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(Welcome to Nostalgia Bomb, a series where we take a look back on beloved childhood favorites and discern whether or not they’re actually any good. In this edition: a look back at Disney’s post-rennaisance animated output, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, and Hercules.)

When people think of Disney, they often jump to the classics – Bambi, Dumbo, Snow White, and so on. But my generation has a different list. We were raised on the studio’s late ’80s and early ’90s “renaissance” titles, including Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King. But after 1995, the seemingly unstoppable Disney animation machine began to slow down. The films of the late ’90s live on as childhood favorites, not undisputed classics.

And that brings me to the question of the moment: some 20 years later, do these later films of the renaissance era hold up? Are their charms enough to cover their bigger flaws? Is it all nostalgia or are some of these true cinematic gems? Please keep your arms, feet and legs inside the vehicle at all times, because we’re about to take a trip to the late-’90s era of the House of Mouse.

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A Post-Katzenberg World

After the incredible success of The Lion King, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, stepped down. Why would one of the main guy’s responsible for Disney’s resurgence into popularity want to jump ship? As with many Hollywood stories, too many egos (including those of Michael Eisner and Roy E. Disney) were a big part of it, along with lots and lots of money (which led to a massive lawsuit in the years ahead). If you’ve seen the documentary Waking Sleeping Beautyyou probably know the finer details of this drama. 

Here is where the film that followed The Lion King comes into view. In fact, this was the project that Katzenberg and the other studio heads thought was a sure winner of Disney’s line-up. It was pitched as being Romeo and Juliet meets Dances with Wolves, and that the Lion picture was experimental at best. Of course, the end results tell a very different story.

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Pocahontas

Year of Release: 1995

Best Song: “Colors of the Wind”

Pocahontas was an event for me as a kid. I watched the Sing-Along tape for it months prior to the film’s release, so much so that by the time Judy Kuhn (the singing voice of the lead) started belting out “Colors of the Wind”, I knew every word and screamed them towards the screen. And though my father had to quiet me down in that crowded movie theater, my enthusiasm for the movie never seemed to die down in my younger years. But reflecting on it in 2017, Pocahontas is something that I can respect more than I love.  

Now, none of this is to say that Pocahontas is a “bad” film, but it just doesn’t have that seemingly effortless sparkle that makes a Disney movie, well, a Disney movie. That moment where the characters, emotions and animation become one masterfully mixed concoctions of movie magic never comes together. Instead, much of Pocahontas feels emotionally flat, which is bizarre considering the animation is still breathtaking to watch more than 20 years later.

I think many of these issues are due to the underwhelming cast of characters. Non-talking animals can be cute, but in an environment where there are magical grandma trees, it doesn’t make a ton of sense to have them behave “realistically.” The human cast seems just as silent, as their personalities more fit a template and never evolve into more three-dimensional characters. Even the lead herself falls into this. While she accomplishes incredible acts of bravery and kindness, we don’t know much about her quirks or personality, especially when compared to princesses like Moana or Anna from Frozen.

However, there are specific moments that I believe make Pocahontas worth revisiting. For example, when our lead character looks through the mist and first sees her soon-to-be love interest, John Smith. Here is where the work of the animators and composer Alan Menken blend together masterfully, producing the kind of emotion that the rest of the film lacks. The romantic and stunning artistry still create goosebumps across my body.

But what would come next from the House of Mouse would be an even bigger risk that, in my personal opinion, is among their most underrated….

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Year of Release: 1996

Best Song: “Hellfire”

When I say that The Hunchback of Notre Dame is my favorite Disney movie, I tend to get one of two reactions: “Are you kidding me?!” or “I’ve never seen it.” Both of these are understandable for multiple reasons, especially if you know at all how the media reacted to the film in the ’90s. But even through all of the parental judgment my mother got for letting me watch it, I still viewed Hunchback multiple times during the summer of 1996.

I’m going to be perfectly honest: Hunchback is by no means a perfect movie. It features way too many pop culture-style jokes for my taste, and as I’ve grown older, these moments make me roll my eyes more than they make my laugh. But in this case, the positives outweigh the negatives, and I still own my VHS copy. But why do I have such a strong connection to this awkward adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel?  

With the opening sequence, Hunchback cinematically sets itself apart from much of its ’90s animated competition. It begins its story with a unique narrative structure, in which Clopin (voiced by Paul Kandel) tells the story of the film to a group of children via puppetry. Rather using dialogue, we’re given an incredible opening song (written by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz). It explains the motivations of the characters, while also setting a much more chilling tone for the complex relationship between Quasimodo, the title hunchback, and Judge Claude Frollo, the main antagonist.

This is the moment when I knew Hunchback wasn’t just any other Disney movie – it was my Disney movie. It wasn’t focused on the struggles of a teenage princess, nor was it only about romance, but instead something bigger: the search for justice for those that haven’t received it. And as someone who went through quite a few of her own personal hurdles as a kid, that message rang loud and clear.

This is also how I felt about the characters. Never in a Disney movie had I experienced such complex, and downright adult, animated individuals. They all had their charms, their lows, and even their disgusting angles, but I always wanted to know more.

The wide-eyed and innocent Quasimodo is a character controlled by guilt, even more than Simba or other Disney protagonists that came before him. Esmeralda, though beautiful and strong, couldn’t fix every obstacle that stood in her path. The sarcastic and hilarious Phoebus was still a battered hero with terrible pick-up lines. And Frollo, as calculated as he seemed, was really just a sexually frustrated individual who just couldn’t deal with his impure thoughts. Maybe I was just a weird kid, but this crew seemed much more interesting than Ariel’s friends and foes ever did.

Sadly, people tend to only focus on Hunchback’s hit-and-miss Gargoyle humor and the more violent elements of the story, but there’s a reason why this movie has a following – it is bold and unafraid to be itself, much like its hero later becomes. It might be a sugarcoated retelling of the original novel, and it might not always hit every mark, but the movie is an odd and wondrous sight to behold.  

So what would Disney Animation release as their next full length feature? Well, let’s just say it wasn’t your typical story of royalty…

Continue Reading Exploring the Late ’90s Disney Movies >>

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