Nothing lasts forever, and in Part IV of The Seven Ages of Disney Animation we look at the inevitable fall from grace following Disney’s Golden Age. After the death of Walt Disney, the studio struggled to re-create the magic of the previous ages, and failed to produce a film rivaling the quality of any of their previous masterpieces. Due to the shaky quality and wandering narratives, I call this age, “The Age of Inconsistency”.
The Age of Inconsistency (1970 – 1988)
After seventeen years of mostly great efforts, The Age of Inconsistency comprised mostly poor efforts for nearly two decades. This period is defined by animated features which, while they may each contain specific sequences of brilliance, are flawed and ultimately subpar. The seven films of this age are The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver and Company. Of these films, two stand out as being mostly positive (the ones with mice as their protagonists), three are overwhelmingly negative (Robin Hood, The Black Cauldron, and Oliver and Company), and the remaining two are just mediocre. We will work our way up.
Perhaps the nadir of all Disney animation, at least from a technical standpoint – and possibly story-wise as well, is 1973’s Robin Hood. The film was unfortunately plagued by a low budget and various cost-cutting measures, and it shows. There are sequences of animation that are clearly re-used at multiple points in the story (the rhinos charging and the children laughing and pointing immediately come to mind, but there are others). What’s more, the villains are entirely unconvincing. The opening act establishes Prince John as an absolute boob – but somehow we are expected to believe he is capable of running this kingdom and inspiring fear? And the final act feels incredibly tacked-on and derivative, ultimately ending with “Oh, and the good King Richard came back and saved everyone”. Certain elements are fun, like the archery tournament, and basically anytime Sir Hiss is on screen, but they are too far between to redeem this sad attempt at the Robin Hood story.
The Black Cauldron is a bit of an anomaly in the Disney oeuvre, as it was both the first feature animated film to be rated PG, and also the first to eschew the musical structure. It was decidedly darker than anything Disney had produced since the Age of Innovation, but is a fundamentally flawed film due to the studio not truly having a unified vision of what it should be. It deals with a grim, fairy tale subject matter much like other ’80s fantasy films like The Dark Crystal, Legend, and Willow, but is very anxious about fully committing to this aesthetic. For example, Jeffrey Katzenberg (new studio head) ordered some of the more graphic and frightening sequences to be edited out. Though Disney CEO Michael Eisner prevented him from effecting every edit that Katzenberg wanted, the release of the film was delayed in order to rework various sequences nonetheless. The result is a disjointed, flawed film that unfortunately fails to deliver on its ambitious intentions.
The other very bad offering during this period was actually the last: Oliver and Company. There are portions of this film that are actually quite effective, from the opening musical number where Oliver finds himself on the streets of NYC, to the emotional song from the little girl Jenny. But, really, that’s about it. The overall plot hinges on some weird financial agreement between a mean caricature Sykes, and a bum, Fagin. Oliver finds a home with Jenny while out conning with the company, which begins a misunderstanding where Oliver is inexplicable taken from the house without his knowledge, and against his wishes (no one listens to him telling them to leave him alone, weirdly). This leads Fagin to ransom Oliver in order to settle his debt. But, when Jenny shows up, she is kidnapped by Sykes and the company effects a rescue. It is so completely hackneyed and nonsensical that the meager emotion drawn from some of the more affecting scenes is completely squandered.
The two films I will like catch flak for deriding are The Aristocats and The Fox and the Hound. My classification of them as weaker pieces really comes down to the ineffectiveness of their respective narratives, but I will admit that each contains sequences of utter brilliance. For The Aristocats, that is undoubtedly the “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat” musical number, as it is the very epitome of fun Disney songs. But, the story around it is fairly foolish. A rich duchess is going to leave her fortune to her cats, so the butler is going to kill them but is terrible at it? The characters may be cute, but they cannot redeem such a lackluster story, as evidenced by how it seems to drag in certain spots throughout the latter acts. This is very similar to The Fox and Hound, which has some incredible character moments, especially as Todd and Copper become friends as children. There is beauty in these scenes, as adults are reminded of the easier days where forming powerful friendships came naturally and children feel warmth at considering their own friendships. But, the resulting story is too generic and predictable to hold much weight. Overall, these are mediocre films with isolated brilliant sequences, and I think they are remembered fondly for those alone as people fail to realize how much dead weight there is in each film.
Finally, we come to the two good movies which came out of this period, but which will never be called masterpieces: The Rescuers and The Great Mouse Detective. Recall that The Jungle Book and Lady and the Tramp looked weak in comparison to the other films in the First Golden Age. They would be the highest-rated films in this Age, according to Rotten Tomatoes. It is bizarre that a mere two decades later these films about anthropomorphic mice were as good as Disney could do during this dark time. For what they’re worth, these films at least have interesting stories and characters – but they are pretty ridiculous. In The Rescuers, a United Nations of mice must find out what happened to Penny, a little girl who has gone missing. The bad guys keep an alligator in their living room, and have kidnapped Penny to force her to hunt for a diamond in a half-submerged cave. By comparison, Sherlock Holmes with mice looks mundane. Overall, these films are better than the rest of their age largely because they simply make fewer mistakes – but one would never call them great. It truly was a dark time in the annals of Disney animation.
However, despite the weaknesses of these films, one can always identify a kernel of that Disney magic, however small, that weaves through these pieces. Whether it is Jenny and Oliver playing Piano or Todd’s owner releasing him in the woods, there are tiny things to appreciate. With the dawning of the next age, Disney magic would be back in full force through the generation of masterpieces at a rate which is only comparable to the initial Age of Innovation.