The Disney Renaissance: Reality or Fantasy?

Credit: Disney
Credit: Disney

The Disney Renaissance of is often commented on as a golden era of animation. Disney could do no wrong, awards rolled in and Mickey Mouse was reaping financial rewards at the box office. The period is talked about as one of inspiration and imagination. Disney turned around its flagging fortunes and released an unstoppable animation Blitzkrieg that between 1989-99 saw cartoons become credible and actually rival live-action for dominance in award season. It gave birth to some of the most iconic characters and songs in Disney’s back catalogue: Simba, Ariel, Belle, Hercules and Tarzan to name only a few of the characters.

Scratch the surface though, and the supposed golden era starts to slowly but surely chip away, until you finally get to the bare bones of Disney’s success in the period. The myth of the Disney Renaissance rests upon the enormous growth of the Disney Princess franchise, the towering success achieved by The Lion King and the fact that everyone forgets Disney made The Rescuers Down Under, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas.
The Disney Princesses are an ever expanding roster that date all the way back to the 1930s and Snow White. The ranks have expanded, seeing their greatest boost during the ‘Renaissance’ with the additions of Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Mulan and Pocahontas. The Princesses of the Renaissance elevated the Princess brand from the classic three princesses and enabled more successful marketing and also the creation of the impression of some kind of commercial success at the box office behind the princesses themselves. Curiously though, the next official Princess film only arrived in 2009, a full decade after the end of the Renaissance and that’s a direct result of the fact that the Princess films in the period were not the commercial successes they were cracked up to be.

Beauty and the Beast was the only outright commercial leviathan at the box office. Garnering an Academy Award nomination for best picture and giving birth to among the most famous Disney princess, Belle, Beauty and the Beast was an undeniably huge success story for Disney. It however completely overshadows and dwarfs the successes of the other Princess, even those who were solo protagonists in their films like Mulan or Pocahontas. The films also aren’t uniformly complicated or enticing in regard to their script, soundtrack or realisation on screen. In Pocahontas for example nothing happens throughout the film. She just about falls in love with an English sailor, has a song with a tree and then her English man sails off into the sunset. So much for happily ever after. Jasmine is also a disappointing princess in Aladdin. Unlike Belle or Mulan she falls into the mould of Ariel as a Princess-in-distress. She doesn’t do anything to visibly fight against Jafar and has to wait for Aladdin to rescue her.

She might have upstaged Aladdin if she’d actually tried to be proactive but there’s something frustrating about Princesses having to be so dull and traditional. These films were made in the 90s, not the 30s, 40s and 50s like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. In truth the Disney Princess franchise masks the fact that in the Renaissance the princesses were rarely anything other than useless damsels in distress but moreover tries to suggest that they were all hugely successful properties when in fact only Belle, in Beauty and the Beast can truly claim to have been in any way successful and Mulan is in reality the only Princess whose much more than a girl waiting around for the male hero to rescue the situation.

Beauty and the Beast succeeds because it brings together Belle as a multi-dimensional protagonist, one of the greatest soundtracks in Disney history and it feels original rather than derivative. It stands out from the other Princess films because of its scale and can stand alone without having to fit into the wider franchise. Mulan can perhaps claim to have the same strength of identity, but the other films are ultimately all the heirs to the earliest 3 Princess films and consequently are hardly that revolutionary or inspiring.

The Lion King has also had a pronounced impact on the perception of Disney in the 90s. The hugely successful animated tale, based in large part on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and underscored by one of the most memorable soundtracks in history courtesy of Sir Elton John. The film has become truly iconic and having grossed almost a billion dollars worldwide is undoubtedly one of Disney’s greatest films which naturally lends credence to the notion that Disney in the 90s was invincible and never had a misstep. A true beast The Lion King may have been, but nothing, not even Beauty and the Beast came close to matching its success in the period and if anything, things went downhill after it came out. It took Disney until 1997’s Hercules to truly find its feet again in film, which the strongest proponents of the Renaissance consistently overlook in discussing the films. Mulan and Tarzan are seen as a last hurrah, but that ignores the underwhelming performance of both Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The only significant failure of the Renaissance was The Rescuers Down Under, which isn’t exactly surprising since it eschews the Princess model of most of the films of the period, lacks a major hero to throw the story around like Hercules and unlike The Lion King didn’t boast a superstar cast and stellar soundtrack to lift it out of anthropomorphic mediocrity. Though it may be the only bonafide flop, The Little Mermaid was another commercial dissapointment and both Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame proved critical dissapointments, failing to match the rapturous acclaim heaped on The Lion King. These stories though are entirely glossed over within the ongoing myth of the Renaissance and are ignored beneath the mythic success that in truth can only justifiably be applied to The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and at a push Aladdin.

That’s not to say that the films were not successful taken on their own. Rather, it is difficult to see the Renaissance as a uniform period of incredible successes for Disney when only three films broke the huge milestone of half a billion dollars at the box office and at least 4 of the films considered a part of the Renaissance were critical or commercial disappointments. In terms of success in awards and at the box office, Disney also peaked before the end of the Renaissance with Beauty and the Beast receiving 6 Academy Award Nominations in 1991 and The Lion King in 1994 taking the biggest gross of the period. Thus the success of the period was inconsistent.
The real truth of the Renaissance is that Disney made a very good remake of Hamlet with talking lions and a single excellent film based upon a Princess. The rest of it is entirely derivative and indeed offers little actual inspiration when taken togetehr as a collective body of work. The Little Mermaid for example is often taken to be the equal of Beauty and the Beast but it doesn’t come close on any level. The only significant area in which it perhaps bests Beauty and the Beast, is that Ursula serves as possibly the most successful Disney villain besides Scar, Jafar or Maleficent. She combines comedy but also fills an antagonist role that was sorely lacking in Beauty and the Beast. She offers a real menace to the film that saves it from becoming an entirely poor relation to the heights achieved by Beauty and the Beast.

Both Tarzan and Hercules, lacking in a traditional princess figure falter. There’s something wide off the mark about them. There’s nothing particularly wrong with either film but equally there the main characters are very difficult to empathise with and that perhaps relates to the fact that in creating the films Disney wasn’t really sure who they were marketing them at. The storytelling is all over the place and unlike the Princess films they lack any strong musical identity. It’s difficult to immediatly recall the names of the songs from the films and in a collection of supposedly musical animated films that’s a severe problem. Neither film can claim to match the successes of its predecessors and that perhaps explains why their characters aren’t enshrined in the same way as those of Mulan or The Little Mermaid.

Public interest may have flared over the mega-films of the Renaissance, but the less obvious hits like The Hunchback of Notre Dame only garnered middling interest from audiences and there were some notable miss-steps with the clear problems of Hercules at the box office, perhaps owing to the lack of a definable ‘Princess’ character. Moreover, considering the Renaissance’s inclusion of modest hits then the fact that it excludes The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) both of which received positive critical reception seems to point toward the crux of the problem with the Renaissance: it was created to be a marketing tool by Disney.

It makes the period seem nostalgic and something to aspire to. There’s a desire to own all the films from the period and all the merchandise associated with them. It gives a neat marketing and branding tool. But that branding comes at the expense of Disney’s legacy. With recent successes Tangled and Frozen one can only hope Disney will be more prudent and avoid tarnishing them in the name of wider commercial profit, as is the case with the truly great films of the 90s. Instead of maximising the success of truly inspiring parts of Disney’s wider cinematography, the Renaissance seeks to drain them of their redeemign qualities and try and throw them over the less successful properties. A true shame, considering the quality of some of the flims on offer here.

One thought on “The Disney Renaissance: Reality or Fantasy?

  1. I admire your attempt to deconstruct the myth of the Disney Renaissance, but I feel you misunderstand a lot of the perceptions of what this ‘golden age’ actually was at the time and how much has been retrospectively added to the time.

    You state that the “The Disney Princesses are a never expanding roster that date all the way back to the 1930s”, which isn’t true. this cross-film branding never existed until the early noughties, i.e. after the renaissance was over. Therefore to analyse these characters (especially those who aren’t even considered princesses within the narrative like Mulan and Pocahontas) seems a very limiting analysis.

    Your argue that the renaissance is a “neat marketing and branding tool” but (correct me if I’m wrong) its never been used by Disney themselves to market these films, its those outside who have perpetuated this myth.

    Nevertheless, the attempt to deconstruct this uniform success is admirable, but the claim that “The Little Mermaid” disappointed is bizarre. I think if you look at the box office and commercial ‘success’ of the Black Cauldron just a couple of films before to see the change Mermaid spear-headed.

    (apologies for the essay, I’m a disney nerd)

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