From 1970 through to 1989, Disney struggled to produce a major cinematic hit. While their movies continued to perform acceptably at the box office, it was widely suggested that they were a studio in decline. That all changed in the early '90s however when the studio entered into one of the most commercially successful periods in its history now known as 'The Disney Renaissance'.
During the 1980s, Disney suffered two major blows. Firstly one of their lead animators, Don Bluth, left to set up his own rival company which experienced great success with the likes of 'An American Tail' and 'The Land Before Time'. Secondly there was the colossal failure of 'The Black Cauldron' in 1985. This was meant to be the studio's big comeback picture and it flopped horrendously, costing around $40million dollars and yet only ever making back around half that amount.
After these setbacks, it was thanks to an unexpected source that new Disney CEO's such as Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were convinced to maintain their faith in animated feature films at a time when they were increasingly seen as financially unviable. Surprisingly, it was the success of the Steven Spielberg produced 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' that won them over. Despite the Disney studio itself having relatively little input in to the finished article, the popularity of a film which blended classic cartoon characters and live action comedy helped to kick-start a resurgence of interest in animated movies.
Buoyed by the success of 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit', Disney began work on its next project with renewed vigour. With 'The Little Mermaid', the studio went back to basics and for the first time since 'Sleeping Beauty' in 1959, looked to traditional fairytales for inspiration. When 'The Little Mermaid' entered production, the studio took the bold step of bringing onboard two Broadway stalwarts, lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken. In their hands, the film's soundtrack stood out a mile compared to recent Disney efforts and played a major part in the film's box-office success. The likes of 'Under the Sea' and 'Part of Your World' helped to cement the sense that you were watching a classic Disney cartoon with emphatic Broadway show tunes blended in.
Disney then experienced modest success with 'The Rescuers Down Under', but it was 'Beauty and the Beast' in 1991 which really pushed the studio on. With a considerably larger budget, the animation team created a visually stunning film that embraced state-of-the-art computer technology and delivered exquisitely detailed animation. The grand Broadway-esque style that was first introduced in 'The Little Mermaid', with a dramatic soundtrack and a grand story of a lone heroine longing for a better world and overcoming a loathsome baddie in the name of love, was utilised perfectly. The film was a phenomenal box office hit and became the first animated film to be nominated for an academy award.
Disney's next project was 'Aladdin', which was based on an old Arabian folk tale and proved to be another box-office smash. The film's success was helped in no small part by the inclusion of Robin Williams as the Genie at a time when celebrity voices in cartoons wasn't the norm. The idea to let Williams improvise his lines in the studio and then animate accordingly was an inspired one and it created one of the funniest Disney characters in years.
The studio's next offering was 'The Lion King', which arguably still remains the studio's high watermark. In retrospect, this was a big break in tradition for Disney. The film was not based solely upon a pre-existing story and dealt with adult themes such as a young prince being banished by his savage uncle only to then return years later and reclaim his rightful throne. It's a big departure from the typical fairytale filled with love and romance which had been mainstays of the Renaissance thus far. This sense of freshness, coupled with spectacular animation and a brilliant soundtrack courtesy of Elton John and Tim Rice, ensured 'The Lion King' was a smash hit that would prove a hard act to follow.
The studio's follow up was 'Pocahontas' which rather than building on 'The Lion King's' epic story and broader themes, and despite its story being, in theory, based upon real American history, it reverted squarely back to a generic fairytale style plot. By this time it could be argued that audiences felt this concept was getting a touch stale and it felt like a step back after the leap forward of 'The Lion King'. 'Pocahontas' didn't do badly at the box office, but it certainly marked the start of the decline after the boom years of the early 90s.
After 'Pocahontas' came two unconventional choices for Disney, 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' and 'Hercules', both of which broke with the standard fairytale formula to a degree but unlike 'The Lion King' failed to really capture audiences' imaginations. 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' was obviously toned down compared to the original novel but was nevertheless a notably dark outing for Disney. However as a story it just didn't really click with cinema goers the way earlier Renaissance era movies did. The two films that marked the end of the Renaissance era, 'Mulan' and 'Tarzan', likewise faired averagely at the box office but never truly hit the heights of their predecessors.
Arguably the studio had become a bit of a slave to formula by this stage, and as a result that high watermark was never regained. One can't deny though that for a good five years between 'The Little Mermaid' in 1989 and 'The Lion King' in 1994, Disney delivered some of its finest work. A whole new generation were turned on to Disney and while its fortunes did decline slightly, it nevertheless remained a major studio player in a manner which seemed unlikely a decade earlier. This successful period for Disney paved the way for feature length animation to remain a Hollywood force and for the likes of Dreamworks and Pixar to come to the fore.
Rob Keeling is a freelance writer and film fanatic based in Manchester. His favourite movies include Goodfellas, Back to the Future, The Godfather and Casablanca. Rob has written for a array of websites and magazines on topics ranging from Disney to Die Hard. Follow Rob Keeling on Twitter.
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