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The Ultimate Disney Classic Animated Film Guide: 1980-1989

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The Ultimate Disney Classic Animated Film Guide
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1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2009
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The 1980s were a difficult decade for the Walt Disney Company's animation department. The 1970s had been the last decade of films made by the first generation of animators. The company's founders Walt Disney and his brother Roy O Disney had both died. Their original team of experienced animators, nicknamed the 'Nine Old Men', had retired. This led to an atmosphere in which the executives at the Walt Disney Company faced a power struggle over who would gain control.

In this poisonous environment many of Disney's most talented animators left the studio. For instance, Don Bluth left voluntarily, taking many with him to form a rival animation studio that initially, with An American Tail, beat Disney at its own game. Another animator, John Lasseter, was fired for being visionary1. In his own words:

Disney animation was in the doldrums. The people in charge didn't appreciate the kids putting forward ideas of their own. We were supposed to keep quiet and do what we were told.

For Walt Disney animation the 1980s would begin with a disaster, followed by a period of consolidation, yet at the close of the decade the difficult period would be transcended by a bright hope for the coming future.

The Classics

In the last 75 years the Walt Disney Studio has released over 50 animated films it has labelled 'Classics'. The first 23 of these were made between 1937 and 1979, with classics 24-28 made in the 1980s.

24. The Fox and the Hound (1981)

DirectorsTed Berman, Richard Rich & Art Stevens
PlotA young fox is befriended by a hound. When they grow up, can their friendship survive in a world that considers them enemies?
Length83 minutes
SettingA forest, America
Animated Animals
  • Tod, a fox (Mickey Rooney, Keith Mitchell as Young Tod)
  • Copper, a hound (Kurt Russell, Corey Feldman as Young Copper)
  • Chief, a hound (Pat Buttram)
  • Big Mama, an owl (Pearl Bailey)
  • Vixey, a vixen (Sandy Duncan)
  • Dinky, a bird (Dick Bakalyan)
  • Boomer, a bird (Paul Winchell)
  • Bear (Clarence Nash)
Other Characters
  • Amos Slade (Jack Albertson)
  • Widow Tweed (Jeanette Nolan)
SourceDaniel P Mannix's novel The Fox and the Hound (1967)
Songs:By Jim Stafford unless otherwise stated
  • 'Best of Friends' music by Richard Johnston, lyrics by Stan Fidel
  • 'Lack of Education'
  • 'A Huntin' Man'
  • 'Goodbye May Seem Forever' music by Richard Rich, lyrics by Jeffrey Patch
  • 'Appreciate the Lady'
SequelsThe Fox and the Hound 2 (2006)

This was a transitional film. Although the early planning stages were undertaken by the last remaining studio veterans and it was made in the same style that had dominated the 1950s, 60s and 70s, it was animated by a new generation of artists. It was the last Disney film to have all the credits in the opening title sequence and ending simply with 'The End – A Walt Disney Production'. It was the last Disney film which Don Bluth animated, and also the first to be animated by John Lasseter.

The Fox and the Hound was a modest film. Like The Rescuers it continued the then-trend of having fewer songs, particularly noticeable in the opening sequence. Instead of a catchy song, it begins with a very slow, drawn-out pan across some trees while a few wildlife noises occasionally sound in the background.

25. The Black Cauldron (1985)

DirectorsTed Berman & Richard Rich
PlotA long time ago in a kingdom far, far away, a young farm boy learns that his pet pig has the ability to see into the future. This pig is the key to uncovering the lost Black Cauldron, an evil object that has the power to create an undead army. It is coveted by the sinister Horned King, a corrupt skeletal being who plans to conquer the Earth. Soon the boy and the pig are captured and imprisoned, but a random princess wanders by and lets them out, a minstrel turns up, they find a sword that sometimes seems significant and meet some fairly small fairy folk for a bit, a witch shoves a frog down her cleavage and things generally work out in the end.
Length80 minutes
SettingUnknown mediæval kingdom
Fairytale CastleThe Castle of the Horned King
Wicked Witches
  • Orddu (Eda Reiss Merin)
  • Orwen (Adele Malis-Morey)
  • Orgoch (Billie Hayes)
Perky PrincessPrincess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan)
Airy Fairy
  • Dallben the Enchanter (Freddie Jones)
  • King Eidilleg, ruler of the Fair Folk (Arthur Malet)
  • Doli, grumpy Fair Folk (John Byner)
Animated Animals
  • Hen Wen, a psychic pig of power
  • Gurgi, a hairy thing (John Byner)
Other Characters
  • Taran, an assistant pig farmer (Grant Bardsley)
  • Fflewddur Fflam, a minstrel (Nigel Hawthorne)
  • The Horned King, evil tyrant (John Hurt)
SourceThe Chronicles of Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander

The Black Cauldron was the film in which it all went wrong. The studio was now under the control of Ron Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law, and he wanted to introduce a brave new era.

The Walt Disney animation studio was in many ways a victim of its own success. In the early 80s the films they made were perceived as being exclusively for children and did not have widespread appeal to the wider cinema-going audience. The age group most likely to avoid a Disney film was the male 15-30 bracket, however this was the audience that had made blockbusters like Star Wars and its sequels such a recent phenomenal success. It was therefore decided to make a film specifically for this age group, in the then-popular sword-and-sorcery genre popularised and much emulated since Star Wars2. Essentially, the animators would make a Disneyfied animated version of Conan the Barbarian, based on the popular Chronicles of Prydain books by Lloyd Alexander.

This was to be the first animated film made exclusively by a new generation of animators, including Tim Burton, desperate to prove themselves. This was at a time when studio politics took all the attention of those higher up. As the Disney studio lacked an effective overall structure, was riddled with conflicts and departments not communicating with each other, the animators were largely unsupervised. It is perhaps unsurprising that the film when finished lacked a coherent direction and structure.

The Black Cauldron was filmed in the Super Technirama 70 format that Disney had pioneered in 1959 with Sleeping Beauty. Though a visually ambitious and impressive film, pioneering computer generated imagery in the cauldron sequences, the decision to use CGI and Super Technirama greatly added to the film's expense. The project's cost skyrocketed to the then-staggering sum of $45 million.

The film begins with numerous similarities to Star Wars. There is a mysterious sorcerer-like man, like Ben Kenobi, also known as Obi-Wan, who sends a young, adventurous farm boy on a quest. This quest involves keeping the secrets contained within a psychic pig safe, a bit like how Luke's droid R2-D2 contains the plans of the Death Star. The film then involves a wretched hive of scum and villainy in the form of the Horned King's Castle, a princess, a magical lightning sword not unlike a lightsaber and a minstrel who is not dissimilar to C-3PO. This shows the film's weakness – it never really establishes its own identity, and the characters lack substance. There is a princess, but we don't know anything about her kingdom, whether she was a true heir usurped by the Horned King or of a neighbouring kingdom and captured. The hero is an assistant pig farmer, but the farm only has one pig. The Horned King looks fantastic, but fails to really do a great deal. Though at the end he raises a demonic army, as we don't see anyone actually inconvenienced by this fiendish horde the audience is not interested3.

As the film was aimed at the male 15-30 age bracket, the traditional Disney audience of young families were put off and stayed away. As The Black Cauldron was an animated film made by Walt Disney, the male 15-30 group the film had been intended to appeal to were uninterested, preferring films like Highlander instead4. Coming shortly after the flop of the excellent The Lord of the Rings, the animators should have been wary over whether they had a market. The Black Cauldron was thrashed at the box office by The Care Bears Movie. It lost over $21 million and sealed the end of Ron Miller's era at the helm. It almost spelt the end of the Walt Disney Company's animation department, with serious consideration given to dividing the company up and selling the different departments to the highest bidders.

The film was the first Disney animation to get a PG rating, and that was after over ten minutes worth of violent sequences had been edited out of the film. It was also the first Disney animation to contain no songs.

26. Basil The Great Mouse Detective (1986)

DirectorsRon Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener and John Musker
PlotMr Flavisham, is kidnapped in front of his daughter, Olivia. Helped by Dr Dawson and famous detective Basil of Baker Street, they learn the kidnapper was the henchman of the fiendish Professor Ratigan, and the kidnapping was only the first step in his despicable plan.
Length74 minutes
SettingLondon, 1897 - the eve of the Royal Diamond Jubilee
Fairytale CastleThe Palace of Westminster (House of Parliament)
Animated Animals
  • Basil, a mouse (Barrie Ingham)
  • Professor Ratigan, a rodent (Vincent Price)
  • Dr Dawson, a mouse (Val Bettin)
  • Fidget, a bat (Candy Candido)
  • Olivia Flaversham, a mouse (Susanne Pollatschek)
  • Hiram Flaversham, a mouse (Alan Young)
  • Toby, Hound of the Baker Street (Frank Weller)
  • Queen Mousetoria, a mouse (Eve Brenner)
Other Characters
  • Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone)
  • Dr Watson (Laurie Main)
SourceThe Basil of Baker Street books by Eve Titus and illustrated by Paul Galdone (1958-1982)
Songs:Music by Henri Mancini, lyrics by Larry Grossman and Ellen Fitzhugh except where stated
  • 'The World's Greatest Criminal Mind'
  • 'Let Me Be Good To You' by Melissa Manchester
  • 'Goodbye So Soon'

Following the colossal flop The Black Cauldron, Roy E Disney, son of Roy O Disney and Walt's nephew, gained control over the Walt Disney Company, hiring Michael Eisner as Chairman and Frank Wells as President. They ensured that the Walt Disney Company was not split up and appointed a new, experienced Chairman of Walt Disney Pictures, Jeffrey Katzenberg. He gave the animation department guidance, structure, and a chance to prove itself.

As this was the animation department's last chance to prove itself, the film was given the go-ahead on the understanding that it met strict conditions. It had to be made both cheaply and quickly – in half the time and for half the money Disney animators were used to. The film was made on budget and released in the summer of 1986, only a year after The Black Cauldron. Basil the Great Mouse Detective's modest success convinced the studio not only that animated films were viable, but that it was possible for the studio to release films at a rate of one-per-year. This had been Walt Disney's ambition following the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but, until the 1980s, it had not been financially viable.

27. Oliver & Company (1988)

DirectorGeorge Scribner
PlotOliver Twist with cats and dogs. Oliver is an orphaned cat that, after meeting Dodger the dog, befriends a gang of alley dogs in New York. These dogs are looked after by Fagin, who owes crime lord Sykes money. Oliver is adopted by a little girl, Jenny, but following a misunderstanding soon both Oliver and Jenny are kidnapped, and only Dodger and the dogs can save the day.
Length73 minutes
SettingNew York in the 1980s
Animated Animals
  • Oliver, a kitten (Joey Lawrence)
  • Dodger, a mongrel dog (Billy Joel)
  • Francis, a bulldog (Roscoe Lee Browne)
  • Georgette, a pure-bred Poodle (Bette Midler)
  • Rita, a Saluki (Sheryl Lee Browne & Ruth Pointer)
  • Ignacio Alonzo Julio Federico de Tito, a Chihuahua (Cheech Marin)
  • Einstein, a Great Dane (Richard Mulligan)
  • Roscoe & DeSoto, Doberman Pinschers (Taurean Blacque & Carl Weintraub)
Other Characters
  • Jennifer 'Jenny' Foxworth, a neglected rich girl (Natalie Gregory)
  • Fagin, a thief (Dom DeLuise)
  • Sykes, a crime lord loan shark (Robert Loggia)
  • Winston, a butler (William Glover)
SourceOliver Twist (1838) by Charles Dickens
  • 'Once Upon a Time in New York City' – music by Barry Mann, lyrics by Howard Ashman
  • 'Why Should I Worry?' - by Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight
  • 'Streets of Gold' – music by Tom Snow, lyrics by Dean Pitchford
  • 'Perfect Isn't Easy' - by Barry Manilow, Jack Feldman, and Bruce Sussman
  • 'Good Company' - by Ron Rocha and Robert Minkoff
  • 'Buscando Guyaba' - by Rubén Blades
  • 'Fast Lane' - by Rocky Pedilla, Michael Eckhart, and Jon St. James

This film couldn't be more 1980s if you gave it shoulder pads and named it Maggie Thatcher. It combines the traditions of Disney dog films and animals rescuing children in this retelling of a classic story, now set in 1980s New York with dogs. It includes cameos of characters from previous Disney dog films, including Roger and various canines from One Hundred and One Dalmations and Lady and the Tramp. The film's initial inspiration was to make it a sequel to The Rescuers and would have featured Penny the orphan girl. Penny instead has changed into the similar, neglected child Jenny, whose parents are never seen.

This was the first Walt Disney film to have been drafted as both a storyboard and as a screenplay. It also used extensive use of computer generated imagery and reintroduced the concept of an animated musical.

28. The Little Mermaid (1989)

DirectorRon Clements and John Musker
PlotPrincess Ariel is the 16-year-old daughter of King Triton, ruler of the ocean. A free-spirit who feels frustrated that her family do not understand her, she longs to experience life on dry land with humans. After rescuing human Prince Eric from a storm, she enters into a deal with evil sea-witch Ursula. She is transformed into a human woman, but unless Prince Eric kisses her within three days, she will lose her soul.
Length82 minutes
SettingUnder the Sea, and mediæval kingdom
Fairytale CastleYes, Prince Eric's home
Perky PrincessAriel (Jodi Benson)
Wicked WitchUrsula (Pat Carrol)
Animated Animals
  • Sebastian, a crab (Samuel E Wright)
  • Flounder, a fish (Jason Marin)
  • Scuttle, a gull (Buddy Hackett)
  • Flotsam and Jetsam, electric eels (Paddi Edwards)
Other Characters
  • Prince Eric (Christopher Daniel Barnes)
  • King Triton (Kenneth Mars)
  • Grimsby (Ben Wright)
  • Chef Louis (Rene Auberjonois)
SourceThe Little Mermaid (1837) by Hans Christian Anderson
Songs:By Alan Menken and Howard Ashman
  • 'Fathoms Below'
  • 'Daughters of Triton'
  • 'Part of Your World'
  • 'Under the Sea'
  • 'Poor Unfortunate Souls'
  • 'Les Poissons'
  • 'Kiss the Girl'
  • The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea (2000)
  • The Little Mermaid III: Ariel's Beginning5 (2008)
Spin OffsDisney's The Little Mermaid (1992-1994) - Animated TV series

Definitely the best Disney animated film of the 1980s, and along with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, marked the start of what has been called the 'Disney Renaissance'. A key part of the film's success comes from Howard Ashman, the lyricist appointed with his composer partner to write the film's songs. Ashman contributed more than just songs, becoming one of the film's producers and making highly influential decisions, including developing Sebastian into a Rastafarian crab.

Walt Disney had planned to make a film on The Little Mermaid in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but following the strike which reduced the size of his workforce, and the imposition of the Second World War, the film was abandoned. When the story idea was re-raised at the company in the 1980s it was almost aborted again, as Disney label Touchstone had recently made the hugely-successful Splash (1984) and did not want an animated film to disrupt its intended sequel. In order to avoid any conflict or confusion Ariel was given red hair to distinguish her from the Splash mermaid, who was blonde.

Perhaps marking the end of this turbulent decade, it was the last Disney animated feature to use hand-painted cels and traditional film cameras. From the 1990s, Disney's animated classics would be done digitally.

In 2008, a live musical stage show based on this film hit Broadway, with additional songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater, Howard Ashman having died.

Non Classics

Two animated films associated with Disney but not considered to be classics were made in the 1980s, although neither was released under the Disney label. The first, The Brave Little Toaster, was a victim of fierce studio politics and was sadly somewhat swept under the carpet as a result. The second, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, combined live action and animation in a way never before envisaged and, aimed at a more mature audience, was released under Disney's Touchstone label.

The Brave Little Toaster (1987)

The film began as a project proposed by John Lasseter in the early 1980s, who wished to combine computer-generated imagery with traditional animation and create a film like none previously seen. He quickly gained the approval of Thomas Wilhite, then Disney's Vice President for Creative Development, who had championed Tron (1982). In 1983, Lasseter pitched his idea to Ron Miller, then still the head of Walt Disney Studios, and Ed Hansen, only to be fired on the spot for being innovative. Lasseter soon afterwards joined Lucasfilm's digital computer animation division which evolved into Pixar.

A short time later Wilhite, among many other former Disney employees, also left Walt Disney Studios and, in 1984, formed his own independent film studio, Hyperion Pictures. He retained his enthusiasm for the project, which Disney had the cinema and home video rights to. Hyperion Animation made the film as a co-production with numerous partners including TDK, CBS-Fox, Taiwan's Wang Film Productions and even Lew Grade's ITC. Not having Disney's resources, the film was made as a cheap hand-drawn animation.

Although the film was well received with critics, Disney chose to provide only a limited release in art house cinemas, and instead preferred to broadcast it on their television channel. When released on home video it was successful and popular enough to lead to two sequels.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

DirectorRobert Zemeckis
PlotIn 1947, cartoon characters, called Toons, co-exist with flesh-and-blood humans in Los Angeles. Private Investigator Eddie Valiant is hired to ascertain whether cartoon star Roger Rabbit's stunning Toon wife, Jessica, is having an affair. Valiant is reluctant to get involved, having hated Toons since one killed his brother years before. Soon there's been a murder, Judge Doom plans to execute suspect Roger Rabbit and a vital will has disappeared. Will Valiant help Roger, find the will, solve his brother's murder and live long enough to discover who framed Roger Rabbit?
Length104 minutes
SettingHollywood and ToonTown, 1947
Animated Animals
  • Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer)
Other Characters
  • Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins)
  • Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd)
  • Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner)
  • Dolores (Joanna Cassidy)
SourceInspired by Who Censored Roger Rabbit (1981) by Gary Wolf
  • 'Why Don't You Do Right?' by Joe McCoy
  • 'Merry-Go-Round Broke Down' by Cliff Friend and Dave Franklin
  • 'Smile, Darn Ya, Smile' by Jack Meskill, Charles O'Flynn, and Max Rich

Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a film for a more mature audience, released through Disney's Touchstone Pictures. Featuring not only Disney characters but also those of rival animation studios such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Betty Boop, it revolutionised the way that live action and cel animation were combined into a single film. It took two years to plan, seven months of live action filming and over a year of working on the 55 minutes' worth of animation sequences.

1John Lasseter would later head Pixar Animation and, as Chief Creative Officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, would rescue Disney animation from a similar disappointing period in the early 21st Century.2Luke Skywalker's lightsaber is a sword and what is The Force if not sorcery?3Many of the edited minutes came from this section and featured graphic, horrifying deaths as well as Princess Eilonwy being stripped semi-naked.4To circumnavigate this problem, a new label, Touchstone Pictures, was created to release films marketed for a more mature audience.5Also simply The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning.

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