In The Seven Ages of Disney Animation – Part V, we are rescued from the mundane and boring previous age and vaulted to the wonderful heights that are quintessential Disney. Those in my generation were lucky to be smack in the middle of Disney’s target demographic at this point in time, as we have not seen such consistently wonderful quality from the studio since. This is Disney’s return to form, this is Disney’s beauty realized, this is The Five-Year Renaissance.
The Five-Year Renaissance (1989 – 1994)
In 1989, Disney animation experienced a renaissance, producing four absolute masterpieces in only five years. This age, The Five-Year Renaissance, is defined by an unbelievable spike in quality which may never been seen again. The films in this era are The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Except for The Rescuers Down Under, the first theatrically-released sequel in the Disney canon, these films are gorgeous, brilliant, and among the best Disney has to offer. For the first time in a generation, Disney was able to offer compelling protagonists, great musical numbers, and memorable villains all at the same time. The result was a resurgence in Disney animation, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.
The Renaissance was kicked off with the story of a mermaid who falls in love with a human. The Little Mermaid recaptured the essence of Disney animation that had been missing since the release of 101 Dalmatians by offering a nuanced and gripping story based on another classic fairy tale. Coupled with beautiful musical numbers and fleshed-out villains – both clear hallmarks of this period – The Little Mermaid is quintessential Disney. We easily identify with the eponymous Ariel, as the teenage frustrations mount and cause her to enter into a rash deal with the frightening Ursula. The Sea Witch is one of Disney’s most enduring villains, and she is a complex character with hidden motivations, nuanced ideas, and a forceful personality. Throughout the story, we get the feeling that her manipulation of Ariel is merely a means to an end, and ultimately that is quite horrifying.
Some criticize the quickness with which Ariel makes her choice to trust Ursula, or think that the chauvinism of Ursula’s arrangement and villain song are unwarranted, but these choices are completely in service of the narrative. Of course Ariel reacts brashly to discipline – she’s a frustrated teenager in love! And Ursula’s sexist cajoling isn’t being championed by the story, it is a manipulation of the naive Ariel. She doesn’t understand love (especially on Land, which would be even more foreign to her), so perhaps (from Ariel’s viewpoint) Ursula knows what she is talking about with regards to the relative importance of Ariel’s voice and her body. This is the full strength of The Little Mermaid: the dramatization of naiveté and its absolution. We realize that there were times we made poor decisions on very little knowledge, and we come to understand that pain and adjustment as important for our development. We also get a singing crab. What a great movie.
Next was The Rescuers Down Under, the lone disappointment from this era. Given any metric, this sequel was a disappointment. It made less money at the box office, was poorly received critically, and contains a fairly rote story without much of value. The villain lacks any subtlety (the human one, at least – the monitor lizard Joanna is awesome), and I also care much less about the kid in this film than I did for Penny in the original. Interestingly, The Rescuers Down Under was only the second entry into the Disney animation canon without musical numbers (the other was the similarly panned The Black Cauldron). But, aside from a couple of beautiful Australian outback sequences, this film in entirely forgettable, especially considering the company in its cohort. In service of further comparisons, whenever I claim that something was the worst example of a film from the Renaissance, understand that I mean “besides The Rescuers Down Under” – this film has no superlatives of which to speak given the company that it was forced to keep.
One year later, Beauty and the Beast proved that The Rescuers sequel would be the outlier in this group by becoming the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The timeless story is based on a 16th century French fairy tale and also borrows elements from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film of the same name (which is also fantastic, by the way). Our main character, Belle, is a beautiful bookworm intent on exploring the world beyond “this provincial life”, and whose intellect inspires unease in the townsfolk of her village. The Beast is a prince cursed to become a grotesque monster to reflect the cruelty in his heart. This curse can only be lifted if he learns to love another, while also receiving that person’s love. When the Beast imprisons Belle’s father for trespassing in his castle, Belle offers to take her father’s place. The remainder of the narrative focuses on the development of the relationship between Belle and the Beast, but there is also a plot hatched by the main villain Gaston, first to force Belle to marry him, and later to kill the Beast.
The core theme of Beauty and the Beast is how outward appearances do not determine a person’s value – not in general, and not with respect to romance. Belle finds a kernel of kindness in the ferocious Beast, and that is nurtured into a full-fledged romance, reminding us that superficialities are irrelevant in the face of true virtue. Belle’s beauty is dismissed by the townspeople in her early musical number due to her personality. At the same time, the Beast’s new-found kind personality is ignored due to his monstrous outer appearance. This is an interesting contrast – and speaks to a mob’s ability to focus on the negative, unfamiliar, and different – rather than the good aspects of a person.
Three musical numbers from this film were nominated for best original song at the Oscars, and the musical lyrics are integral to the film in a way almost unprecedented in the Disney canon. Much of the characterization of Belle occurs in her song “Belle”, from the opinions of the townsfolk to her yearning for a bigger world. Crucial plot points like Gaston’s idea to arrest Belle’s father are delivered via recitative. The film is full of gorgeous animated sequences that imbue the world with an entirely appropriate magic and wonder. It may be the greatest animated film of all time.
The Renaissance continues unabated with Aladdin, the story of a poor street boy who falls in love with a princess. Inspired by the Arabian Nights story Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp, the strength of Disney’s version is undoubtedly the performance of Robin Williams as the Genie who grants Aladdin’s wishes. This performance was worthy of an Academy Award on the voice talent alone, and the stories of the amount of ad-libbing Williams did in front of the microphone are Hollywood legend. There is an initial wooing of Princess Jasmine which is both genuine and nuanced, as Jasmine is shown to be headstrong and independent. This process culminates with the absolutely timeless, “A Whole New World” musical number that is still one of the greatest Disney songs ever.
At its heart, Aladdin is an investigation of honesty and integrity. The audience empathizes with Aladdin’s imposter syndrome while still recognizing that he is making a mistake by lying to Jasmine (and others), and his lies eventually catch up with him. And then there’s Jafar. There may not be a Disney villain with more charisma or a more manipulative spirit, as we see him coax multiple people into his service throughout the film, only to quickly dispose of them. He remains a great character overall, but in hindsight he was the weakest of the Renaissance villains, if only because his motivation is a simple lust for power. There is great nuance in Jafar’s actions and schemes, but none in his desires or dreams. In a way, this is a microcosm of the whole of Aladdin – it does everything very well, but the Academy Award-winning song and Robin William’s performances are the only true moments of brilliance. It is bizarre to say it – but this is actually the worst overall film of the Five-Year Renaissance (not named The Rescuers Down Under, obviously). That is how strong the storytelling, animation, voice-acting and music composition was at Disney during this era. They truly were at the height of their powers.
In 1991, production began on two films at Disney: Pocahontas attracted the majority of the top animators and was pegged to be a rousing success while the remainder of the staff worked on a film with lower expectations: The Lion King. One of those films competes with the best Disney animated films ever, and the other marked the beginning of another Age of Inconsistency. The Lion King, released in 1994, was the first Disney animation based on an original concept (Kimba the White Lion notwithstanding). It did borrow certain elements from classic stories like Hamlet and the biblical stories of both Joseph and Moses, but the crux of the story is some synthesis of all of these elements. Thematically, it deals with the idea of growing up and accepting your responsibility. The Lion King uses familial power struggles to dramatize these ideas in a narrative that inspires from the opening musical number to the circular closing sequence.
Simba’s arc takes him from a spoiled brat through a tragic and ashamed deserter and eventually culminates with his redemption as a proud, principled savior of the Pridelands. The nefarious Scar, perhaps the most complex and relatable villain in the entire Disney oeuvre, is brilliantly voiced by Jeremy Irons. We recognize all-too human characteristics in this gaunt animated lion, as the absence of a conscience combined with a believable brutality makes Scar absolutely terrifying. He certainly has the best song of any Disney villain, establishing his worldview and making clear analogies to various tyrannical ideologies in our world. Other musical numbers are no worse, either. The opening song, “The Circle of Life” may be the best introductory song in any Disney musical ever, and even songs that feel like filler (basically the two where Simba does any singing) dramatize his mindset beautifully and play key parts in developing his arc as a character. Of course, Elton John won an Oscar for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight“, making The Lion King the fourth film from the Five Year Renaissance to take home Best Original Song. The Lion King never wastes a moment, as each scene serves a grander purpose to the story of Simba’s redemption, and as a result this spectacular film is never dull.
Disney’s Five-Year Renaissance in the early 1990s was the greatest commercial success in this history of the animation studio, and is only bested in an artistic sense by the first five years of Disney animation features. It is important to make this commercial distinction between the two shortest ages in the history of Disney. While the Age of Innovation remains unrivaled in terms of artistic genius, the lack of commercial success was a significant factor in the decision to move towards package films, though the outbreak of the second world war certainly hindered overseas viewership. By contrast, The Renaissance produced three films which grossed #1 for their respective years, and led to an explosion of animation in the 1990s from Disney and other studios. Unfortunately, this renaissance was short, and the next age would produce the absolute worst that Disney had to offer.