzan came out just as I hit the age where I was old enough to recognize that these films were designed so kids a quarter my age could enjoy them, but not old enough to realize that anybody could enjoy them. So I went into Tarzan a bit detached and convinced myself not to like it. When I saw it again years later, I of course loved it, but I don’t have nearly the residual affection for it that I do some of the others.
No-Man’s Land (2000-2007)
The Emperor’s New Groove (2000)
New Groove had a long, tortuous development, but the result is a delightful surprise: A rapid-fire screwball comedy with some of the funniest gags of any Disney movie. The closest analogy you could make would be a feature-length classic Looney Tunes short, full of hysterical set-pieces and absurdities and great one-liners. The story works well enough and the jokes are consistently sharp so that the movie whizzes by.
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
The last hand-drawn animated movie of note for nearly a decade, L&S is a fine one-off by a pair of writer-directors who would enter the ranks of my favorites with their work on How To Train Your Dragon seven years later. Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois give the movie great focus on the theme of family and the colorful Hawaiian setting as Lilo and her sister cross paths with alien Stitch. Funny and heartfelt, Lilo & Stitch is a gem.
I know this isn’t strictly an animated film, but Walt Disney Animation Studios did the animation of the scenes that take place in fantasy world Andalasia. Enchanted plays off the premise “What if a Disney princess existed in the real world?” The result is a hilarious spoof that’s also a sweet fairy tale in its own regard. Disney nerds will find lots of allusions and bits of trivia here, Amy Adams’ enthusiastic performance drives the movie, and James Marsden is absolutely hilarious. The CGI-heavy climax sucks the wind out of the movie’s sails, but Enchanted is overall a huge delight.
The Disney Re-Renaissance (2007-present)
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
It got a lot of buzz at the time of its release for being the first hand-drawn Disney film since
Lilo & Stitch Home on the Range and for featuring the first black Disney Princess, but it now seems doomed to be forever underrated. The animation is gorgeous, the music is great, and the whole production imaginative and polished. You can just make a huge checklist of all of the things this movie does right: Great voicework, great story, great characters, great jazzy soul. I can’t say enough good stuff about Princess. My only complaint is that I wish we spent more time with Tiana and Naveen as humans — their human character designs are much more interesting than the frogs.
In the wake of the relative box office success of Enchanted versus The Princess and the Frog, Disney drew the conclusion that gender-neutral/boy-friendly titles and marketing result in higher profits. Thus their upcoming project Rapunzel received some retooling to focus more on male protagonist Flynn Rider, and received a re-titling (i.e., it got Braved). This infuriated some people for ideological reasons, but it’s hard to argue with a half-billion in receipts. Tangled is fantastic, tightly plotted, and funny. The music — aside from “I See the Light” — fails to leave a huge impression, but the story and animation are phenomenal. (As Brian notes in his tribute to “I See the Light,” #23 on our countdown, the floating lantern sequence in particular is breathtaking.) Plus, the adorable and tough Rapunzel might be my favorite Disney princess.
Ah, Frozen, the latest billion-dollar Disney franchise. The movie received almost unprecedented raves. Sure, it’s good, but I’d take exception to a few of the things I’ve read: That this is the best animated movie since The Lion King (it’s not even the best of the year); That it affirms Disney is “back” (did they miss Tangled and Princess and the others?); That it’s a brilliant inversion of Disney tropes (Enchanted is brilliant-er in this regard); or that it’s a masterpiece. Musicals should not have five of their eight songs in the first act and none in the third act. Olaf is also, in my mind, the most egregious use of “annoying sidekick” by Disney perhaps ever. I had trouble buying Hans’ 180, and the ending was too action-y.
And now that I have all of that bile out of my system, I will note that I loved Frozen. It’s delightful and sweet, and it has a truly outstanding soundtrack. “Let It Go” is one of Disney’s best songs ever, Sven made me smile nonstop, and the animation is wonderful. This is one of few animated movies that my peers seem to like more than me.
I Haven’t Seen These, But I Expect That I’ll Like Them
Treasure Planet (2002)
It’s supposed to be pretty funny and well-animated, and I’m eager to see a space-themed retelling of Treasure Island. (Besides, look at that gorgeous poster.)
The first “Re-Renaissance” hit, Bolt got rave reviews, and it has a very promising premise (dog thinks he has superpowers). I have no reason to doubt that I’d like it.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
Many people have sung the praises of this video game-inspired film, including Brian in his 100 Film Favorites countdown. I love the trailer and the premise, so I’ll probably love the movie.
Though these are not part of the “Disney Classics” line — they were made by the smaller-budget TV animation “DisneyToon Studios” — I wanted to give a shoutout to these movies from the Disney Renaissance era.
Recess: School’s Out (2001)
My brothers and I watched this at least 25 times, and we laughed out loud every single time. We don’t know the show these characters come from, but we love the hilarious script and voicework, the absurdity (“why’d they have to be ninjas?”), and the get-the-gang-back-together story.
Isn’t There Another One?
I feel like there’s another great DisneyToon Studios movie from this era… It’s on the tip of my tongue… It’ll come to me…
(Edit: Oh yeah, that’s right!)