Disneyology 101: The Early Renaissance

Disneyology201

It’s been a little while, but now that award season 2016 is over I’m finally ready to get back in the groove of this series.  In the first part of the series I looked at the first forty-nine years of the Disney Animation Studio, which consisted of about twenty movies.  For this second half I’ll only need to look at about twenty years of the studio’s history between 1989 and 2009 and yet I’ll actually be watching twenty-two movies, which is a function of Disney’s increased production and general strength during this era.  The last installment, which spanned 1977 to 1988 showed Disney at its alleged lowest point, but you could see signs of what was to come in those movies.  They were clearly upping their game on a technical level and were also growing more confident about commissioning popular music and hiring celebrity voice actors in that period and by the end you could see the infrastructure in place.  What we had not yet seen was Disney applying their improved craftsmanship towards stories that harkened back to the studio’s golden age.  Enter the Disney Renaissance.   This period, which lasted more or less throughout the 90s was Disney’s big comeback and it set the standard by which most of the studio’s films are judged today.  It’s also notable moment in the studio for me personally as this era (and specifically the five movies in this installment) was occurring during the time when I was actually the target audience for these movies.  However much I shunned them when I got older these movies were a part of my childhood if perhaps not as big a part of it as it was for some people of my generation.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

1989 The Little MermaidOliver & Company had been Disney’s attempt to return to relevance by being cool and hip and reaching out to the MTV generation and for the most part they kind of fell on their face doing so.  For their next project they decided to go in the other direction and making a movie that was a bit more dignified and that brought more modern techniques to the “Disney Fairy Tale” format that had built the company.  That seems like an obvious direction for them to have gone with 20/20 hindsight but it certainly wasn’t that obvious at the time.  It’s easy to forget now but there had really only been about three or four true “fairy tale” movies in their first fifty years and the last one they made, Sleeping Beauty, was kind of a financial boondoggle.  Fortunately someone at Disney decided that this more traditional approach was worth giving a shot and the team Ron Clements and John Musker, both hot off their work on The Great Mouse Detective, were chosen to direct and the film was given more resources than most of their recent movies to make it the comeback project they had been hoping for.

As the movie began I was immediately struck by the fact that the film does still show its age in the animation.  The colors aren’t quite as sharp as what I associate with the Disney Renaissance look but that isn’t to say that there aren’t a whole lot of tricks here that were very impressive; for instance I’m sure that a megaton of painstaking work was put into making Ariel’s hair look right while underwater.  This was, incidentally, the last Disney movie to still be primarily animated through traditional animation cels so it maybe isn’t surprising that the look is a bit transitional.  The film’s other most notable feat is almost certainly the music.  The decision was clearly made at some point that this should be a musical, which wasn’t exactly new for Disney but the way they did it was new.  The earlier Disney movies had songs but they always felt a bit like afterthoughts and didn’t advance the story as much.  This one by contrast seems structured more like a Broadway musical, which may be a function of the fact that Broadway was kind of booming during the 80s with super-productions like “Les Misérables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” raking in billions.  To do this they brought in Alan Menken, who had written “Little Shop of Horrors” earlier that decade to both write the score and compose some original songs.  His score is clearly more substantial than what we’ve heard in previous Disney movies and sounds very classical.  At times it’s actually a little over-done like in an early scene with a shark where the music just does not seem to stop, but in general it gives the film a lot more class and weight than it otherwise might have.  As for the songs, well I thought the big “I Wish” song “Part of Their World” was less impactful than I expected it to be but those Sebastian Calypso songs hold up remarkably well both as songs and as musical sequences in the movie.

Outside of the music and visuals the move starts to show some weaknesses.  I think the biggest problem in the movie is probably the Ariel character who ultimately seems kind of one-dimensional.  She really wants to see the surface and marry that Prince, it’s her single minded obsession and seemingly the only thing that really drives her and it drives her to do some really stupid things.  The traditional feminist rejoinder to the movie was that the heroine “gives up her voice for a man,” which didn’t bother me as much as just how generally reckless she is.  King Trident likely has very good reasons for forbidding contact with the human world what with humanity’s tendency to murder anything they don’t understand so Ariel isn’t just putting herself in danger by chasing her every whim and that contract with Ursula is the kind of horrible deal that only a complete moron would sign on to.  There’s a kind of “Romeo and Juliet” quality to Ariel’s romantic insistence on chasing her desires beyond all rationality, but unlike that play (and the original Hans Christian Anderson story upon which this is based for that matter) this doesn’t end with the star-crossed lover dead in a tomb, instead the mess that Ariel creates is just kind of luckily cleaned up by the Prince minutes after everything goes wrong. Of course a lot of this kind of stuff is a lot worse in some of the older Disney movies so I guess this deserves kudos as a sort of step in the right direction just the same.

The Little Mermaid, came out late in 1989 when I wouldn’t have even been two years old yet so I’m pretty sure I missed the movie during its theatrical run but I’m pretty sure I did watch it on VHS more than a couple of times.  In fact I actually have clearer memories of my family owning the movie’s soundtrack on cassette than I do of actually watching the movie but I am pretty sure it was a childhood favorite just the same.  Disney itself was certainly happy with the product and it was pretty immediately recognized as a turning point by the press and by general consensus.  It won two Oscars for its music and the film made about $85 million during its theatrical run placing it at number 13 for the year in-between The War of the Roses and Steel Magnolias  (good lord have box office trends changed) so it wasn’t quite in world-conquering blockbuster mode quite yet but that was more than any Disney movie had ever made in raw box office numbers and was clearly their first unambiguous success in a very long time.  It was readily apparent to all involved that Disney had struck upon a new mold upon which they would be able to go forward and the big question now was just how they were going to be able to do it.

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The Rescuers Down Under (1990)

1990The Rescuers Down UnderThe Little Mermaid was a very big deal for Disney and their subsequent output makes it incredibly clear that they recognized it right away and immediately started to capitalize one it, they did not however have this revelation until that movie’s release late in 1989 when their backup plan was already in production: a belated sequel to the 1977 film The Rescuers.  The film sticks out like a sore thumb right smack in the middle of all these other Disney Renaissance movies  but truth be told it probably would have been an odd direction for them to have gone at any time.  Disney just does not make fully produced theatrical sequels, even in today’s crazy franchise obsessed film landscape they have yet to make another real sequel (though a Wreck-It-Ralph 2 is currently in production) and yet they did this time and to what would seem like one of their less popular and less well remembered films to boot.  It’s something that only makes sense when you remember just how desperate Disney was for a hit all through the 80s and how they didn’t know at the time that The Little Mermaid would be that hit.

In many ways The Rescuers Down Under feels less like a true sequel so much as a glorified remake of the original movie that’s been relocated to Australia (a country that America was oddly obsessed with in the 80s) and it maintains a lot of that original film’s weaknesses.  Like the first film it has the titular rescuers out to save a wildly bland and annoying kid from a ridiculously evil bad guy with a reptilian henchman who’s kidnapped them.  I also still don’t see the appeal of this weird organization of mice interested in saving kids (who are inexplicably able to talk to animals) despite mice being seemingly the last species of animal to be capable of such rescues.  There is however one thing the movie has which the original film didn’t have: computer generated animation.  This was the first Disney movie made using something called the CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) system rather than any kind of hand drawn cels and it’s abundantly clear that they were very excited to play with their new toy.  The movie is filled with sweeping camera moves and chase/flight scenes that show off what this new system is capable of.  Sometimes this does look very cool even if some of that 2D animation charm gets lost, other times it can kind of just look bad like an early shot of the New York City skyline which looks like something out of a particularly cheap PS1 game.

The Rescuers Down Under does not really feel all that much like a Disney movie for better or worse.  There are no songs, it’s not based on some age old fairy tale, and it’s oddly action driven.  As an adventure story it works pretty well and I’m willing to bet that if I was a seven year old and I was watching it in 1990 I would have loved it, but I’m not and it’s not.  The film has maintained some stature among nostalgic Disney fans, but it tends to be ignored otherwise.  For that matter it was kind of ignored at the time too.  It got middling reviews and only made $27 million at the box office, which I’m pretty sure makes it a bomb.  This might have to do with the fact that it’s a sequel to a movie that was thirteen years old at the time (meaning someone who was five when the first movie came out would have been old enough to vote by the time the sequel came along), and by 1990 the three major voice actors in it were all geriatrics.  Of course part of the extent of its box office failure was the result of Jeffrey Katzenberg pulling advertising for the film after it opened fourth at the box office behind the likes of Home Alone and Problem Child 2 so as not to throw good money after bad.  Part of me feels that wasn’t simply a cold business calculation so much as a tacit admission that the film simply didn’t fit in with the brand that Disney would soon be building.  It was a holdover from a different era of Disney that the studio was happy to forget that just so happened to be made with techniques from the era to come.

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Beauty and the Beast (1991)

1991Beauty and the BeastIf The Little Mermaid was Disney’s big comeback Beauty and the Beast was where they perfected the formula and cashed in.  I would have been about four when it came out so it was still just a little bit before my time.  I might maybe have seen it in theaters but I don’t really remember it, I also don’t remember it being a fixture of home viewing either but I do think I eventually saw a lot of it on VHS at some point, maybe at school or something.  Honestly, of the four big Disney movies of this era this is probably the one I least remember the kids of my generation being crazy about but it seems to have been the one adults liked the best and finally watching it now (possibly for the first time seeing it from beginning to end) I can see why it’s the one that got all the Oscars and acclaim.  The movie is just made with a whole lot of confidence and seems to be where a lot of strong decisions were made.  You can tell right from the opening with the stain glass windows and the ominous music that the people making it were serious about taking the Disney fairy tale to the next level in terms of both animation and tone.  Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise do not shy away from some of the more dark and ominous imagery that this castle and this beast would seem to invite and the animation itself is clearly on some next level shit.

I’m almost inclined to be suspicious of the look of the movie on this blu-ray I watched it on, the movie has clearly been restored to the nines and I have trouble believing the movie always looked this damn clean.  However clean it originally looked it’s plainly obvious that the animation technology used for the film is another huge leap forward; it definitely looks better than The Little Mermaid and also uses the newfound technology with a lot more discipline than The Rescuers Down Under did.  The ballroom scene looks a little wonky today but otherwise I have few complaints about the film’s look.  The design elements are also pretty neat.  The beast himself looks like a really cool bear/wolf/lion thing that swings from being wild to being human rather seamlessly when needed and I also dig that effect that they put on Robby Benson’s voice.  As for the “Beauty” side; according to the Buzzfeed quiz I took when researching this series Belle is “the Disney princess that I am,” I think because I said I enjoy reading.  I think the people making this thought they  were making something really subversive by making Belle a lady who is smart enough to read and doesn’t swoon for the handsome guy, I don’t know that I was that impressed by this, but it’s not too far off from the “groundbreaking feminist” women who populate  the newest Disney movies.  Of course if you’re going to subvert fairy tale conventions this probably is the best one to do it with, after all there is already a bit of a subversion baked into the story given that it’s a fairy tale where it’s the man who needs to be saved from a magical affliction by the love of a woman rather than the reverse.

The usual talking point that arises when discussing this movie is the fact that, looked at objectively, it’s essentially a movie about a woman falling in love with her captor with her Stockholm Syndrome being quickly established though a montage/inner monologue song.  The problem is there and it doesn’t make a ton of objective sense, but that’s really kind of just something that’s inherent to the original fairy tale and I’m not sure if there was really a way they could have dealt with it too much better.  Where the movie does start to lose me is with the Gaston character, who is just really over the top with his doucheiness.  I get that he’s meant to be something of a send-up of the traditional Prince Charming but this is handled without even the slightest bit of subtlety and he has a whole lot of screen time too.  I also really found Gaston’s voice to be kind of old-fashioned and grating, especially when he was singing.  Speaking of singing, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are back making this into a musical and they certainly wrote their share of good tunes for it.  I’m not sure anything here is quite as catchy as the calypso numbers from The Little Mermaid but the Oscar winning title track is of course a classic of film music and there are some other songs here that are certainly well executed, maybe a few too many.  I haven’t counted them out but it feels like there are twice as many songs here as there were in The Little Mermaid and it feels a bit excessive.  If they’d cut out a few of the weaker numbers the showstoppers would have probably worked a bit better.

So there’s some stuff to like here but did it deserve to be the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture?  Actually, it just might have been.  Don’t get me wrong, I doubt I would have personally put it in my top five for that year but with the Disney animated film being the fifty-plus year old institution that they are it kind of seemed to make sense that they be acknowledged at some point and if they were going to do that it probably was right to do it for a movie that actually raised the envelope in the genre like this movie did.  At the end of the day the movie did end up leaving the 64th Annual Academy Awards with the exact same two music Oscars that The Little Mermaid won but this was definitely an “it’s an honor just to be nominated” moment as this reflected the movie’s prominence in the wider culture.  The movie made $145 million in theaters domestically, which doesn’t sound like a ton today but considering that no other Disney animated movie had ever broken the $100 million barrier and that it was the third highest grossing movie of the year behind Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.  That is a huge victory especially given that the movie allegedly actually cost less to make than The Little Mermaid (no floating hair to animate).

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Aladdin (1992)

1992 AladdinThe circumstances of how I first saw The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast are hazy in my memories, but the same cannot be said about Aladdin.  In fact Aladdin is very likely the first movie I saw in theaters, it’s certainly the first one I distinctly remember seeing.  I don’t want to over-romanticize the experience but it did seem pretty damn special at the time.  I remember the screen seeming huge to me and the packed theater felt almost like an extension of the cave of wonders from the film and I also distinctly remember leaving the theater and it being kind of later at night than I’d usually be out of the house.  Needless to say it was an experience that stuck with me.  I think I saw the movie in theaters at least one more time during that initial run and probably watched it a couple more times on video but it has probably been well over twenty years since I last saw it.  I was not alone in having seen it that year as it was the highest grossing movie of 1992 by a decent margin.  If Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney movie to make over a hundred million Aladdin was the first to make over two hundred million.  It didn’t have quite the critical support of the last two films and it didn’t have quite the same Oscar success (though Alan Menken did three-peat for song and score), but the world was still very much on Disney’s side at this point.  But does the movie hold up?

After the incredible success of Beauty and the Beast it would have been a mistake to do another straight-up European fairy tale right after it.  So from here Disney would begin looking to less obvious sources for their movies and would specifically begin looking to the traditional stories of other cultures and given this going to one of the stories from the Arabian Nights certainly made sense.  Aladdin draws from the storybook version of classic Arabia as well as the Hollywood adventure serial version of it seen in films like The Thief of Bagdad and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.  This is probably what the film does best.  The film’s fictional country of Agrabah is really well wrought despite some strange geographical features like the inclusion of Tigers and Parrots and the whole film has a lot of strong design elements from the guards’ costumes to the Sultan’s palace to the cave of wonders’ interior.  The adventure elements also work quite well with some really strong set-pieces like Aladdin’s final fight with Jafar and the animation is also sharp looking and a little more stylized than what we saw in their last two films.

Where the film starts to falter a bit is in the characters.  In particular, I found Aladdin himself to be kind of a bore.  It is kind of interesting to begin with that Disney was attempting to make what is essentially one of their fairy tale movies but from the perspective of a male protagonist and you can tell that the people involved were not quite sure how to handle that.  Unlike Belle and Ariel, who were both unfulfilled at the beginning of their movies, Aladdin seems pretty comfortable in his own skin from the beginning of the film and while he’s theoretically not happy about the fact that he lives in abject poverty he seems to manage his street life just fine.  Eventually he sets his sights on wooing Princess Jasmine as his motivation in the film, but you never really feel that deep desire in him, he just says he wants her to fall in love with him and you roll with it.  That I don’t care much for Scott Weinger’s voice performance is part of the problem.  He makes the character sound like this privileged surfer dude and that just makes you not that excited to get on board with him.

Of course the most notable voice actor here isn’t the voice of Aladdin, it’s Robin Williams as the genie.  Regardless of what he did, Williams’ presence here would have been noteworthy.  Semi-recognizable actors had been periodically doing voices in Disney movies for decades at this point, usually either aging character actors or cult figures but this was probably the first time that they gave a prominent role to a major celebrity at the height of his fame and invited him to very much be himself in the voice booth.  The results are fucking annoying.  I should preface this by pointing out that I’ve always found Robin Williams’ rather caffeinated stand-up/talk show persona to be a bit annoying in long chunks and it’s doubly annoying here when he seems interested in taking the viewer out of the movie at every opportunity with his fourth wall breaks and his impressions that were probably already dated when he was doing them in 1991.  The animators do do interesting things with the genie from a visual perspective and there is certainly some raw skill in the way they try to react to all of Williams’ digressions but pretty much every time that character was on the screen I just wanted him to go away so I could get back to the classical Arabian serial adventure.

I dislike that genie character both for how he is in this movie and for what he did to childrens’ movies in general.  I feel like the roots of everything I hate in the Dreamworks style probably stem from him and that is unfortunate.  This is not an easy part of the movie to overlook, for me it’s kind of a glaring flaw, but the overall package here does have a lot to offer.  Alan Menken’s new roster of songs (half with lyrics by the late Howard Ashman and half with lyrics by frequent Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator Tim Rice) are once again strong, if not quite as strong as Beauty and the Beast’s and they’re used a bit more judiciously than they were in that movie.  Rework Blue Deadpool 1.0, punch up the main character a bit, and maybe add an extra layer or two to the story and you’ve got a pretty solid Disney flick here.  I have a feeling that when I get deeper into this series and I find myself looking at the likes of Treasure Planet and Home on the Range I’m probably going to regret being so hard on this one, but when surrounded by other better movies this starts to seem a bit weaker by comparison.

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The Lion King (1994)

1994 The Lion KingThroughout its history there have been two major brands of Disney movies: the fairy tale movies (Snow White, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) and the talking animal movies (Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, etc) and it was decidedly the fairy tale movie that defined the Disney Renaissance.  There was however one exception to this, and it was a big fucking exception: the ultimate Disney 90s hit The Lion King.  The amount of money that The Lion King made is frankly astronomical.  It hit the record that Aladdin set two years earlier and then made an additional hundred million dollars on top of it.  It was the highest grossing animated movie ever made at the time by a wide margin and held that record until Finding Nemo came along almost a decade later and worldwide it was the second highest grossing movie of all time behind Jurassic Park (though oddly it wasn’t that year’s highest grossing movie domestically, because holy shit, Forrest Gump made so much more money than you think it did).  It was frankly world conquering.  I was part of that wave as well.  I didn’t have some wildly memorable milestone first time viewing experience with it like I did with Aladdin, my mother just brought me to it on a random weekend afternoon and I presumably enjoyed it.  Since then though I’ve had a lot more exposure to it than I did to most of the Disney movies of this generation.  It was a go-to VHS in schools and summer programs and oddly I also ended up watching it in both Spanish and German while trying to learn those languages in middle school and high school respectively.  So this isn’t as uncharted a territory as some of the other movies I’m looking at here, but there is something to seeing it within the context of its place in Disney history for this series.

The most notable thing about The Lion King is actually something you might not immediately think about: it’s the first wholly original Disney movie.  This is perhaps original in the legal sense rather than colloquial sense.  It clearly borrows liberally from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Disney’s own Bambi but there’s no one text that the film claims to be based on.  Every other Disney movie up to this point has either been explicitly based on a famous story, novel, or children’s book, even the ones like 101 Dalmations or The Rescuers whose source material has largely been forgotten.  The idea apparently had its genesis out of a desire to follow up their Arabian movie with a movie set in Africa but without all the baggage of making a movie about actual African humans, so they went with a movie about African wildlife living out in a version of the Serengeti that’s never been intruded by humans and where animals have created their own monarchical government.  From there it essentially plays out like a feline version of Hamlet with a young prince left to slay an uncle who usurped the throne through regicide.  It differs a bit from Shakespeare’s story in that Simba is led to believe that he’s personally responsible for the death of his father for much of the film and Pumbaa and Timon probably resemble a pair of Falstaffs more than they resemble Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but either way there is some legitimately ambitious and heavy stuff here that sets the film apart from most Disney movies.

Animation-wise The Lion King is yet another big step forward.  You can see right from that amazing “Circle of Life” opening that this is being made by people who are incredibly confident in their talents and a lot of what they started earlier in the renaissance has kind of been perfected here.  There aren’t really any of those moments of dated CGI like the stairs in The Little Mermaid, or the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast, or the opening of the cave of wonders like in Aladdin, everything here just looks great and they render the animals beautifully.  They also really embrace celebrity voice actors here throughout the cast, which is often a red flag but here it’s done the right way rather than out of a calculated effort to put names on the poster.  James Earl Jones adds a lot of gravitas to the film, Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Matthew Broderick both bring the right tone to Simba, Jeremy Irons makes for a very fun villain, and even Rowan freakin’ Atkinson somehow seems like an inspired casting choice here as Zazu the king’s aid.  Alan Menken finally took a break with this one, which you’d think would have been a blow but Elton John somehow stepped in and somehow, with the help of Tim Rice, managed to write songs that were right up there with what came before and Hans Zimmer managed to step in and do a pretty good job with the rest of the score.

I tried to resist this movie’s charms and do the grumpy person pickiness  I normally employ with these movies, but try as I might I really just couldn’t hate on it.  I expected Pumbaa and Timon to come in and wreck it but even they didn’t seem too bad, especially not after the genie horseshit from the last movie.  I could have done without Pumbaa’s fart story butting in on “Hakuna Matata” and Timon doing a luau to distract the guards, but Ernie Sabella and Nathan Lane do have good chemistry and the two characters have kind of a Laurel and Hardy thing going on.   I also thought the movie’s final resolution could have been handled better.  Scar just sort of admits to all his wrongdoing way to easily and some of the animation looks kind of weird when it goes into slow motion during the fight scenes, but as a sort of metaphorical fated duel to restore the throne it still works and it looks pretty cool with the fire and the dark sky.  Really though this movie is hard to complain about, it’s clearly a pretty big win all around and I think I appreciate it all the more having seen all the proceeding Disney movies and having a clearer idea of how many of the pitfalls this doesn’t fall into and how many improvements it makes on what proceeded it.  What can I say, they hit it out of the part this time.

4.5

Collecting Some Thoughts

The Lion King was clearly a major triumph for Disney and was the culmination of five nearly perfect years of growth and unprecedented success for Disney and it felt like they were going to go as the clear standard-bearers for animation for decades to come.  Little did they know that their hubris would quickly get the best of them and that things would start to slip very quickly afterwards.  Seeing them all now I can confirm that this era does indeed more or less live up to its reputation.  Granted some kind of latent nostalgia may be having some effect on my opinions but given that I had clear issues with the one movie I should have the most nostalgia for I don’t think that’s the case.  The Lion King was actually the last Disney movie I would end up seeing in theaters for a variety of reasons and I aged out of their demographic shortly thereafter.  It is perhaps a strange quirk of fate during the five year period that Disney had its peak of critical and commercial popularity right when I happened to be of the exact right age to have been its intended audience while it was still going on.  You’d think that something like that would have made me perfectly situated to become a lifelong fan but perhaps it had the opposite effect and led me to take Disney for granted, to demand something even better than peak-Disney before I’d be impressed by any kind of family movie again.

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