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The 1990s were one of Disney animation's most successful periods, especially the first half of the decade which is often nicknamed 'The Disney Renaissance'. Many of Disney's best-loved films were made in this period, as well as their most successful, both critically and commercially. After reaching a peak in the mid-1990s, the films in the second half of the decade failed to quite reach this highpoint as the number of films in production rose.
In the last 75 years, the Walt Disney Studio has released over 50 animated films it has labelled 'Classics'. The first 28 of these were made between 1937 and 1989, with classics 29-37 made in the 1990s.
By the beginning of the 1990s, Disney's animation department were riding high following the phenomenal critical and commercial successes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid. After struggling in the early 1980s, the appointment of Jeffrey Katzenburg as Chairman of Walt Disney Pictures had led to the start of the period known as 'The Disney Renaissance', an era that not only ushered in the 1990s but would reach its peak in this decade also.
The 1990s would also see the emergence of new methods of animation with the introduction of Computer Generated Imagery, as well as new animation studio allies and enemies in the form of Pixar and DreamWorks.
29. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
|Directors||Hendel Butoy & Mike Gabriel|
|Plot||In Australia a young boy named Cody befriends a golden eagle, but is kidnapped by a poacher wishing to capture it. Fortunately the international mouse organisation the Rescue Aid Society despatch Bernard and Miss Bianca from New York to help him. Will they save the day? Will Bernard be able to propose to Miss Bianca?|
|Source||Loosely inspired by The Rescuers (1959) and Miss Bianca (1962) by Margery Sharp|
|Sequel To||23. The Rescuers (1977)|
A bit of a misstep to begin the 1990s with, in this throwback to Disney's 1977 success, The Rescuers. Disney's target audience would not have been alive when the original film had been released. Unlike the other films of the era, there are no songs. The Rescuers Down Under was the first Disney Classic to be a sequel, but feels more like Disney's attempt to capitalise on the success of Crocodile Dundee than the natural successor to The Rescuers, with Bernard and Bianca not even appearing until the film is actually over a third done.
The film is noteworthy for the pioneering use of CAPS, the Computer Animation Production System. Produced by a then-minor computer company called Pixar, it took hand-drawn frames and digitally coloured and combined them onto film, eliminating the need to trace onto animation cels and hand-colour with ink and paint. This encouraged the use of more complex and exciting visual angles, saved money and sped up production. It also allowed Disney to vastly increase production and effectively make an animated film each year, helped in the late 1990s by the opening of a new animation division in Florida.
30. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
|Directors||Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise|
|Plot||A generic prince is transformed into a handsome Beast when he is unkind to a passing gypsy woman. She also, rather unfairly, takes her vengeance out on his servants too, turning them into household items. Unless the Beast can learn to love before petals drop off a rose, the curse will never be broken. Meanwhile, a young woman called Belle struggles to find her way in the world.|
|Setting||Once Upon a Time in Mediaeval France|
|Fairytale Castle||Beast's Castle|
|Perky Princess||Belle (Paige O'Hara)|
|Book Beginning||No, the prelude is told through the medium of stained-glass windows.|
|Source||La Belle et la Bête (1740) by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, popularised by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont (1756)|
|Songs||By Alan Menken & Howard Ashman |
A tale as old as time that feels as fresh as daisies. After the success of The Little Mermaid the studio was keen to create something similar, deploying Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. The result was a visually stunning, emotionally engaging film that showcases Disney at its very best. It also shows how Disney were able to transform their newly found CAPS technology into breathtaking art in the sweeping ballroom sequence. The look of the Beast was inspired by wolves, a mandrill and a gorilla seen in London Zoo, with a hint of buffalo and wild boar.
There have been accusations that the film was made to promote the opening of Euro Disney in 1992. Some have claimed that the song 'Be Our Guest' is little more than an advert to encourage visitors to stay in their hotel complexes there; if true, Disney should make more Oscar-winning commercials. The film became the most successful animated film ever at the time of its release. As for Euro Disney, when it opened customers predominantly chose not to be Disney's guest, preferring to stay in nearby Paris and bring their own packed lunches rather than stay in Disney's hotels and dine in their restaurants, leading to resort hotels closing in off-peak periods, a financial crisis and an eventual re-branding as Disneyland Paris.
Sadly Howard Ashman, whose lyrics helped ensure that the film was the success it was, died of AIDS before it was released.
This was the first Disney film to be adapted into a stage show, which debuted in 1994. The film has also been re-released in 3D. This may not be the last adaptation, as there have also been proposals to make a live-action film, to be titled either Beast or The Beast.
31. Aladdin (1992)
|Directors||Ron Clements & John Musker|
|Plot||In the land of Agrabah, a power-hungry Grand Vizier, Jafar, seeks a magic lamp which has the power to grant wishes. The only one capable of getting the lamp is a street urchin named Aladdin, who meets and falls in love with a beautiful princess.|
|Setting||Fictional Arabian country of Agrabah|
|Fairytale Castle||Palace of Agrabah|
|Wicked Witch||Jafar (Jonathan Freeman)|
|Perky Princess||Jasmine (Linda Larkin & Lea Salonga)|
|Airy Fairy||Genie (Robin Williams)|
|Source||Included in Les Mille et Une Nuits, aka Arabian Nights, translated into French by Antoine Galland in 1710|
|Songs||Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman unless stated:|
|Spin Offs||Aladdin (1994 television series)|
The film is dominated by the voice of Robin Williams as the Genie. The character of Aladdin is, however, quite contemporary American and feels out of place in an Arabian tale. The film was also designed with a deliberate colour theme, so that blue signifies good, red signifies evil and hell, green represents paradise, gold equates with greed, etc. Lyricist Howard Ashman, whose pitch inspired the film, wrote several songs intended for this film before he died. Three made it into the finished version, the others1 appear as extras on the special edition DVD. Alan Menken then worked with Tim Rice to write the two remaining songs needed.
Disney's first ever direct-to-video sequel, The Return of Jafar, was made to follow this film. The film was also very heavily influenced by the classic British film, The Thief of Bagdad (1940). Both Pinocchio and Sebastian from The Little Mermaid make cameo appearances, and the Genie at one point also wears a Goofy hat.
32. The Lion King (1994)
|Directors||Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff|
|Plot||The birth of baby lion Simba means that Scar is no longer first in line to the throne of the Pride Lands after his older brother, King Mufasa. Through an alliance with hyenas, Scar successfully gains the kingdom; however, Simba survives. Simba, blaming himself for his father's death, lives a life of no worries, before one day deciding to return to claim his inheritance.|
|Setting||African Pride Lands|
|Inspiration||Hamlet (c. 1599) by William Shakespeare|
|Songs||Written by Tim Rice and Elton John:|
The Lion King was originally made under the title The King of the Jungle before it was realised that there wasn't actually a jungle in the film. The film contains no humans as well as nothing man-made. There is a strong environmental element, with the key theme being that everything is interconnected in the great Circle of Life. Every stage of life and every form of life, from birth to death, ants to antelope, are joined together in the harmony of nature – except, that is, for hyenas, 'cos they are just evil. The film tells how Scar plans to put these prejudices in the past and create a world where lions lie down with hyenas, but sadly this doesn't work out.
Who is the King of the title? Is it Mufasa, who dies after only 34 minutes? Is it Simba, who despite wanting to be king as a child, then spends the rest of the film saying that he isn't one, and never actually is called 'king'3? Or is the king of the title Scar? Scar gets the first line of the film as well as the film's best lines4. He wants to be king the most, spends the majority of the film as king and two minutes after he dies, the film ends. As The Lion King tells Scar's life story, it implies that Scar is the true Lion King, Simba is merely tagging along. Scar even returns, getting a cameo role in Hercules.
This wasn't the first Disney animated film to feature a lion as king; that honour goes to Robin Hood. There are, however, claims that the film was inspired by the 1960s Japanese anime series, Kimba the White Lion. The film has since been released with a special edition containing an additional song 'The Morning Report', as well as a 3D release The Lion King 3D (2011). It has also inspired an internationally renowned stage show, which premiered in 1997.
Following The Lion King
The Lion King would be the last film to be finished under the guidance of Jeffrey Katzenburg. Before the film was released Frank Wells, the President of the Walt Disney Company, died in a tragic helicopter accident. Katzenburg hoped to replace him as president, having transformed the fortunes of Disney's animated films, but was unsuccessful. Feeling overlooked, in 1994 he left the Walt Disney Company and later that year, with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, formed his own film studio: DreamWorks SKG.
Following Katzenburg's departure, the quality of Disney's animated films began to decline. In the following decade, DreamWorks Animation would beat Disney at their own game by releasing hit films such as Shrek when Disney were making flops like Treasure Planet. Films made in the latter half of the decade would concentrate either on non-Caucasian young women, or malformed, ape-like men.
33. Pocahontas (1995)
|Directors||Mike Gabriel & Eric Goldberg|
|Plot||While an expedition sails from London to form a colony in the New World, headed by greedy Governor Ratcliffe, a young Native American woman named Pocahontas realises that she does not wish to marry the man her father has chosen for her. After she falls for Captain John Smith, one of the colonists, can the star-crossed lovers cross their cultural divisions and be united? Or is war the only possible outcome?|
|Setting||London and The New World (Virginia), 1607|
|Fairytale Castle||Not a castle, but there is the fortified colony of Jamestown|
|Perky Princess||Pocahontas (Irene Bedard & Judy Kuhn)|
|Airy Fairy||Grandmother Willow, a talking tree (Linda Hunt)|
|Book Beginning||No, instead the film opens with a painting.|
|Source||Loosely based on a true story.|
|Songs||Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz:|
|Sequel||Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998)|
Pocahontas was the last of a group of films released in the early 1990s that were made to celebrate the 500th anniversary of America's discovery by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Most were released in 1992, including Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, 1492: Conquest Of Paradise and even Carry On Columbus. Disney, in making Pocahontas, released what in many ways seems a remake of Asterix Conquers America (1994). Instead of leading, Disney were now trailing behind other studios and rehashing old ideas. That said, James Cameron was obviously paying very close attention to this film when he wrote Avatar.
On release, the film attracted criticisms for having racist and sexist characters, as well as being historically inaccurate. There was a lot of publicity accusing the film of racism, such as in the song that labels Native Americans as 'Savages'. The film has also been criticised for Pocahontas' appearance, which has been called as stereotyped and impossible to live up to. Pocahontas herself is a reckless character whose fondness for tombstoning5 and plunging down waterfalls could result in serious injury or death if imitated. Viewers should be aware that if they ever feel unsure of what direction their life should take, jumping off things is not the answer.
A Special Edition was released which included the bonus song 'If I Never Knew You'.
34. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
|Directors||Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise|
|Plot||In Notre Dame there is a man and a monster, but which is which? A hypocritical judge, Frollo, adopts a hunchbacked baby and keeps him locked up in the Notre Dame cathedral's bell tower after causing the death of his mother. He later plots the extermination of Paris' gypsy population while becoming infatuated with Esmeralda, a gypsy dancer.|
|Setting||Medieval Paris in 1482-1502, around the Notre Dame|
|Fairytale Castle||There is the Notre Dame Cathedral itself, as well as the Palace of Justice|
|Book Beginning||No, instead a puppet prelude|
|Source||Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) by Victor Hugo|
|Songs||Written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, incorporating traditional chants:|
|Sequel||The Hunchback of Notre Dame II (2002)|
Funny how before Euro Disney existed, in 70 years Disney had never made an animated film set in France, but as soon as the new theme park opened, Disney released the second film set there within five years. Over 10% of the film was actually made in Disney's Paris studio. Despite sharing the same directors as the earlier Beauty and the Beast and having a similar story, with a beautiful heroine meeting a malformed hero who lives trapped inside a castle/cathedral, this film is a pale imitation of the earlier classic.
In some ways the film is quite a brave, experimental departure for Disney. The film does have some characters that are gargoyles, which reflected their television series Gargoyles (1994-1997) that was current at the time. However, the storyline is not typical Disney fare, which is both its strength and overwhelming weakness. The hero is not the typical girl-getting handsome man, and there are no perky princesses or wicked witches, which may well have put audiences off. Instead the film looks at lust, hypocrisy, extremism and hate. Sadly the film's underlying message seems to be that no matter how brave, loyal, trustworthy and adventurous you are, if you are ugly you may well be appreciated, but you will never be loved.
35. Hercules (1997)
|Directors||Ron Clements & John Musker|
|Plot||Hades plans to take over Olympus, but is warned by the Fates that he will fail unless the new son of Zeus and Hera is dead. Instead of being killed, Hercules is made mortal and tries to learn what it takes to be a true hero.|
|Setting||Ancient Greece, especially Thebes and Mount Olympus|
|Perky Princess||Megara6 'Meg', a damsel in distress (Susan Egan)|
|Wicked Witch||Three Fates (Amanda Plummer, Carole Shelly & Paddi Edwards)|
|Source||Loosely based on Greek Myths|
|Songs||Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by David Zippel:|
|Spin Offs||Hercules: Zero to Hero (TV Pilot, 1998)|
Hercules: The Animated Series (Animated series, 1998)
This film steamrolls over a lot of Greek traditions concerning the character of Hercules in its bid to Americanise the story. Characters are renamed with typical American names like 'Phil' and 'Meg' while Hercules is now the son of Hera and Zeus, a typical happy American nuclear family. Greek heroes including Odysseus, Perseus, Theseus are dismissed as 'A lot of yeuseus'. Hercules' ambition appears to be to sell shoes and fizzy drinks, while his every act is narrated by a group of Motown Gospel singers, typecasting traditional Greek black-figure pottery as conforming to black American stereotypes. This culturally imperialistic approach led to outrage in Greece, where the Greek Government rejected a request by Disney to hold an open-air premiere at Pnyx Hill in Athens.
Hercules' personal quest to fight some dated CGI monsters lacks the emotion of Simba's journey or Beast's isolation. Phil the satyr was loosely inspired by Fantasia's 'The Pastoral Symphony' segment. Scar from The Lion King makes a very brief cameo appearance.
36. Mulan (1998)
|Director||Tony Bancroft & Barry Cook|
|Plot||During a Hun invasion, a man from every family in China is conscripted into the army. In order to save her father's life, young woman Mulan disguises herself as a young man and enlists.|
|Fairytale Castle||The Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City both appear.|
|Airy Fairy||Ancestor (George Takei)|
|Source||Ballad of Mulan, traditional Chinese Ballad|
|Songs||Music by Matthew Wilder, Lyrics by David Zippel|
|Sequels||Mulan II (2004)|
|Spin Offs||Mulan (2020) Live-action remake|
This was the first Disney film to be made at the Disney-MGM Studios in Florida, and was made to resemble Chinese watercolours. At this time, Disney wanted to break into the potentially lucrative Chinese market, and it was felt that culturally imperialistically Americanising7 one of China's traditional ballads and reducing its components to stereotypes would be the best way to go about this. After all, both Pochahontas and Hercules had received complaints of racist stereotyping, so why should Mulan be left out? Unsurprisingly, Mulan was as derided in China as Hercules had been in Greece.
This film, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, tries to move away from Disney's clichés of the past. Mulan is not a princess, but a minor nobleman's daughter who seeks to find her own identity, rather than the one imposed on her. Like The Little Mermaid it is a film about a fish out of water, in this case a girl trying to be a soldier in a man's army. Through impersonating a man, Mulan learns who she really is. Her friends are only able to defeat the Hun invaders when they, too, not only embrace who she is but think outside the limits of traditional gender roles. At the end this message seems to be spreading. Mulan's grandmother, previously the embodiment of tradition, states that she would happily join the army in the next war. The scene in which the trainees go from singing about the glory of war to instantly seeing its horrors, personified by an abandoned doll, is particularly effective. Sadly the story ends weakly, implying that Mulan will be happier to be an obedient daughter and wife than become one of the most important people in China, the Emperor's chief counsellor8.
1998 was a highly competitive year for animated films. Mulan was beaten at the box office by Disney/Pixar's A Bug's Life. It also faced the first two films by new animation studio DreamWorks, Antz and the highly successful The Prince of Egypt, with other animated releases including Pokémon: The First Movie and The Rugrats Movie.
37. Tarzan (1999)
|Directors||Chris Buck & Kevin Lima|
|Plot||A young couple and their newborn son are shipwrecked off a remote part of Africa. Shortly after his parents are killed, Kala, a gorilla, adopts the boy and proceeds to raise him as if he were her own son. Despite this, Kerchak, the leader, does not accept him. After he has grown into a man more people enter the jungle: a fierce hunter named Clayton, a professor fascinated by gorilla behaviour, and his daughter, Jane.|
|Setting||Remote African rainforest in the early 20th Century|
|Source||Tarzan of the Apes (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs|
|Songs||By Phil Collins|
Tarzan is in some ways a return to more traditional Disney stories about men raised by animals, previously explored in the Pecos Bill segment of Melody Time and especially The Jungle Book. It also moved away from the musical format that had proved so successful for Disney since The Little Mermaid. It would be the last successful animated film Disney would make until Lilo and Stitch (2002).
The film itself is nothing short of visually spectacular, although the attempts at comedy do not quite hit the same heights. The impressive cast list also helps make this retelling of a story told numerous times before memorable. Though the almost-cameo from Mrs Potts and Chip from Beauty and the Beast reminds us that this film isn't up to the earlier film's standard, it is a suitable way to bring an enjoyable end to this, one of Disney's strongest decades.
- DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp (1990)
- A Goofy Movie (1995)
- Doug's 1st Movie (1999)
In addition to the official Walt Disney Pictures animated films, three animated features were released by DisneyToon Studios based on television series. DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp was made by Walt Disney Television Animation under the label 'MovieToon Studios' in Disney's French and Australian animation studios. DisneyToon Studios also began making direct-to-video sequels of many Classic animated films at this time. DuckTales the Movie was only a moderate success, and so plans to make sequels were shelved. Proposals to make a Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers film were also abandoned.
In 1995 A Goofy Movie was released. This was based on Goof Troop, the father-and-son series about Goofy's relationship with his son, Max. This was a moderate success and spawned a sequel, An Extremely Goofy Movie (2000).
In 1991 a television animated series named Doug, made by Jumbo Pictures, was broadcast on the Nickelodeon channel. Disney acquired Jumbo Pictures in 1996, gaining the film rights to the character. In 1998 The Rugrats, another cartoon series shown on the Nickelodeon channel, was adapted for the large screen and The Rugrats Movie became a tremendous success on an unexpected scale for Paramount Pictures. Disney executives then decided that, as they owned Doug, they would capture the same fortune and churn out a series of hit films. This led to their making and releasing Doug's 1st Movie, also known as The First Doug Movie Ever. However it was a big flop and so no sequels were ever made.
- The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
- James and the Giant Peach (1996)
Director Tim Burton began his career at Disney and had later found fame and fortune directing such films as Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989) and Edward Scissorhands (1990). Because of this success, Disney allowed him and his company, Skellington Productions which had been co-founded with director Henry Selick, to make a stop-motion animated film, The Nightmare Before Christmas. This was the first stop-motion animated film Disney had been involved in and, released under the Touchstone label, was a tremendous success and a cult hit.
Sadly Skellington Productions' follow-up, James and the Giant Peach based on the classic Road Dahl story, had little impact at the box office despite high critical acclaim. This was the last film made by Skellington Productions.
In May 1993, Disney purchased Miramax Films shortly after it had begun distributing animated film Tom and Jerry: the Movie. Miramax later distributed Richard Williams' private project, animated masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler (1995), also known as The Princess and the Cobbler and Arabian Knight. Williams, the director of the animated sequences in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, had made this film in his spare time between 1964 and 1995, the longest production for an animated film on record.
In 1987, Disney had allowed Hyperion Studios to make The Brave Little Toaster, before all but sweeping the film under the carpet. When it was released on home video it was incredibly successful, so two direct-to-video sequels were commissioned. These, The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars and The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue (both 1998) had a brief theatrical release in some countries.
Disney were also involved in the distribution, though not the creation, of Studio Ghibli films, including those made by Hayao Miyazaki.
In 1979 George Lucas invited Ed Catmull to join Lucasfilm as head of the digital computer division. In 1983 John Lasseter also joined Lucasfilm's digital computer division, having recently been fired by Disney for being too visionary. The division was sold off from Lucasfilm and purchased by Steve Jobs in 1985. Initially the company concentrated on selling the Pixar Image Computer and related software, although this was not a commercial success. It also made computer animations, mainly commercials, segments for Sesame Street and some exceptional short films. The success of The Nightmare Before Christmas had proved to Disney executives that co-productions could be profitable, encouraging the signing of a contract in which Disney agreed to fund Pixar to make three films.
- Toy Story (1995)
- A Bug's Life (1998)
- Toy Story 2 (1999)
Into the 21st Century
Tarzan would be the last profitable film that Walt Disney Feature Animation would make until Lilo and Stitch in 2002. In the years ahead, the studio would face increasing competition from new rivals DreamWorks and Blue Sky, as well as tensions in their relationship with Pixar. Disney would abandon traditional hand-drawn animation and, soon after, many Disney executives would call for the animation studio to be closed down.