A Decade of Disney: The Renaissance (1989-1999)

Munir: Hello and welcome to another “A Decade Of” series. This time, we are going back in time to see one of the most popular and prosperous eras in Walt Disney Animation Studios: the Renaissance. Don’t worry; we’ll also do another series featuring the most recent decade once Frozen II opens in November.

While the Renaissance is not an official term, it has been coined by Disney fans to distinguish the late 80’s-late 90’s period, which put the studio back on track and made it a powerhouse again. The films released during that decade (The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan and Tarzan) enjoyed widespread popularity, critical love, and big box office success (with the exception of Rescuers, which barely made an impression and continues to be forgotten). Now, 20 years later, we are going to see if the films still hold up or if it’s just nostalgia that draws us to them. What do you think of this era, Virginia?

A Decade of Disney, The Rescuers Down Under

Virginia: It has always interested me how some periods of Disney animation (and anything, really) are considered good and others bad. I tend to think people exaggerate the merit of certain periods and the negative aspects of others. That being said, I can say that, except for Pocahontas, I at least like all of the films released during the Renaissance. It produced Beauty and the Beast, which I consider to be Disney’s finest achievement, and a couple of my other personal favorites came out during this time too. I think we can both agree that Beauty and the Beast was Disney’s best film released during this decade, but do you have a worst/least favorite, Munir?

M: Before I answer that, I agree with your statement that certain periods get hugely hyped while others are unfairly maligned. The Renaissance certainly fits the former category. Its popularity continues to ride high, as many of the live-action remakes come from these films, and they have enjoyed big box office runs because people love the 90’s. Now, as a worst or least favorite, I’ll have to say The Rescuers Down Under. Don’t get me wrong; I think Pocahontas has lots of problems. But it does have a great score and songs. With Rescuers, aside from some great animation, I feel that the story is too light. It lacks the emotional depth of the first one, and McLeach is not as strong a villain as Madame Medusa. It’s worth noting that I never saw The Rescuers Down Under when I was a kid; I discovered it when I was older. Perhaps that’s also a reason why I don’t find it as enticing as the rest, which I saw when I was a kid, as they were being released at the same time I was growing up. I don’t hate Rescuers Down Under, and it has some good qualities, but compared to the others, I find it the most lacking. I assume Pocahontas is your least favorite from this era?

A Decade of Disney, Beauty and the Beast

V: Definitely. I see your point about the lighter plot (and tone) in Rescuers Down Under. While I had this film in my Disney VHS collection as a kid, I don’t remember particularly enjoying it. When I revisited some of my less-known Disney films as a teenager, this one really caught my eye. As you mentioned, the animation is gorgeous, particularly in the scenes with Marahute the eagle. McLeach isn’t a complex or interesting villain, but he is fun, and I love George C. Scott. I also enjoy the light-hearted, adventurous mood of this film. I really don’t like The Rescuers very much, and actually prefer this one quite a bit. It’s not one of my very favorite Disney films, but I enjoy the characters and think it deserves more attention than it gets. As for Pocahontas, while I agree that the music and visuals are impressive, I find the characters lifeless and unlikable, the plot boring, and the writing stale and generic. I even have some nitpicks with the animation at times, I think it could do with more variety in color. I also feel like this film tries too hard to make the characters look realistic or grounded, and that adds to my boredom.

Aladdin, A Decade of Disney

M: We’ll get more in-depth with both films once we do the respective reviews. What do you think of the Renaissance overall? I think it’s a great era, and I have a lot of affection for these films because they were released during my childhood. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Although I know many of them have issues, I think that overall it was a very solid period, raging from good to spectacular. With that being said, it’s also a decade that tends to feel repetitive. They used the exact same formula in most of the movies (plucky hero/heroine, funny sidekicks, and, of course, songs). One thing that I like about this current decade is that it mixes non-musical films with musicals, and you don’t feel they are repeating themselves.

V: I definitely agree with you about the formula. I would also add that each of these films has a romantic subplot with the leads, and in some cases, it isn’t needed. There has always been a “Disney formula” with their animated films, and in the 90’s they leaned on it heavily. This is probably because the movies that diverged from the usual Disney tropes in the 70s and 80s didn’t do so well. I can think of a couple of films from the Renaissance period that could have been even better if they tried to be different rather than being forced into the mold, but I’ll leave that for our reviews.

The Lion King, A Decade of Disney

As for nostalgia, I have a strange relationship with it. I have fond memories of watching Pocahontas and dressing up as the titular heroine as a child. It was one of my favorite movies, and I loved acting it out, but now it’s far from being one of my favorites, as we discussed. Meanwhile, films I rarely watched and didn’t care for as a kid like The Rescuers Down Under and especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame have improved for me as I’ve gotten older. So, while I understand feeling nostalgic about things, it doesn’t seem to have much bearing on how I rank them now. I also agree with you about the films Disney Animation has been producing for the past few years. I’m not happy with Lucasfilm and a lot of the live-action Disney remakes, but I’m thrilled with the work the animation studio has been doing. I think the current decade may be seen as stronger than the Renaissance after some time has passed because they seem willing to take risks and pursue bold, original storytelling.

M: What do you think of the Disney Renaissance? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to come back for our review of The Little Mermaid!

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