Disneyology 101: The Disney Dark Age

This is the installment of this series that I’ve been weary of but also morbidly curious about.  The period of Disney’s history between 1974 and 1988 are infamous.  They were considered a clear low point for the venerable studio (at least until they hit a new low in the 2000s) and are now largely seen as a dark age that the studio needed in order to bounce back with their famous “Disney Renaissance” in the 90s.  This was caused by a number of factors: a general decline in standards that began after Sleeping Beauty under-performed, a lack of direction from a strong figure like Walt Disney, a whole lot of artistic and business infighting, a generally less hospitable environment for family movies, the list goes on and the result was a number of very bad years for the studio which nearly killed off their feature animation studio (for neither the first nor the last time) and for a brief moment saw them playing second fiddle to a rival.  But were these movies really as bad as they’re made out to be?  I do have some reason to suspect that they have at least a little more going for them than their reputations would suggest, or at the very least I have reason to be curious about some of them.

The Rescuers (1977)

1977TheRescuersThe Rescuers is notable for being the one and only Disney movie to ever get a theatrical sequel, which is really kind of amazing for a number of reasons.  Today we live in a world where sequelization is the norm rather than an exception but it’s still something Disney has avoided this trend almost entirely, at least outside of their direct to video business (which is lame but which has had the unintended benefit of preventing real sequels).  That sequel actually took a full 13 years to come to fruition, to the point where it actually came out in my lifetime while the original feels like ancient history by comparison.  This isn’t to say I was actually all that familiar with The Rescuers Down Under but I do vaguely remember seeing parts of it when I was a kid (there’s an eagle in it, right?).  By contrast I knew almost nothing about original aside from the fact that it was about mice that presumably rescue things and was actually rather surprised to see just how much older the film was than the sequel.  So of all their movies, why was this the one that got the sequel treatment?  Well, to my amazement, my research tells me that this was actually a huge hit in 1977… like, to the point of being one of their biggest hits ever up to that point.  It was also an especially big hit overseas for some reason and actually managed to outgross Star Wars in France.  Who knew?

This amazing financial success feels strange to me mainly because it just seems like a wildly mediocre movie to me.  Its basic concept just seems really lame.  Mice who are in some sort of club that… rescues people for some reason?  That seems less like the premise for a movie and more like a premise for a Saturday morning cartoon… in fact Disney more or less went and did that with Chip and Dale.  So who are these mice rescuing?  An orphan girl with seemingly no personality or character traits beyond being cute and helpless who has been kidnapped for reasons that are loopy even by the standards of Disney villain schemes.   We have a villainess named Ms. Medusa who is plainly a rip-off of Cruella De Ville (and actually was Cruella De Ville in early drafts of the script) who has kidnapped this orphan and moved her across the country to what appears to be the Louisiana Bayou so she can be lowered into a cave to retrieve a large diamond that has somehow been placed into this inaccessible cave by pirates.  I would think it would have been a lot easier to just pay a midget to go into the cave, but what do I know?  Anyway, the mice arrive on the scene, defeat the villains with relatively little trouble and everyone lives happily ever after… and that’s it.  Our heroes don’t really develop much and there’s no real allegory or moral, it’s pretty much a pure adventure story but without particularly memorable set-pieces.

So what does work here?  Well, our two mice heroes are pretty likable.  Eva Gabor’s is a nicely spunky heroine who exudes confidence and Bob Newhart’s Bernard makes for a nice foil to her with his general nervousness.  Also, the movie is pretty decent in setting its atmosphere and creating interesting locations out of New York and the Bayou even if the animation is as muted and dull as most Disney movies from this era.  I suppose the songs by Shelby Flint (which are played in the background rather than sung by characters on screen) are decent if not overly memorable.   Beyond all that though, I don’t know, it certainly isn’t gratingly annoying but it doesn’t have much going for it either.  As for its box office success and critical reception, I’m going to have to chalk that up to a general lack of competition.  There just weren’t that many movies being made for children in the late 70s, animated or otherwise, and people looking for that sort of thing kind of had to take what they could get.  In retrospect it feels like a pretty transitional film.  Wolfgang Reitherman is on board as a co-director but clearly had less influence over it and there would be some turnover before their next project.


The Fox and the Hound (1981)

1981TheFoxAndTheHoundThe Rescuers had turned out to be a pretty decent hit for Disney and at the time they’d gotten plaudits for their work, but it seems clear that there were quite a few people internally at Disney who weren’t as forgiving and it would greatly affect their follow-up The Fox and the Hound.  There had been a sort of civil war brewing between Disney’s old guard (who were really close to retiring) and the younger animators (who thought Disney needed to update).  These tensions reached their peak during the making of The Fox and the Hound and resulted in the most vocal of the younger (and “younger” is a relative term here, many of them were in their 40s) animators, Don Bluth resigning and taking eleven other animators with him to start a rival studio.  This set back production on their current movie and put a bit of a pal over the whole production as they were forced to hire on some new animators , but I suppose Disney had the last laugh because (like a lot of the so-called duds in this era) the movie ended up being another box office success for them.

The film is, at its heart, a kid friendly take on the old story of two childhood friends who end up on opposite sides of a conflict.  That’s the heart of it anyway, but the movie gets distracted by a bunch of weak sub-plots and side characters that dilute a lot of its impact.  It feels like a bit like some of the bad patterns that Disney would fall into later where they’d mar some of their better movies by feeling obligated to throw lame comic relief characters into otherwise relatively serious movies.  The whole movie seems to have this tension where the makers weren’t sure whether they wanted to just make a cute movie about talking animal or make a movie that was serious about exploring the tension its characters were going through and this is most clearly apparent in the way they wuss out and have the character of Chief injured rather than killed (as he was in the source novel) midway through the movie.  This was apparently one of the main points of contention between the two generations at Disney and it’s plainly obvious that the younger writers (who were on Team Dead Dog) were right.  It makes zero sense to have the hound and his owner out for revenge over an accident that merely injured that character and they just seem even more pointlessly obsessed.  That’s a beat the film so clearly wants to have and it’s patently obvious that they blinked and changed things.

However, the film does recover a little at the end.  The Fox’s courtship of a lady fox is pretty well handled as far as these things go and the chase scene at the end is also pretty effective, especially once that bear gets in on the action.  Disney also seems to have had more resources to put into this one than some of the other movies they made around this time and the animation does look better because of it.  It was actually the most expensive movie Disney had made up to that point, but I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t be the case if they adjusted for inflation and other variables because it still doesn’t look great per se, just not distractingly cheap.  Overall I kind of see why this movie became the frustrated middle child of the Disney cannon.  It’s far from being their best but certainly not their worst and it just doesn’t have that many standout elements that really make it stand out in the crowd.  It was something of a last hurrah for Disney’s old guard and the last movie Disney would make for a little while which wasn’t seen as some sort of embarrassment for the company.


The Black Cauldron (1985)

1985TheBlackCauldronOut of all the Disney movies I planned to watch this year, The Black Cauldron is definitely one of the ones I’ve been most curious to see.  This is in partly because it was an attempt to make a darker Disney movie that skewed older but also because, more than most of these movies, it is a total unknown quantity.  The movie had very little impact on pop culture and I’d hardly even seen a clip of it much less the whole movie.  If the movie is remembered for anything it’s for its incredible critical and commercial failure and, rightly or wrongly, is seen as the moment where the studio hit rock bottom.  It’s a shame because the people behind the movie clearly had high hopes for the project as they dumped a lot of money into it.  This was made for $44 million dollars, which is almost four times the cost of The Fox and the Hound, which was itself the most expensive animated movie ever made (without inflation adjustment).  That would have been money well spent if this had indeed gotten a wider audience interested in what they were doing and given themselves a cooler image, but things didn’t really work out for them.

While I’m not going to go so far as to suggest that Disney can just spend their way into making a good movie, the extra resources certainly don’t hurt.  This is easily the best looking Disney movie since Sleeping Beauty and it isn’t even close.  You can tell that that 1959 film was their model as this was the first time they experimented with wide screen, 70mm, and special animation effects since that movie’s relative box office failure and it makes it so that if nothing else The Black Cauldron is a very pleasant movie to look at.  The movie’s darker than usual tone is also a pretty interesting move.  This was Disney’s first PG rated movie, and this is before that rating had been completely devalued.  The film’s villain, while kind of generic and lacking in personality, has real menace and there’s a lot more of a sense of threat to the whole thing.  It’s a pretty fascinating direction to go in from a studio that, in its last movie, was too pussy to kill off a damn dog.  The problem is that while the movie seems really unique amongst Disney’s cannon it feels pretty generic by the standards of 80s fantasy movies in general.

The film’s protagonist is really boring.  He’s a 14 year old kid who… has brown hair and, uh, seems fairly noble I guess.  There’s also a princess here who’s more feisty than usual but otherwise doesn’t have much of an effect on the story.  There’s also a furry little comic relief thing that is absurdly annoying and the film has a really weird MacGuffin in the form of some kind of magical pig.  The story is also just a really basic Lord of the Rings ripoff and beyond that there really isn’t that much to say.  The film starts off well enough but really loses steam fast in its second act.  It picks up a little toward the end but by then it’s too little too late.  It’s a frustrating movie because it feels like the ingredients are there for something cool and they just blow it at every turn and the result is a movie that never lives up to its potential.  The general public rejected the movie so emphatically that the goddamn Care Bears movie ended up outgrossing it, many people at Disney were fired, and the decision was made to leave “edgy” animated movies to Ralph Bakshi going forward.


The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

1986 The Great Mouse DetectiveHeads rolled over The Black Cauldron and it coincided with a lot of changes to the greater Disney Corporation and the animated film division.  Michael Eisner had been brought it from Paramount to be Disney’s CEO and he appointed future Dreamworks mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg to run the motion picture division and by all accounts he hated what he saw of The Black Cauldron and personally cut 12 minutes out of it.  Clearly he felt the whole studio needed a big shakeup and different creatives started to take charge of their feature animations.  The Great Mouse Detective was the first post-Katzenberg production by the studio and he apparently made demands to it on a script level while also cutting the budget to avoid another overpriced bomb.  Whatever he did it seemed to work because The Great Mouse Detective was a very pleasant surprise for me and easily the studio’s best movie since The Jungle Book even if that’s not saying much.

Looking back, it’s clear that this movie was something of a trial run for some of the principals that would have been instrumental in the famous Disney Renaissance.  Most notably, two of the film’s four directors were a couple of guys named John Musker and Ron Clements who would together direct such movies as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Princess and the Frog, and they’re even directing Moana later this year. The thing is, they were kind of stuck with a stupid concept to work with the first time around.  Rather than working on an epic fairy tale they were stuck making a movie that answered the question no one was asking: what if Sherlock Holmes was a mouse?  Honestly I’m not sure why this studio is so obsessed with mice, animals which most people hate these rodents but Disney saw it fit to make one its logo and fund two major motion pictures about them within a ten year period and this one really does not do a whole lot with the whole animal angle.  Come to think about it, they don’t do a lot with the Sherlock Holmes angle either.  We know from moment one that Professor Rattigan is the villain, so this isn’t really a whodunit so much as it’s about figuring out where the villain is and what his evil scheme is.  That’s less a Sherlock Holmes formula and more the format of a James Bond movie complete with a scene where the villain leaves the hero tied up to an elaborate machine he can escape from.

The movie is also pretty sharp visually.  It lacks the show-offy scope of The Black Cauldron but it’s clearly cleaner and more confidently staged than most of the other movies they made in the previous twenty years.  They do a good job of animating the London fog and they also use some computer animation and use it pretty well during the film’s rather exciting finale in the gears of Big Ben.  In general, the execution here is pretty strong; it’s just that this whole premise is… silly and not very Disney-like.  The public sort of seemed to agree because the reception of the movie was strong but nothing great.  The movie made about $25 million on a $14 million budget, which would have been considered to be a moderate success except that for the second movie in a row Disney found themselves coming in second to a rival animation studio, in this case Don Bluth’s most successful movie An American Tail (again, what the hell is it with animators and mice), which made $47 million dollars.  Disney is not a studio that was used to coming in second on its own turf so I think this thing was ultimately seen as a commercial failure, but clearly they felt like they were going in the right creative direction and they were probably right.


Oliver & Company (1988)

1988 Oliver & CompanyBy 1988 it was pretty clear to everyone that Disney was in a bad place and that they may or may not be able to dig their way out and they were becoming very open to experimentation.  Oliver & Company was in many ways an experiment to see if the thing that had ailed Disney the whole time had simply been that they were behind the times and needed to start getting hip with the MTV generation and the results were… kind of hilarious in retrospect.  This is actually one of the few Disney movies to be placed in a contemporary setting and one of even fewer Disney movies to fully embrace its modernity, and because of that it has become dated a lot faster than most of their output because this movie is what you’d call “totally 80s.”  You can tell this right from the first moments of the movies where we immediately start seeing 80s New York as the setting and start hearing Huey Lewis and the News on the soundtrack.  In fact there’s a lot of pop music in the soundtrack here and it feels less like the Broadway-ish fare that Disney usually traffics in and more like fully produced MTV ready songs by artists like of Billy Joel (who also voices a major character during a very brief moment in time where he was considered cool and youthful) and while these songs are catchy enough for what they are they feel out of place and it’s more jarring than usual when characters suddenly break out into this kind of song than normal in part because they particularly sound like studio recordings rather than an approximation of someone singing on the street.

As a story the best way I can describe this movie is… rushed.  The movie is an attempt to re-tell Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” as the story of a stray kitten in New York, which I’m willing to bet seemed like a good idea at one point and they do find some semi-clever ways to adapt the story, but in the long run I’m not so sure that turning a 600 page novel set over a long period of time into a 74 minute movie set over three days was such a smart move.  “Oliver Twist” is a story that’s primarily about how its young protagonist moves between class stratas and the way he falls in and out of certain social circles be it the chaotic world of Fagin’s gang or the comforting world of the Brownlows, but in this version there’s very little time for him to really integrate with any of these worlds and he seems to build these lifelong loyalties after hanging out with people for all of a single day.  But let’s not ignore the obvious; even the most rock-solid of storytelling here would have almost certainly been lost amid this movie’s overwhelming “‘tude.”  Hell, they might as well have renamed Dodger to Poochie, because that Simpsons episode more than exemplifies what seemed to be going on with this movie and its general datedness is probably a big part of why it was never really embraced by future generations of kids.

From an execution perspective the movie is… mostly fine.  Disney had really started embracing celebrity voice actors at this point, a practice that they would sort of cool on shortly afterwards.  The animation is pretty decent for the most part, you can tell their craft has kept improving and they do an admirable job of filling the New York streets with activity although their use of computer animation is a little less impactful and a bit more distracting than it was in the last movie.  Critics were not fond of the movie but it did make decent money although once again the studio’s success was kind of overshadowed by Don Bluth.  This movie opened the very same weekend as Bluth’s The Land Before Time and lost the weekend $7.5 million to $4 million.  Oliver & Company surpass Bluth’s film and gross $53 million to LBT’s $46 million, which is pretty much a draw.  Disney would have the last laugh though as this would be the last time that Bluth would be viewed as any sort of threat.  The film’s bigger legacy though is probably one of failure as I kind of suspect that Disney was a little embarrassed by their sellout attempts here as evidenced by the fact that they ran as fast as possible in the other direction shortly thereafter.


Collecting Some Thoughts

So, I’ve waded through the Disney Dark Age and obviously the big question is “was it as bad as its reputation suggests?”  Objectively, I’m inclined to say “not really but I understand why people think so.”  Simply looking at my star ratings I definitely gave higher scores to the movies during this installment of the series than I did to most of the movies in my last series on the “Reitherman Years” and I think that era has been given something of an unfair pass in part because The Jungle Book came out in the middle of it and that movie is seen as a sort of classic.  What I think has directed so much ire towards this era, aside from sour grapes over what was going on behind the scenes, is that this was the first time that Disney didn’t really seem like Disney.  Even when they had put out bad movies in the past there had still been little doubt that they were the undisputed kings of mainstream animation and that wasn’t necessarily true of their 70s and 80s output.  They had some real competition now and you could sort of see them flailing.  On top of that they had abandoned a lot of what had worked for them in the past.  Instead of alternating between fairy tale movies and talking animal movies they had doubled and tripled down on the talking animal movies in this era and the one fairy tale like movie they did attempt was a far cry from their earlier formula that people were so nostalgic for.

Despite Disney’s problems during this era you can definitely see them rebuilding towards something better as they went.  The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound were basically extensions of the Reitherman era and had all the problems associated with it and while The Black Cauldron had plenty of problems itself I feel like it marked a point where the animators were learning and they used tricks from it to make The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company work better than they otherwise would have.  Those last two movies are the real transitional efforts.  You can see the techniques that would finally bring The Disney Renaissance to life but they were being used towards story ideas that weren’t worthy of them.  As everyone knows, Disney was about to break out of its doldrums in a big way and that will be the subject of my next installment, but that is going to have to wait because I’m going to be putting Disneyology on hiatus for a few months and resuming it after Award season ends.  Fortunately I’ll be able to hit the ground running with the movies that most exemplified what Disney was all about to my generation.


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