The Walt Disney Animation Studio is by far the most successful animation studio in the world. Although their story involves both dips and peaks, the five years between 2015 and 2019 was a period of consolidation at the top of their field. While they had no spectacular successes on quite the scale of Frozen (2014), they had no flops either. However half their output during this period were sequels to earlier films.
Since 2006 the Walt Disney Animation Studio's Chief Creative Officer has been John Lasseter, who is considered one of the most successful filmmakers of all time. Seven of the first ten animated films Seven of the first ten animated films to have taken in more than $1 billion at the box office were made with his involvement. He is also credited with reversing the downward trend that had been affecting Disney's animated films in the opening years of the 21st Century. Yet this wunderkind hid a dark side that would be exposed by the end of the decade.
In the last 75 years, the Walt Disney Studio has released over 50 animated films it has labelled 'Classics'. Between 2015 and 2019 four classics were released, two in 2016 one in 2018 and one in 2019. Also mentioned is whether these films pass the Bechdel Test. This can be summarised as whether the film involves two or more named female characters who have a conversation together that is not focussed on any male characters.
55. Zootropolis (2016)
|Directors||Bryon Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush|
|Plot||Judy Hopps, Zootopia's first rabbit police officer in a world where all mammals peacefully co-exist, investigates the case of a missing otter despite the misgivings of the police chief. After blackmailing con artist fox Nick Wilde, the last person known to have seen him, into helping her, she soon finds herself uncovering something which seems to be turning Zootopia's peace-loving predators into fierce, savage killers, threatening the very tranquillity of Zootopia itself.|
|Setting||Rural Bunnyburrow and sprawling metropolis Zootopia in a world of anthropomorphic mammals.|
|Songs:||Score by Michael Giacchino|
Also known as Zootopia, the film was released to a highly successful box office. Nick Wilde's design was created to resemble Robin from Disney's animated Robin Hood (1973), which also features anthropomorphic animals. Only mammals appear in the film. One of the joys of rewatching the film is trying to spot the in-jokes, especially references to The Godfather as well as Disney films. For example, the Duke of Weaseltown was played by Alan Tudyk, who had played the Duke of Weselton in Frozen (2013). There are numerous bands and brands seen in the background for the sharp-eyed to spot, including musicians The Beagles (The Beatles), Ewe 2 (U2), Fleetwood Yak (Fleetwood Mac), Gun 'N' Rodents (Guns 'n' Roses), Mick Jaguar (Mick Jagger) as well as Mousy's Department store, Moustercharge credit cards, with Carrot computers having a similar logo to that of Apple.
Zootopia won the 2017 Best Animated Film Oscar. It was the second most successful animated film of the year, behind Finding Dory. At time of release it was the fifth most successful animated film ever behind Frozen (2013), Minions (2015), Toy Story 3 (2010) and Finding Dory.
56. Moana (2016)
|Director||Ron Clements & John Musker|
|Plot||Darkness is covering the earth! The powerful and magical heart of the goddess Te Fiti had been taken by demigod Maui, who promptly lost it and his fishhook after he was attacked by Te Ka, a lava demon. This heart has the power of life and its loss means that a deathly sickness is slowly spreading. Centuries later a young girl called Moana who lives on an isolated island finds the heart. Seeing the sickness affecting her idyllic island home she defies her culture to go on a voyage to restore the heart. To succeed she needs the help of a very reluctant Maui to get past Te Ka, restore Te Fiti's heart and end the sickness.|
|Setting||Polynesia including the islands of Motunui and Te Fiti via the Realm of Monsters|
|Perky Princess||Moana Waialiki, chief's daughter (Auli'i Cravalho)|
|Airy Fairy||Maui, a shape-shifting demigod who was born human and gets his power from a magical fishhook (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson)|
|Book Beginning||Gramma tells the legend of Maui with help from illustrations|
|Source||Inspired by Polynesian Mythology|
|Songs:||By Opetaia Foa'i and Lin-Manuel Miranda:|
|Spin Off:||Gone Fishing (2017) - Short|
Produced by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind such Disney films such as Basil the Great Mouse Detective, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog. They had hoped to adapt Terry Pratchett's Mort but were unable to secure the film rights, and so decided to make a film based on Polynesian mythology instead. They were particularly inspired by the story of demigod Maui. The film in many ways is a counterpoint to Ariel in The Little Mermaid as Moana wishes to escape to the ocean as much as Ariel had hoped to learn more of the land. The film contains numerous references to the team's earlier films, especially in Tamatoa's scene. His song includes phrases 'listen to your heart' and 'a diamond in the rough' which reference Pocahontas and Aladdin, and he even has Aladdin's lamp.
Jemaine Clement, who played Tamatoa, is famous for his impressions of glam rock star David Bowie. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the song 'Shiny' with this in mind as a tribute to Bowie. Miranda recorded a demo of the song which he sent to Clement as a guide to how the song should be performed. Clement said about the demo, 'you can tell that he’s doing an impression of my impression of David Bowie.'
The film is predominantly CGI, but Maui's tattoos are hand-drawn.
Moana was the fifth most successful animated film of the year, behind Pixar's Finding Dory, Disney's Zootropolis, Illumination Entertainment's The Secret Life of Pets and DreamWorks Animation's Kung Fu Panda 3.
57. Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
|Directors||Phil Johnston and Rich Moore|
|Plot||Characters inside the games of an amusement arcade are sentient. After character Wreck-it Ralph accidentally causes the steering wheel on his best friend Vanellope's game to break, he and Vanellope head into the internet intending to find a replacement. How will arcade characters Ralph and Vanellope raise the money necessary to buy the steering wheel? Will Vanellope lose her game for good? How will the infinite horizons offered by the internet impact on their lives? Will Wreck-It Ralph break the internet?|
|Setting||Inside various arcade games and the Internet|
|Book Beginning||Arcade Games instead|
|Songs:||Music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Phil Johnston and Tom MacDougall unless stated:|
|Sequel to:||52. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)|
This is the first official Disney sequel to be made by the same production team as the first film and only the fourth official Disney Classic sequel1, although sequels had been made by Disney's other animation studios2.
Many of the original Disney princesses returned to play their characters, except for the actresses who had originally voiced Disney's first three princesses, two of whom (original Snow White Adriana Caselotti and Cinderella Jacqueline 'Ilene' Woods) had since passed away with Mary Costa who originally played Aurora having retired. Snow White was now voiced by scriptwriter Pamela Ribon while Jennifer Hale and Kate Higgins who played Cinderella and Aurora respectively had previously played the characters in various Disney productions. The princesses wear t-shirts with labels that reflect their films and personalities. Other cameos include Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Vin Diesel as Groot, Brad Garrett as Eeyore and Corey Burton plays Grumpy for the first time in an official Disney Classic, having voiced him in other spin-offs. Tudyk who voices Knowsmore had previously played King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph. In the UK popular YouTube star Dan TDM played minor character the eBoy.
58. Frozen II (2019)
|Directors||Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee|
|Plot||When the spirits of Earth, Wind, Fire and Water go out of balance, sisters Queen Elsa and Princess Anna of Arendelle head north to an Enchanted Forest, accompanied by Olaf, Kristoff and his reindeer Sven. They remember their parents telling them when they were children how their father visited the area when he was a child. Then a gift of peace led to war between Arendelle and the Northuldra people living in the forest, which angered the spirits. Only by learning the truth about what happened and their parents' secret can they restore balance to the forces of nature.|
|Setting||Arendelle, fictional Scandinavian mediæval kingdom, and neighbouring enchanted forest Northuldra, predominantly three years after the events of Frozen (with flashbacks).|
|Fairytale Castles||Arendelle's castle|
|Source||Inspired by The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen (1845)|
|Songs:||By husband and wife team Robert Lopez & Kristen Anderson-Lopez|
A film that lives up to the expectations of the first. There are numerous cameos, including snow models of Disney characters Dumbo the elephant and Baymax from Big Hero 6 (2014). There are also nods to Queen's 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. Jennifer Lee, the writer and director of the Frozen films, had been promoted to Head of Walt Disney Animation Studios since the first film was released. This was following the disgrace of John Lasseter. Frozen II was the most successful animated film of the year3.
Amusingly, the original trailer showed Elsa having a conversation with a female character and this led to intense speculation that it inevitably meant that Elsa was the first lesbian Disney princess. In fact she merely has a brief conversation with a minor female character, who isn't even a long-lost relative either. The film had already easily passed the Bechdel Test. Elsa's sexuality (and Honeymaren's too, come to that) remains unspecified.
Overall the film's storyline is that instead of the universe being made of Four Elements or Spirits – Earth, Wind, Fire and Water – there is additionally a fifth, central Element. Which is Disney4. This pretty much sums up Disney's view of the universe.
Co-Productions and Other Animated Films
Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast (2015)
DisneyToon Studios were a separate animation studio owned by Disney, though Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast was their final film before closing in 2018.
Strange Magic (2015) by Lucasfilm Animation
Lucasfilm had begun work on this animated film before their purchase by Disney in 2012. Marketed as a modern musical fairy tale, it bombed.
Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
Mary Poppins Returns was a belated sequel to Mary Poppins (1964). Though a live-action film it contains a 17-minute sequence combining live-action and traditional hand-drawn cel animation.
Spies in Disguise (2019)
Blue Sky Studios was 20th Century Fox's animation studio. When the Walt Disney Company bought 20th Century Fox Spies in Disguise was already in production.
- Inside Out (2015)
- The Good Dinosaur (2015)
- Finding Dory (2016)
- Cars 3 (2017)
- Coco (2017)
- Incredibles 2 (2018)
- Toy Story 4 (2019)
Originally an independent animation studio that made films funded by Disney, Pixar and Disney have since merged. One of the terms of the merger was that Pixar would remain an independent studio, though owned by Disney.
Live Action Remakes
During this period Walt Disney Pictures pursued remaking previously animated films in live action with a vengeance. Many of these contained various degrees of computer animation including computer-animated main characters seen in The Jungle Book and Dumbo. However an 'Animated' film is a very specific term and relates to how a film is made, not how it appears.
The Lion King remake featured only computer-generated characters. Despite this, it is still technically classed as a 'live action' film and not 'animation'. Since the controversy over whether the motion-capture film Happy Feet (2006) should be classed as an animation, and to exclude films such as Avatar (2010) from qualifying, Animation is defined by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as 'a motion picture in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique, a significant number of the major characters are animated, and animation figures in no less than 75 percent of the running time'. The Lion King was made by filming characters against a bluescreen rather than by utilising a frame-by-frame technique and so, though the characters are computer-generated, the film is classed as live action and not animation.
- Cinderella (1950/2015)
- The Jungle Book (1967/2016)
- Pete's Dragon (1977/2016)
- Beauty and the Beast (1991/2017)
- Dumbo (1941/2019)
- Aladdin (1992/2019)
- The Lion King (1994/2019)
Into the Future
By the end of the decade the Walt Disney Animation Studio's position was looking almost unassailable, with the Walt Disney Company dominating the market. Following the purchase of 20th Century Fox in 2019, they now own three of the world's leading animation studios (Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar and Blue Sky). They are also blurring even more the traditional boundaries between live action and animation. Even though they had closed a fourth studio, DisneyToon Studios, their dominant position as market leaders looks set to continue, yet they have endured a major internal shakeup.
In 2017, the denouncement of Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator led to the #MeToo movement, encouraging women to expose other offenders. Later in the year, John Lasseter admitted sexual misconduct5. This resulted in an initial six month leave-of-absence but this was followed by his leaving the Walt Disney Company at the end of 2018. Frozen 2 was the last film to be made with his close involvement. Would his leaving have as grave an impact on the Walt Disney Animation Studio's fortunes as Jeffrey Katzenberg's had back in 1994?