Between 1989 and 1999, Walt Disney Animation Studios came back from a box office slump to produce some of the most successful animated features of all time with “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin,” and “The Lion King,” to name a few. This period, known as the Disney Renaissance, ushered in a new era for the studio and created a lifelong Disney obsession for ’90s kids and their parents.
Background: Disney’s pre-Renaissance slump
It’s hard to believe now, but in 1989, Walt Disney Animation Studios was not doing well. After the deaths of Walt Disney and Roy O. Disney, in 1966 and 1971, respectively, the studio’s box office success was heading downhill. In 1979, long-time animator Don Bluth left to start his own production company, Don Bluth Productions, taking 16 other animators with him. The studio became a major competitor for Disney, producing films like “The Secret of NIMH” (1982), “An American Tail” (1986), and “The Land Before Time” (1988). In 1989, as the Disney Renaissance was about to begin, Don Bluth Productions was getting ready to release “All Dogs Go to Heaven.”
Meanwhile, after investors attempted a hostile takeover, The Walt Disney Company made organizational changes in 1984. Michael Eisner, formerly of Paramount Pictures, became CEO, and Frank Wells, formerly of Warner Bros., became President. Eisner brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg, his colleague from Paramount, as Walt Disney Studios chairman. Roy E. Disney (the son of Roy O. Disney) became supervisor of the feature animation department. That same year, Disney Television Animation was founded as an alternative to theatrical animation.
The next year, 1985, was a tough one for Disney’s animation department. To make way for more live-action productions, the animators were moved from the main lot in Burbank to temporary offices in warehouses and trailers in nearby Glendale. They would remain there for the next 10 years.
Also in 1985, Disney released “The Black Cauldron,” their first PG-rated animated film. The movie had a budget of $44 million, making it the most expensive animated film ever made at the time, but it earned only $21.3 million domestically at the box office. The film had a much darker tone than previous Disney features and included a “Cauldron Born” section with rotting corpses. During the test screening, that particular scene terrified the kids in the audience. “Right on cue, the doors opened and a mom was angrily leaving with her two wailing children in tow. She was followed by another, and soon there was a sizable exodus of crying kids and upset parents fleeing from the theater,” recalls animator Michael Peraza.
Disney’s new chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, wanted 10 minutes cut from the movie. Eventually, about 12 minutes of footage was deleted, but some of those missing scenes were included on the movie’s 25th anniversary release.
Despite that disappointment, over the next few years, Disney’s theatrical releases sparked hope for the animation department. “The Great Mouse Detective” (1986) was well-received by audiences and critics, and “Oliver & Company” (1988) managed to outgross Don Bluth Productions’ “The Land Before Time” at the box office.
In 1988, Disney also collaborated with Steven Spielberg to produce “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Released through Disney’s Touchstone Pictures label, the live-action/animation hybrid was a success, winning three Academy Awards for technical achievements. Walt Disney Animation Studios was poised for a comeback.
Disney Renaissance: 1989 – 1999
After initially being floated as a movie idea in the 1930s, plans for “The Little Mermaid” were dormant until the mid-80s. Lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, known for their work on the Off-Broadway musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” were brought on to create the score. At Ashman’s urging, the character of Clarence, an English butler crab, was changed to the Jamaican crab, Sebastian. This change influenced the score, leading to the catchy song styles of “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” He also thought it was important to hire actors with musical theater backgrounds, and Jodi Benson (who had previously worked with Ashman on the Broadway show “Smile”) was brought on to play Ariel.
“Part of Your World,” one of the most memorable Disney songs of all time, was almost cut from the film. Katzenberg worried kids would get bored during the ballad, but Ashman insisted the Broadway-style song was necessary because it reveals what Ariel wants near the beginning of the movie, setting up a clear story structure. The song stayed.
“The Little Mermaid” was released on November 17, 1989, and earned $84.4 million in domestic box office. In his review, film critic Roger Ebert said, “Here at last, once again, is the kind of liberating, original, joyful Disney animation that we all remember from “Snow White,” “Pinocchio” and the other first-generation classics.” In 1990, the movie won Academy Awards and Golden Globes for Best Score and Best Song (“Under the Sea”).
Disney’s next release was “The Rescuers Down Under,” the first canon sequel produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. Though the movie was generally well-received, it didn’t reach the heights of “The Little Mermaid” and took in about $28 million in domestic box office.
Their next film, however, was the massively successful “Beauty and the Beast” (1991). Once again, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken teamed up to create the score, which includes songs like “Be Our Guest,” “Belle,” and the title song, “Beauty and the Beast.”
Paige O’Hara played Belle, and like Jodi Benson, she had a musical theater background. The cast also included Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts and Jerry Orbach as Lumiere. You can watch a behind-the-scenes clip of Lansbury and Orbach in the recording studio with Ashman while working on “Be Our Guest.”
Writing for the New York Times, film critic Janet Maslin said, “Two years ago Walt Disney Pictures reinvented the animated feature, not only with an eye toward pleasing children but also with an older, savvier audience in mind. Disney truly bridged a generation gap with “The Little Mermaid,” bringing the genre new sophistication without sacrificing any of the delight.”
During its initial film release, “Beauty and the Beast” earned $145.9 million domestically and $351.9 million worldwide. It was the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and it was the only animated film nominated back when only five nominees were allowed in that category. Ashman and Menken won the Academy Award for Best Original Song (“Beauty and the Beast”), and Menken won Best Original Score. The film also earned Golden Globe and Grammy awards.
While the studio was savoring a major success, it was bittersweet. A few months before “Beauty and the Beast” arrived in theaters, lyricist Howard Ashman passed away at the age of 40 due to AIDS-related complications. Before his death, he contributed to Disney’s next animated feature: “Aladdin.”
Ashman first pitched the idea for “Aladdin” in 1988, but the project was removed from development until 1991. Three of the songs Ashman and Menken wrote together remained in the final film: “Friend Like Me,” “Arabian Nights, ” and “Prince Ali.” Tim Rice took over as lyricist following Ashman’s death, and he and Menken would win an Academy Award for “A Whole New World.”
“Aladdin” became the No. 1 movie of 1992, earning $217 million domestically and $504 million internationally, but it wasn’t without its complications. In April 1991, just 19 months before the scheduled theatrical release, Jeffrey Katzenberg asked directors Ron Clements and John Musker for a new script. That day became known as “Black Friday,” and the directors and writers scrambled to complete rewrites in time for the movie’s scheduled release.
The film memorably featured Robin Williams, who stole scenes as the fast-talking, comedic Genie. The Golden Globes created a special achievement award to recognize his performance, which was recorded at the same time Williams was filming “Hook.”
Disney’s next film was “The Lion King” (1994), which earned $763.4 million during its initial run. Having now established a formula with “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin,” this movie was a departure from the norm. It was the first Disney animated feature with an original story, rather than based on existing work, and there were no human characters in sight.
It was also the first of these majorly successful Disney Renaissance films with no involvement from Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. Instead, Elton John and Tim Rice wrote the lyrics with a score composed by Hans Zimmer, which led to classics like “Circle of Life,” “Be Prepared,” “Hakuna Matata,” and “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.”
Production on “The Lion King” started at the same time as “Pocahontas” (1995). Most Disney animators chose to work on “Pocahontas” instead, thinking it would be the more successful movie. However, the studio’s gamble with “The Lion King” paid off, while “Pocahontas” earned mixed reviews and $346 million at the box office.
“With dismay, I realize that virtually everything in the movie — every character, every story twist, every song — is as generic as the two hygienic lovers,” critic Owen Gleiberman wrote of “Pocahontas.” Still, Alan Menken managed to win Best Original Score and Best Original Song (“Colors of the Wind”) at the Academy Awards.
By now, the Disney Renaissance was definitely on the decline, but the studio had earned enough to bring its animators back from exile in Glendale. A 240,000-square-foot building was opened across from Disney’s main lot in Burbank on December 16, 1994. That same year, Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney to become co-founder and CEO of Dreamworks Animation.
Post-“Pocahontas,” Disney made the somewhat surprising choice to release “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996). Based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” features pretty dark themes for Disney, though they did spare Quasimodo from death in their version.
In the end, “Hunchback” earned over $100 million domestically and enjoyed positive reviews. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is the best Disney animated feature since “Beauty and the Beast”– a whirling, uplifting, thrilling story with a heart-touching message that emerges from the comedy and song,” wrote critic Roger Ebert.
Three more films rounded out the Disney Renaissance era: “Hercules” (1997), “Mulan” (1998), and “Tarzan” (1999). Out of these three, “Mulan” probably had the most lasting impact, giving Disney another princess to add to their canon.
After less than stellar box office returns for “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules,” Disney wanted to avoid “Lion King”-sized expectations for “Mulan.” On its opening weekend, the movie earned $22.8 million and came in second at the box office behind “The X-Files: Fight the Future.” It went on to outgross “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules,” but failed to meet the incredibly high box office bar set by earlier Disney Renaissance films.
“Tarzan,” the final film from the Disney Renaissance era, was the most commercially successful film since “The Lion King.” It garnered positive reviews, earned $448 million at the box office, and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song (“You’ll Be in My Heart”).
In all, here’s the full list of Disney Renaissance movies, with release date and writers/directors:
- The Little Mermaid – (November 17, 1989) Written and Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.
- The Rescuers Down Under – (November 16, 1990) Written by Jim Cox, Karey Kirkpatrick, Byron Simpson, Joe Ranft. Directed by Hendel Butoy and Mike Gabriel.
- Beauty and the Beast – (November 22, 1991) Written by Linda Woolverton. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.
- Aladdin – (November 25, 1992) Written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.
- The Lion King – (June 24, 1994) Written by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts, Linda Woolverton. Directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff.
- Pocahontas – (June 23, 1995) Written by Carl Binder, Susannah Grant, Philip LaZebnik. Directed by Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame – (June 21, 1996) Written by Tab Murphy, Irene Mecchi, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White, Jonathan Roberts. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.
- Hercules – (June 27, 1997) Written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Donald McEnery, Bob Shaw, Irene Mecchi. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.
- Mulan – (June 19, 1998) Written by Rita Hsiao, Philip LaZebnik, Chris Sanders, Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, Raymond Singer. Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft.
- Tarzan – (June 18, 1999) Written by Tab Murphy, Bob Tzudiker, Noni White. Directed by Kevin Lima and Chris Buck.
Post-Renaissance and beyond
After the Disney Renaissance, many of the studio’s most popular movies have come from the Disney-Pixar partnership. Their first collaboration actually arrived in the midst of the Renaissance era, with “Toy Story” in 1995. Since then, they’ve delivered hits like “Toy Story 2” (1999), “Monsters, Inc.” (2001), “Finding Nemo” (2003), “The Incredibles” (2004), “Cars” (2006), and “Up” (2009), just to name a few. In 2006, Disney purchased Pixar for $7.4 billion in an all-stock deal.
In 2013, Walt Disney Animation Studios had a huge success with “Frozen,” which has a movie sequel due in 2019 and is currently a Broadway musical. We also got a new version of the Disney Princess story with “Moana” in 2016, which did not feature a love interest for the heroine.
Now, like it or not, Disney is circling back to their Disney Renaissance films with live-action remakes. A live-action “Beauty and the Beast” was the first to arrive in theaters in 2017, with “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” premiering in 2019 and “Mulan” in 2020. A live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” is also in development, with Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda teaming up to work on new music for the movie.
Through some magical combination of story, animation, and music, the movies of the Disney Renaissance era cemented our love for the House of Mouse, and as the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” box office receipts prove, we just keep coming back for more.