Tarzan 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 1999 film Tarzan.)

A couple of weeks ago, Robert Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Company, made news (as the CEO of one of the most powerful companies in the world is wont to do) by implying that Disney and Apple could have merged had Steve Jobs lived longer. This tidbit is part of Iger’s new book, The Ride of a Lifetime; the possibility of a merger between the entertainment company and the tech giant was mentioned in an excerpt published in Vanity Fair. Any Disney fan would do well to read at least this excerpt, if not the entire book, for a number of reasons. Specific to this series of essays, Iger’s passion and belief in the power of animation as it relates to Disney is undeniable, though how he defines some of the late-90s and early-00s-era Disney films is fascinating, if somewhat baffling.

To wit, Iger talks about what happened with Walt Disney Animation Studios after the sterling success of The Lion King. He acknowledges some expensive failures (though he includes Hercules and Fantasia 2000, neither of which — on their surface — seem like failures), and others that he defines as “modest successes”, including a 1999 release that was the third-biggest Disney Renaissance hit at the box office, and is one of the biggest animated hits of the last 25 years. 

How is it, then, that the CEO of the Walt Disney Company would feel comfortable calling Tarzan, an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ iconic character, merely a modest success?

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Mulan 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 1998 film Mulan.)

Walt Disney Animation Studios had come a long way in just over a decade. In the middle of the 1980s, they were on death’s door, with all their hopes pinned on a low-budget adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes-style mystery for children. By 1998, the studio was approaching the tail end of the Disney Renaissance and a coming downswing. Financially, the studio’s last two films had been mild successes, which would have been all well and good had The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules not arrived in theaters after the game-changing hits Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King

As the decade wound to a close, Disney tried once again, for the third time in six years, to depict a culture of color in the hopes of turning it into a hit. And for the third consecutive summer, their event-level animated release was met with just mild success — though some ardent Mulan fans online might tell you differently about the 1998 action-adventure. Read More »

Hercules 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 1997 film Hercules.)

One of the best qualities of Disney feature animation is that it can be timeless. Some of the studio’s most charming masterpieces don’t feel like cinematic time capsules; they can be experienced at any age without the audience feeling lost. But one of the biggest successes of the Disney Renaissance was a film that somehow managed to be both timeless and very much of its time: the 1992 animated comedy Aladdin. For its directors, the two men who had played a major part in ushering in the era of the Renaissance, they could follow up this success with a new film that either tried to once again blend the timeless with a modern sensibility. Or they could avoid modernity all together with their next film.

Hercules, the 1997 film directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, takes little time in emphasizing that it would be following the same route Aladdin did, to slightly diminishing returns.

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame 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 1996 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

In the mid-1980s, when Jeffrey Katzenberg sat down to watch an early cut of The Black Cauldron, one of the concerns he had was that the film was too dark. Even in the 1980s, there existed a cultural notion of what was and was not acceptable and expected from a “Disney movie”. A film in which a character called the Horned King strives to raise an army of the dead was simply too grim for the studio to handle. 

But The Black Cauldron also arrived at a low point for Disney animation. The studio couldn’t push the envelope because they were struggling to get by. Being daring is risky enough when you’re popular, let alone on death’s door. When, however, you become wildly successful with critics and worldwide audiences, you can push yourselves and your target demographics.

Take, for example, a film from the same studio released in the summer of 1996. This film opens with a six-minute musical number in which a self-righteous and cruel villain murders an innocent, defenseless woman and is just barely stopped from drowning a deformed baby by a horrified priest.

In short, it takes very little time for Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame to establish that it’s not fucking around.

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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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