Pocahontas Revisited

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today’s column, he discusses the 1995 film Pocahontas.)

A perfect storm combined to create a film that now serves as an awkward midpoint in the history of Walt Disney Feature Animation’s representation of non-White characters. In the run-up to the release of Pocahontas, expectations were high, so high that it was all but impossible for any film to meet them. The years prior to Pocahontas’ release in the summer of 1995 led to Disney’s most successful run of animated films in decades. In 1991, they received their first Best Picture Oscar nomination. In 1992, they released the highest-grossing film of the year. In 1994, they released a phenomenon to top all others, a film that few internally had expected to do well at all.

No one could have realized in the moment that The Lion King was not just the chronological midpoint of the Disney Renaissance, but also its peak. There were five years left in this Silver Age of Animation for one of the most influential studios in the world, but Pocahontas was the beginning of a mild downturn, not a continuation of impossibly high ambitions.

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The Lion King Revisited

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today’s column, he discusses the 1994 film The Lion King.)

The date is November 12, 1993. People headed to their local multiplex on that Friday night to see Disney’s latest live-action adventure, an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, but they likely walked out not thinking about a new cinematic take on Alexandre Dumas’ yarn. They might instead have been more thrilled by one of the trailers in front of the film, for the studio’s latest animated venture. This extended trailer wasn’t even a standard-issue ad; it was a full four-minute scene, with no dialogue and a soaring song called “Circle of Life” blaring on the soundtrack as animals from the African plains bowed down before a lion cub who would one day be their king. 

The first trailer for The Lion King was goosebump-inducing and immediately unforgettable. It suggested that Walt Disney Animation Studios was about to top itself once more with a lushly detailed, colorful depiction of life in the African jungles. This single-scene trailer promised an epic adventure to be released just seven months later. Upon release in the summer of 1994, this animated epic would go onto become one of the biggest box-office successes of all time.

But in November of 1993, The Lion King was, as its own producer would later describe, “in a shambles”. They were lucky to get it finished at all.

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(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today’s column, he discusses the 1992 film Aladdin.)

Walt Disney Animation Studios was riding high at the end of 1991 and into early 1992. The studio had reached a creative height with Beauty and the Beast that seemed impossible just a year earlier. They’d released a film that audiences and critics had adored, and one that had even netted them an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. The plan, foisted upon them by executives Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, to make one film per year was working out even more than the animators could have imagined. 

The studio’s next film would be another big hit, even bigger than its predecessors. And just like Beauty and the Beast, it was amazing that Aladdin got finished at all.

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Beauty and the Beast Revisited

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today’s column, he discusses the 1991 Best Picture Oscar nominee Beauty and the Beast.)

As the Disney Renaissance hit its first peak in the late 1980s, executive Jeffrey Katzenberg had a mantra when it came to the films that Walt Disney Animation Studios would continue to produce throughout the 1990s: “Bigger, better, faster, cheaper.” The Little Mermaid had certainly achieved the first two goals of that aim, but making low-budget animated films on a tight schedule was a concern for animators. They were laser-focused on the second word of his mantra: “better”. 

After the relative failure of The Rescuers Down Under, Disney Animation wasn’t going to collectively lick its wounds and mope — they were already moving onto the next project. It was, like The Little Mermaid, an adaptation that had been through development at the studio as far back as the 1930s. It was, like The Little Mermaid, a film that would retell one of the most well-known fairy tales ever written. It wouldn’t be cheaper, but Beauty and the Beast was bigger, better, and made on a shockingly fast schedule, to the point where it nearly missed its release date.

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The Rescuers Down Under Revisited

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today’s column, Spiegel takes a look at the oft-forgotten sequel The Rescuers Down Under.)

The 1990s were an exceptionally successful period for the Walt Disney Company. They expanded their footprint on TV with the acquisition of ABC, they built out an environmentally friendly theme park in Disney’s Animal Kingdom and began building more theme parks around the world, they started a fruitful relationship with Pixar Animation Studios, and their own hand-drawn animated films were a force to be reckoned with.

It took only a couple of years for Disney Animation’s prospects to flip from doom and gloom to success. In 1986, the first entry in the Renaissance, The Great Mouse Detective, showed promise but was still an underdog at the box office to the competition, Don Bluth’s An American Tail. Yet by 1990, they’d gotten Oscar love and a worldwide embrace with The Little Mermaid, and the competition had to chase them.

While Disney did satisfy the executive commitment to release one animated film per year throughout the decade, they had to get over a boomerang of an obstacle first.

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The Little Mermaid Revisited

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today’s column, Spiegel discusses the 1989 fairy tale The Little Mermaid.)

The success of Oliver & Company in 1988, coupled with the continued infusion of new blood among executives at the Walt Disney Company, raised the stakes for the animation studio. Peter Schneider, the president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, announced that they would begin releasing one film per year from that point forward. It was an ambitious approach for a studio that had just begun to claw itself out of a deep hole.

At the time, releasing one film per year was all well and good, but that required the studio to think of viable enough ideas, and quickly. For their next project, Disney’s animators would have to go back into the past of the studio’s undeveloped ideas — under the sea.

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(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today’s column, Spiegel discusses the 1988 Charles Dickens adaptation Oliver & Company.)

When Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells joined the C-suite at the Walt Disney Company in 1984, they did so with the intent of boosting the company’s profile, internally and externally. In the mid-1980s, Walt Disney Pictures and Walt Disney Animation Studios were just about the furthest thing from industry powerhouses. Disney’s theatrical output in the 1980s was meager, with just 28 films overall; it’s the lowest number of films they’d released in a single decade since the war-torn 1940s. But the new executives wanted more films, from more subsidiaries. They wanted Disney to be more than just a family-friendly studio.

Part of the problem is that Walt Disney Pictures was the kind of studio where A-Listers need not apply. Stars in their live-action fare could typically be found on network television sitcoms and dramas, and it was rarer still to find any big names in their animated films. Once Katzenberg and Eisner joined Disney, they were able to expand upon the recently created subsidiary Touchstone Pictures (whose first film Splash served as Tom Hanks’ breakout role and netted an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay) and lure in recognizable actors for mid-budget comedies and dramas, such as Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People. For animation, thanks largely to Katzenberg, it took until the 1988 release Oliver & Company for big names to start making appearances.

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(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. Today’s column both serves as an introduction to the series, and tackles the first film of the Renaissance, 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective.)

The future of animation at the Walt Disney Company was bleak in 1984. It was a transitional year for the company as a whole, in which Disney narrowly avoided being the victim of a hostile business takeover, welcomed new blood into its executive suite to right the ship, and expanded into making more mature films with the Touchstone Pictures subsidiary. But when Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells all joined Disney from rival studios, their arrival didn’t initially suggest a new era of filmmaking and theme-park development that laid the foundation for the corporate behemoth that now owns Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Hulu, and 20th Century Fox.

Their arrival suggested doom and gloom for the studio that served as the true foundation for the company. Because Katzenberg in particular, soon after starting at Disney, was shown a rough cut of the studio’s next animated film. And he wasn’t happy.

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