With the impending release of Disney Animation’s latest output, Zootopia, there is a buzz this movie can repeat the success of recent Disney Animation films and also take the horrible taste The Good Dinosaur left behind.
In today’s movie environment, it is a given Disney always brings its A-game and release something fun, profound, and worthy of the prestige and title of the world’s most well-known animation studio. However, at certain times in the long history of Disney, there has not always been solid output. The 1980’s was a relatively down period for Walt Disney animation and there were narrow escapes on hostile takeovers and shutting down the animation department altogether.
After the success of the live-action/animation hybrid Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, courtesy of collaborating with Steven Spielberg, Disney had enough confidence to give the green light to a project that had been originally developed in the 1930’s, The Little Mermaid. When the movie came out in 1989 it was a huge hit and sparked a ten-year, ten-movie run of critically acclaimed box office success for Disney animated movies.
In honor of this famed period of animation history, we’re attempting the impossible to narrow down the filmography of this period into the best of the best. Enjoy the list, let us know which movies you like the best, and have some grace for this list that will inevitably leave off one or more of your favorites.
Disney has had a spotty history with cultural stereotypes and sensitivity. Not as much as Warner Brothers and Looney Toons, but enough to raise people’s ire when they tackle a story from non-Western culture. It’s what keeps Aladdin off this list, despite a tour-de-force performance from Robin Williams, and Pocahontas, which lacks a strong comedic anchor. The closest Disney came during this period to being culturally sensitive and avoiding stereotypes was with on their least commercially successful movies, Mulan.
In the massive checklist necessary to rank these movies, Mulan gains some of the highest marks for music, message, and comic relief characters. In the tradition of Aladdin, the movie features a top-notch comedic actor anchoring the funny with Eddie Murphy as Mushu, the fast-talking, self-absorbed dragon charged by her family’s ancestors to guide her fortune and avoid familial disaster. Murphy takes his normal motor-mouth schtick and keeps things funny within the movie. As much as I love Williams’ performance; his impressions and constant cultural references seem like a performance outside the movie and embody more of Williams than the Genie himself. Conversely, Murphy’s Mushu is not a comedian as a dragon, but a dragon played by a comedian. His dialogue is snappy, fun, and littered with great witticisms playing off both Mushu’s naivety and narcissism.
Besides the fantastic comedy, the story of Mulan is captivating, original, and the most progressive Disney story of this era. Mulan is a largely self-sufficient woman and is the least “princess-like” of any Disney princess. Plus, she is incredibly capable and has a lot more in common with Luke Skywalker or William Wallace than Sleeping Beauty or Jasmine. She’s a swordsman, a leader, and a hero. It’s a shame Mulan is typically the least popular of the Disney princesses.
After a run of animated movies that didn’t hold up to the previous success of The Little Mermaid through The Lion King, Mulan had returned Disney to prominence and talk that Disney had lost it again went away. Tarzan, the last of the Disney Renaissance movies, ended Disney’s ten-movie run on a high note. After this movie, a dry run of flops like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Fantasia 2000, Treasure Planet, and Home on the Range, and moderate successes like Brother Bear, Dinosaur, and Lilo & Stitch. While the latter of the three was the most successful, the best of the bunch from this period was The Emperor’s New Groove. After these movies were not as widely hailed as the Renaissance period movies, Disney moved away from traditional animation and towards the Pixar-like CGI animation.
As the last of the majorly successful Disney films of the Renaissance period, Tarzan returned to many of the formulaic elements that had made other movies so successful. Like The Lion King, a famous pop-star, Elton John on The Lion King and Phil Collins on Tarzan collaborated with musical composer Mark Mancina. The major difference from The Lion King is that Collins wrote, produced, and arranged much of the music for the film. It was a bit of a gamble that paid off and won Tarzan an Oscar for Best Original Song.
While the movie lacks the dynamism of a strong comedic performer Rosie O’Donnell and Wayne Knight both did a serviceable job as Terk and Tantor, Tarzan’s gorilla and elephant friends. The movie is far from the funniest of these Disney movies, but the musical numbers, again, shine and of particular note is the Rosie O’Donnell led “Trashin’ The Camp” which Collins helped write and arrange.
What this movie brought back was a central relationship that was more like Beauty and the Beast and less like The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Little Mermaid. Both Jane and Tarzan had equal amounts of strength and both, in one form or another, rescue each other. Their love is both a mutual attraction and a pining not just for each other, but a different life from the one they live. The music opines their relationship throughout and Collins’ song is a multi-faceted love song of their relationship and their “tale of two cultures” peril.
One of my favorite aspects of the movie is also the return of a non-flat character bad guy. Clayton, voiced by Brian Blessed, not only has the same body-type and machismo as Beauty and the Beasts’ Gaston but has similar, complex motivations. He is definitely the bad guy but he thinks he is doing the right thing. Gaston, likewise, may be the bad guy, but all he wants is to protect his town, protect and win Belle, and get rid of the Beast. Both meat-headed men meet untimely ends fighting for what they think is the best course of action. The one line I will always remember is Clayton desperately trying to get Tarzan to tell him where the gorillas are; “GO-RILL-AS!”
After the box office and critical successes of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, it hardly seemed like Disney could hit another home run. However, in 1994, the team at Disney creates arguably their best feature to date with the successful classic film, The Lion King. Mining from the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, the story of Simba borrows from the English Literature classic, Hamlet. Taking a heavy tragedy of family, responsibility, and revenge and applying those themes to a children’s story, The Lion King is intense, emotional, and moral. Few movies manage to weave a story girls, boys, parents, and grandparents could find truth and beauty in while laughing and singing along.
More than any other Disney movie, possibly ever, The Lion King boasts an all-star roster of A-list stars. First of all, you get the voice of Darth Vader and CNN, the legendary James Earl Jones, to play the booming, fatherly presence of Mufasa. You have the massive popular Jonathan Taylor Thomas (hello, Home Improvement anyone?) as the main character, Simba, and then you have Ferris Bueller himself, Matthew Broderick, as the adult Simba. Not only that but the revenge centerpiece of the film, the villain Scar, is voiced masterfully by English go-to baddie, Jeremy Irons. More than any other vocal performance, Irons menacing Scar carried his character into another realm and added a sinister snarl to an already nefariously written character.
The other memorable performance, while being a bit hammy (pun, intended), is Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon the Meerkat and Pumbaa the Warthog. It was a great touch by the creators of the movie to have them be a comedic duo and they steal every scene they are in. And who will ever forget their song? It means no worries!
You would think I am done but you would be wrong. Rowan Atkinson, Mr. Bean, as Zazu the majordomo to Mufasa. Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin as the wise-cracking hyenas, with Ed Cummings as the slobbering dunce of the group, and lastly Moira Kelly as adult Nala. The entire cast is unbelievable and each one shines in their own special way. I could talk so much more about what makes this movie great. However, it follows the Disney formula of unforgettable music, a great story, and a fun, funny time. What makes this movie extra special is that all-star group of voice performers.
The movie that started the renaissance of animated movies, in many ways The Little Mermaid was a throwback to the old-style 1930’s and 40’s Disney movies. An old-fashioned princess story, it also returned to the well of fairy tale classics explored in previous legacy Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Cinderella. In fact, the story of the mermaid Ariel, her dad Triton, Prince Eric, and the villain Ursula is thematically and narratively similar to Sleeping Beauty. In another throwback touch, the movie is light-hearted and fun but shares a darker aesthetic, especially in any scene with Ursula, that looks much more like the old classic cartoons, especially Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio.
It also introduces many new, modern touches that would make up the formula for the movies to come after it. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, who had worked on Broadway and written for Little Shop of Horrors, were called in to bring back the musical element to Disney animated movies. The big difference was how much more The Little Mermaid was a fully imagined Broadway musical instead of the classic Golden Age of Hollywood musicals previous Disney animated movies were like. A number like “Under The Sea”, which won an Oscar, was nothing like “When You Wish Upon a Star” or “Once Upon a Dream”. These weren’t cute, catchy songs; they were fully realized vocal performances with bombast, humor, and a whole cast singing and dancing. And where else are you going to see a crab dancing with a flounder? Not in any live-action Broadway production.
I love this movie not because it is necessarily my favorite from when I was a kid, but both what it signaled for Disney’s future and the recaptured imagination. The idea of a renaissance is a rebirth or rediscovery of something previously considered great. The Little Mermaid recovered Disney’s lost magic and reintroduced a whole new generation of kids—myself included—to the fun and excitement of what made Disney great.
IfThe Little Mermaid was the introduction and recapturing of the magic, Disney’s next princess movie was the pinnacle of the old and the precision perfection of the new. Utilizing a screenwriter, TV and animation writer Linda Woolverton, Disney went back to an old, unused story treatment from the classic animation days and reimagined the story using their new formula. This time around, however, they had success in their back pocket and had started to gain traction and notoriety.
Looking to mine from Broadway even further, the voice of Belle, both singing and performing voice, went to Paige O’Hara, a Broadway actress who had a distinct voice often compared to Judy Garland. Also this time, unlike The Little Mermaid, they had bigger name voice actors in starring roles, the biggest of them being Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts and Jerry Orbach as Lumiere.
With a great cast in place, little more can be said about this film without slipping into superlatives. Every aspect of the animation is intricate and gorgeous. The voice acting is phenomenal and memorable for every character down to the talking Stove. And the music, oh my, the music! O’Hara’s voice is spectacular in every way and the comparisons to Garland are well deserved. Mencken and Ashman are at their very best and every song is memorable, fun, and unique in its own way. If Aladdin would be the comedic height of Disney’s animation renaissance with a titanic, movie-stealing performance by Robin Williams, Beauty and the Beast is Disney’s ultimate prestige picture. It was the only movie of this group of ten-films to be nominated for Best Picture and was the first animated movie to ever be nominated. It lost out to Silence of the Lambs, which makes sense, but I would honestly be okay with the movie having won and being ever remembered as Disney’s clarion call for return to prominence.