I guess it was upon us several years ago, but I was too skeptical to name it as such at the time. But time has confirmed that Disney has once again found its stride in the field of animated films (whereas Pixar has been kind of slipping here and there, which is unfortunate).
What is the Disney Renaissance you ask?
After a grim period during the 70’s and 80’s when there were a few hits (The Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective) but not a whole lot of audience enthusiasm, a changeover at the studio prompted a tonal shift (which was pioneered by Disney legend Howard Ashman) which led to a decade of Disney’s most consistently successful animated films from The Little Mermaid in 1989 to Tarzan in 1999). And it’s not just 90’s era nostalgia. 1991’s Beauty and the Beast was the first animated movie to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. In total, Disney’s animated features during this period pulled in eleven Oscars (most centered on the fantastic Broadway-style music that was the hallmark of many of these films).
After this, there was another period of underwhelming audience response. Films like Lilo and Stitch (2002) and Atlantis: the Lost Empire (2001) have gained a measure of respect from fans who felt that the initial audiences underrated them, but overall, the period following the Disney Renaissance was one of uneven quality and lukewarm audience reception, especially once the studio transitioned into the medium of computer generated animation like its pioneering subsidiary Pixar Animation Studios.
However, recently, Walt Disney Animation Studios has begun focusing more attention on their animated features and there has been a marked upswing in the quality of these films. At first, I felt like it was just a number of lucky flukes, but it’s been consistently good for long enough now that I think it’s safe to say that we’re re-entering a high point in the studio’s history.
It began with The Princess and the Frog (2009), a return to traditional hand-drawn/computer generated hybrid animation (a hallmark of the Disney Renaissance) and brought back the musical format. It was moderately successful with viewers, though it failed to make much of a buzz at the Oscars, losing its Oscar nominations to Up, which isn’t much a surprise since the critics were ALL OVER Pixar that year.
But the follow ups continued to be successful. Tangled (2010) was a computer animated feature that FELT like a traditionally animated film. It didn’t feel like a Pixar film nor did it feel like a Dreamworks feature (which many of the Post-Renaissance computer-generated films tried to emulate). It felt like it belonged with the beloved Disney musicals of the 90’s.
To show that traditional animation wasn’t completely gone, they followed that up with Winnie the Pooh, which was a loving throwback to The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh from the 70’s. After that was Wreck-It Ralph (2012), a film that felt like an homage to Pixar’s formula “What if _____ had feelings?” Although, instead of toys, rats, bugs, and monsters, it looked at video games.
That was followed up by Frozen in 2013, a movie whose insane advertising campaign forcibly shoved it into the annals of pop culture forever. Parents were literally beating each other up in stores to get Elsa dresses for their kids while “Let it Go” became the ubiquitous pop anthem for children everywhere. The movie won two Oscars and (even though Tangled is CLEARLY the superior film) brought Disney back into the critical spotlight.
After Frozen was Big Hero 6 (2014), which attempted to capitalize on the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by adapting a rather obscure Marvel series from the late 90’s into a kid-friendly action-adventure comedy. Audiences fell in love with the adorable squishy robot, Baymax, and the film was dubbed a hit (though it was still being eclipsed by Frozen’s merchandising avalanche, so it didn’t make as big a splash among parents). After that, Disney decided to be a bit more daring.
Zootopia (2016) broke the mold because, unlike previous films which either remade a traditional story (“Rapunzel,” “The Snow Queen”) or followed a model established by another studio (Wreck-It Ralph), Zootopia was a completely original story which asked some pretty mature questions about race relations and media-based fear-mongering while presenting one of the most vibrantly designed Disney locales thus far.
We have yet to see what the critical response to it will be come awards season, but it does have some competition, because…
Moana (2016) is a musical in the vein of Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen. The music by Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of the hit musicals In the Heights and Hamilton), Opetaia Foa’i (lead singer of the Polynesian music group Te Vaka, which specializes in traditional Oceanic music), and Mark Mancina (legendary Hollywood composer who, along with composing the music for Tarzan and many others, arranged the version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” that currently plays over Disney’s theatrical logo) is getting some early Oscar buzz. Not only is the original story (based on a number of Polynesian myths and legends) a lot of fun, but the animation is completely spectacular. It’s not quite as deep as Zootopia, but its definitely of the quality of the films which have come before it.
I’m not sure how long this run of successes will keep up, but I’m glad that Disney Animation has found their mojo again. They tried their best to do so with Brother Bear (2003) a dreadfully derivative film which looked to be a patchwork of themes and stylistic choices from a number of more successful Disney films such as The Lion King, Tarzan, and The Emperor’s New Groove, but it looks like, for the next few years at least, they’ll produce more hits than misses, which is nice.
And while this era will primarily be associated with Frozen and its heart-warming message of sisterly love, remember than Tiana, Rapunzel, and Moana deserve a whole bunch of love as well. Especially Tiana. She got this whole Second Renaissance started and the studio didn’t put as much money into merchandising at the time (because they knew audiences weren’t as loyal to the Disney brand at that point), so not everyone feels as close to her, but I adore the character. She deserves some love.
The best thing about this period is that the marathon options are varied. You can go full chronological and watch everything from The Princess and the Frog to Moana, or you can go Just Princess, or you can go Non-Musical, etc. It’s a great collection of films that are not only entertaining, but actually presenting stories with depth. History will tell how many of these films are considered beloved classics, but for right now, they’re all pretty fantastic and you should revisit those you missed the first time around.
And so I’ll leave you to watch these with your kids (or the kids of your friends) as the Winter Holidays send parents everywhere into a creeping madness as they obsessively count down the days until their youngsters can go back to school.
Or, if you’re like me, just watch them anyway, because screw society, Disney movies are amazing!
Tah tah for now!