The 1980s were a difficult decade for the Walt Disney Company's animation department. The 1970s had been the last decade 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 the most talented animators that the studio left. For instance, Don Bluth left voluntarily, taking many talented Disney animators 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.
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 1937-1979, with classics 24-28 made in the 1980s.
24. The Fox and the Hound (1981)
|Directors||Ted Berman, Richard Rich & Art Stevens|
|Plot||A young fox is befriended by a hound. When they grow up, can their friendship survive in a world that considers them enemies?|
|Setting||A forest, America|
|Source||Daniel P Mannix's novel The Fox and the Hound (1967)|
|Songs:||By Jim Stafford unless otherwise stated|
|Sequels||The 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. On the one hand 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 also the last Disney film in 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, the film 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)
|Directors||Ted Berman & Richard Rich|
|Plot||A 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 and 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.|
|Setting||Unknown mediæval kingdom|
|Fairytale Castle||The Castle of the Horned King|
|Perky Princess||Princess Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan)|
|Source||TheChronicles 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 desperate to prove themselves, including Tim Burton. 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 and 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 decisions to use CGI and Super Technirama greatly added to the film's expense, with 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 R2D2 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 lightsabre 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 15-20 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 spelled 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 also was the first Disney animation to contain no songs.
26. Basil The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
|Directors||Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener and John Musker|
|Plot||Mr 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.|
|Setting||London, 1897 - the eve of the Royal Diamond Jubilee|
|Fairytale Castle||The Palace of Westminster (House of Parliament)|
|Source||The 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|
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 of the Walt Disney Company. 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 greenlit 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-a-year. This had been Walt Disney's ambition following the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs but, until the 1980s, had not been financially viable.
27. Oliver & Company (1988)
|Plot||Oliver 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.|
|Setting||New York in the 1980s|
|Source||Oliver Twist (1838) by Charles Dickens|
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)
|Director||Ron Clements & John Musker|
|Plot||Princess 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.|
|Setting||Under the Sea, and mediæval kingdom|
|Fairytale Castle||Yes, Prince Eric's home|
|Perky Princess||Ariel (Jodi Benson)|
|Wicked Witch||Ursula (Pat Carrol)|
|Source||The Little Mermaid (1837) by Hans Christian Anderson|
|Songs:||By Alan Menken and Howard Ashman|
|Spin Offs||Disney'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 song. 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.
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 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, and 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)
|Plot||In 1947, cartoon characters, called Toons, co-exist with flesh-and-blood humans in Los Angeles. Private Investigator Eddie Valiant is hired to investigate 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?|
|Setting||Hollywood and ToonTown, 1947|
|Source||Inspired by Who Censored Roger Rabbit (1981) by Gary Wolf|
Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a film released 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, taking two years to plan, seven months of live action filming and over a year of working on the 55 minutes' worth of animation sequences.