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The Seven Ages of Disney Animation – Part VII: The Computer Age Renaissance

Previous Parts

Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI

In Part VII of The Seven Ages of Disney Animation, we finally reach the end of our journey: the age we currently exist in, The Computer Age Renaissance. Disney was finally able to utilize computer animation to create powerful stories and gorgeous sequences, but there are still some hand-drawn gems in this age, as well.

The Computer Age Renaissance (2008 – Current) (AKA, the New Renaissance)

After the interminable inconsistency of the previous age, Disney’s second Renaissance, the Computer Age Renaissance, is a fantastic study in both consistency and quality. This age, which we still find ourselves in, includes the seven most recent animation features from Disney: Bolt, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. This is the first age defined by Disney computer animation films, and includes the last hand-drawn animation film from the studio (additionally, no film in any stage of planning is slated to use hand-drawn animation). The seven films in this age average a Rotten Tomatoes score of 88.4 for this age, compared to the 87.4 average for the First Renaissance (The Rescuers Down Under is such garbage). Of course, the Age of Innovation sits atop the mountain with a five-film average of 97.4, which is absolutely mind-boggling and really cements that period as the apex of Disney creativity. But, our current age takes second place using that admittedly limited metric, so we must conclude that we are in the midst of another return to form for Disney animation.

This Renaissance begins with the unassuming Bolt. The previous attempts at computer animation from Disney were either lackluster (Dinosaur and Meet the Robinsons) or a complete disaster (Chicken Little). There was no expectation that Disney was actually capable of competing with the kinds of films Pixar was consistently producing. Bolt was the first successful computer animation film from Disney, and while it doesn’t completely astound, it tells an entertaining story with a cute twist.

The dog Bolt has spent his entire life on a television set playing a character on a TV show, and the producers have structured the show in a way that Bolt believes it is real life. During an episode when his co-star Penny is kidnapped, Bolt thinks it is real and manages to get himself shipped across the country. The rest of the narrative is essentially a road trip flick as Bolt attempts to make it back to Penny, as he learns about the outside world and the true nature of his powers. There are cute moments where conveniences bolster Bolts faith in his powers, but there is also a moment which reminds of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story – Bolt’s power is shown to be fake and even endangers him and his companions. In the final act, Bolt acts in heroic fashion despite his lack of superpowers. It is a decidedly different kind of film, and established the story-forward approach that Disney would continue to pursue in its computer animation features with great success.

Before the next computer animated film, though, Disney attempted to return to the hand-drawn animation well of its storied past in The Princess and the Frog. This film almost feels like a send-off to the style. It is the quintessential 2D film; just looking at any animation cel feels like traveling back in time. The animators even play with this aesthetic by using a different style for Tiana’s daydreaming sequence. Throughout the film this flat aesthetic abounds, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The film is structured as a Broadway musical like the best successes of the previous Renaissance, but most musical numbers fall fairly flat. An exception is the villain song, “Friends on the Other Side”, which both introduces the demonic magic of the film and provides the catalyst for the remainder of the narrative. The story meanders through the second act, and is ultimately a little lacking, but this is a reasonable return to Disney’s 2D animation.

With Tangled, the New Renaissance fully hits its stride. This would be the first time Disney would attempt to adapt a classic fairy tale since Mulan, and this re-telling of the Rapunzel story is dead-on. Not only are the story elements well-developed, but the ancillary animal characters Pascal and Maximus offer a great deal of humor. Furthermore, establishing Flynn Rider / Eugene as a smarmy, cocksure Han Solo type completely inverts the standard Prince Charming stereotype, and much is gained from his arc in the narrative.

More than anything, though, the pinnacle of Tangled is the lantern sequence featuring the Academy Award Nominated musical number, “I See the Light”. It is the sequence on which the entire narrative turns, as our two protagonists finally realize their feelings for each other, and the animation in that moment has yet to be rivaled by any other Disney computer animation sequence. At once symbolizing both the unison of two sweethearts and Rapunzel’s true nature, the illumination of the night’s sky by myriad points of light lit by the denizens of her home is a poignant statement of hope. This single sequence announced to the world that Disney computer animation was capable of the heights of its rivals, and the next films would be powerful confirmations of that fact.

Winnie the Pooh (2011) was the final hand-drawn animated feature from Disney, and it holds its own against the other members of this group with a 90% Rotten Tomatoes score. The story is antiquated and playful in the perfect way, complete with great musical numbers and great voice acting. If there is a weakness to this film, it is that it is just too short! Clocking in at a mere 73 minutes, the film ends leaving an audience wanting much, much more of its charm. Hopefully Disney will return to this style at some point in the future, but the next five planned films are all computer animation, so it seems unlikely we will see another 2D gem like Winnie the Pooh.

Wreck-it Ralph is a marked departure from Disney’s usual musical storytelling, eschewing song-and-dance numbers for a more character-driven story (though there is lots of background videogame music). Set in an arcade and moving between various video game worlds, the film follows Wreck-it Ralph, the bad guy in the ever-popular game, “Fix-it Felix”. Determined to become more than just, “The Bad Guy”, Ralph travels to a Halo-styled first person shooter in an effort to win his very own medal. In the chaos of earning his medal, he is transported to a kart racing game and brings one of the aliens from the FPS with him. There he meets Vanellope von Schweetz, a glitchy outcast who uses his medal to enter a qualifying race, much to the dismay of the other characters in the game. Wreck-it Ralph excels in its world-building, creating a full-fledged system which is important for the plot and various thematic elements. There are some interesting references to real-world videogames which are a bit of extra fun for the gamers in the audience, but the essence of the story exists on a level above mere reference. Those unfamiliar with videogames will still respond to the powerful themes of redemption and improving beyond your expected station in life.

And then there’s Frozen. This film is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson story The Ice Queen, but Disney chose very early on to tell the story quite differently. I remember watching the trailers for this movie and not really understanding the nature of the conflict between Elsa and Anna, and it appears as though the film makers had that issue as well. In fact, it wasn’t until “Let It Go” was written and performed that they understood that Elsa couldn’t be the standard Disney villain – there was just too much joy and empowerment in her arc. This may be a factor in how the actual villain in the film comes a bit out of left field at the end, but overall it is important to realize that this film isn’t about vanquishing a foe, but about closing a rift between estranged loved ones. Elsa and Anna are both incredibly complex characters, and the twist on the “act of true love” trope is definitely welcome. Side characters like Olaf and Hans never feel like dead weight, and the film effortlessly slides between drama and comedy sequences – plus a really cool and scary abominable snowman.

Frozen eventually overtook Toy Story 3 as the highest-grossing animated film in history, topping out at almost 1.3 billion dollars worldwide. It also had great critical success, and it may surprise you that when Frozen won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, it was the first time a Disney film won that award since its inception in the year 2001. So, while Frozen loudly proclaimed to the entire world that Disney animation was indeed back, it is important to realize that this film was the culmination of many years of strong efforts from the studio. Thankfully, they still had more to offer.

Big Hero 6 is the most recent Disney animation, and the first partnership with Marvel in the realm of animation. It tells the story of a superhero team headed by 14-year old Hiro Hamada. A prodigy in the field of robotics, Hiro invents a swarm of tiny robots called, “microbots” that link together into various shapes. A professor is sufficiently impressed to offer Hiro a scholarship to enroll in the university, but a shady businessman wants to buy the microbots from him. Hiro refuses, and upon returning to the university they find it burning down, and cannot rescue the professor. One microbot survived, though, and eventually Hiro and his companions follow it to discover that someone is producing them en masse! The conclusion of the plot is at once engaging, non-obvious, and surprisingly heartfelt.

Big Hero 6 was not as popular as Frozen, but it is similarly worthy of praise for its near-future science fiction concepts and the interactions between the characters. As the only superhero movie in the Disney animated features canon, it is surprising that Disney can do so well telling this kind of story, but they certainly pulled off this first effort with a rousing success. Like Frozen, Big Hero 6 took home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, giving Disney back-to-back victories. Disney is currently at the top of its game.

This kind of perpetual, sustained success is rare, so it is worthwhile to look forward and see what is in the pipeline for the animation studio in the near future. Early next year will see the release of Zootopia, for which we have a single teaser trailer (which I reviewed in depth here). It is obviously pointless to suggest that I can gauge the eventual quality of this film having only a simple synopsis, but it does look like the story will be an interesting take on the detective narrative, and the world seems very imaginative. Next in line is the Polynesian princess movie Moana, set to release in November of 2016 – and even less is known about that one. It seems that Disney will again be focusing on a heroine protagonist, which served them very well for Frozen. Then in March 2017 we have Giants, which is supposedly an adaptation of the Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale. This ends the run of “new” ideas, though, as the final two films on the slate are Frozen 2 and Wreck-it Ralph 2 – both of which currently lack release dates.

This current Renaissance that we’re in has been fairly long-lived by Disney’s standards, so it is worthwhile to keep our eyes open for a lackluster story or poor execution in these next few films, but I would wager that the next three original concepts will all be fantastic films. Disney has found its groove again fairly recently, and I would like to think that they are building towards a film that can rival the greats of the First Renaissance. Because, while all of these films are fantastic, none reach the spectacular heights of that period.

The Seven Ages of Disney Animation comprise four periods of heightened quality, along with three disappointing lulls. The Age of Innovation remains the single most artistically engaging and wonderful period in all of Disney animation history, but due to poor box office receipts and the second World War, it was unsustainable. It was followed by the Age of Package Films; easier to produce and lacking comprehensive themes, these were mixed bags that wavered greatly in quality, and never really had the same magic as the feature-length films. Fortunately, The Golden Age of Disney arrived with the release of Cinderella, and for nearly two decades under the watchful eyes of Walt Disney himself the studio flourished, only to slip into complete disarray after his death. The films in the Age of Inconsistency had their moments, but lacked the overall quality and animation technique that we came to expect. Disney’s First Renaissance was ushered in by The Little Mermaid, and produced four of the greatest films in all of Disney canon, but it was fairly short-lived. The lightning escaped the bottle and we entered into another age of Inconsistency – this one marred by poorly executed computer animation films in an attempt to mirror the success of Pixar. It was only under the complete creative guidance of John Lasseter, a Pixar alum, that Disney found the light again with Bolt and it successors in the New Renaissance.

We are smack in the middle of another glorious age where we expect each new Disney feature to show us something magical and beautiful, and the studio continues to deliver. Predicting if or when this Age will enter its twilight misses the point: instead, bask in the warmth of Disney Animation at its zenith.

Whew!  With that, my retrospective on Disney animated features is complete.  I’d like to thank everyone who read, liked, commented, and shared these pieces over various social media – it really helps other people find my work and enjoy it.  I’ve had a great time interacting with everyone, and those interactions have inspired me to write similar pieces on other animation studios (at the moment, I am definitely doing one on Don Bluth, and I may also look at the films of Pixar and Hayao Miyazaki, especially if readers express interest).


2 responses to “The Seven Ages of Disney Animation – Part VII: The Computer Age Renaissance”

  1. I absolutely loved this whole series. Pretty sure I just killed over an hour of my work day reading it (and I could not have spent my time in a better way!). Thanks for opening the minds of us Disney fanatics even further. I will certainly be passing this along to my mouse-loving friends. Looking forward to more Disney posts from you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I am glad you enjoyed it, and hopefully your buddies will, too.

      I will probably post a brief overview of D23 reactions later in the week, as there was some cool stuff to come out of that.

      The success of this Disney animation post has led me to start planning other animation-based retrospectives. I think first I will do Don Bluth, but Pixar and Miyasazki may be in the cars as well!


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Derek Jacobs

Chicago,IL 60606

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