Saturday, December 21, 2013

Disney's New Renaissance, Part 1: The Original Golden Age

A couple nights ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Disney's Frozen.
I'm rather enamored of Disney right now, having also recently seen Saving Mr. Banks, the decidedly Disney-fied version of the events that led to the creation of the beloved Mary Poppins.
An interesting discussion that has arisen both online and amongst friends of mine is whether or not Disney is entering its second Renaissance. It's quite an ambitious declaration. After all, the Disney Renaissance is not lightly named; it is one of the most commercially, critically, and financially successful string of animated movies Disney ever produced as an animation studio.
Does the presumption hold some merit? Is it too early to tell? Is the claim even valid? Well, to answer the questions about the current Renaissance, one has to travel back in time, to when it all started.

Disney's Return to Excellence - The Origin Stories of The Renaissance
It took a lion, a genie, a beast,
a warrior, a hunchback, a mermaid,
a princess, a hunchback, and a demi-god
to save a mouse.
Walt Disney Animation was floundering after both Roy and Walt had passed away and the films made under the new regime were generally regarded as lackluster and uninspired. Probably the worst of these was The Black Cauldron, which failed to impress entirely (though I've never had a problem with it) though some of them are pretty middling efforts as compared with the pioneering gems Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi. 
It was the modest successes of The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver & Company, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit that gave the animation department enough executive goodwill to produce some more ambitious projects.
Around this time, the infamous Don Bluth incident occurred, where Bluth, a lead animator with Disney, walked out with 11 other animators to start his own studio. In this period, Bluth was taking it hard to Disney.
Great Mouse Detective opened opposite Bluth's An American Tail and was out-performed
and Oliver & Company couldn't beat the record-breaking Land Before Time.

The first entry of the Renaissance was about a protagonist wanting, as many of them would end up wanting, something more.
The Little Mermaid was released in 1989, and signaled a return to form for Disney Animation. It was the first collaboration of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, and set many other tenets of the Renaissance films as well. It also was the first effort to outperform Bluth and All Dogs Go To Heaven.
Second was The Rescuers Down Under, which people tend to forget about as part of the Renaissance for several reasons. It being a non-musical hinders its inclusion, but it warrants quite a bit of merit for being the first (and thus far only) theatrically released sequel to a Disney animated movie and would've been a bigger box office success had it not been for the fact that it was opening on the same holiday weekend as a mammoth holiday hit: Home Alone.
Many argue the Renaissance hit full-stride with 1991's Beauty and the Beast and I'm inclined to agree. It was the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Aladdin hit just a year later and the praise was not unlike Pixar's successful run of critically acclaimed hits.

The unfortunate passing of Howard Ashman did not hinder the quality, because it led to Tim Rice joining up, and that paved the way for...
The Lion King in 1994. It and Pocahontas started production at the same time, and it was believed behind-the-scenes to be the less prestigious of the two. While Pocahontas was no slouch by any means, (though it is the lowest reviewed of the era) it was the unlikely Lion King that went on to become the most successful film of the era, the highest-grossing hand-animated film of all time, and the only animated film made by Disney Animation on the list of top 50 highest-grossing films ever.

Both Pocahontas in 1995 and 1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame had music provided by Menken and Broadway lyricist and composer Stephen Schwartz, and may be the darkest entry of the Renaissance.
Hercules in 1997 was vibrant and bright and restored a lot of the younger demographic that had been lost by Hunchback.
Mulan in 1998 and Tarzan in 1999 close out the era with two strong stories and two compelling protagonists and some strong music, Mulan by Jerry Goldsmith, Matthew Wilder, and David Zippel, and then Tarzan by Mark Mancina and Phil Collins.

What made the Renaissance work?
The Renaissance was not something they were aware of as it was happening, which is the only reason I hesitate to immediately name this the revival of that period, even though Disney is posting the highest reviews it has in over a decade, or pretty much since this very period.

But there were things evident back then that tied all the movies together and made it such a bright period of creativity and possibility. What elements specifically made the era so fun?

Diversity of Sources
If you take a look at the period prior to the Renaissance, it's affectionately called "The British cycle" and most of the stories are based on famous British fairy tales: Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, Robin Hood, Alice in Wonderland, Mr. Toad (Mr. Ichabod Crane belongs to the States), 101 Dalmatians, Sword in the Stone, Aristocrats, and even The Rescuers all came from the Isles, and inexplicably, The Great Mouse Detective was an American story idea based in England, and Oliver & Company of course, based on the British novel by Dickens, was set in the States.

The Renaissance had a number of sources, and a number of inspirations.
Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were both fairy tales, the former by Hans Christian Andersen, the latter a French fairy tale; Tarzan was based on the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, Rescuers Down Under was an original sequel based on the original British novels, Aladdin is an Arabian fairy tale, Hercules is Greek myth (ironically with gospel-based music), Mulan is Chinese legend, Hunchback is a French novel, and Pocahontas was based on the life of the titular character.

The Lion King is unique as an original story, though its basis in Hamlet is pretty obvious. And of course, it draws on African music and culture for some inspiration of it setting.
It makes for some really interesting stories when the sources become less homogeneous and it allows for some very different characters that more audiences can relate to. As Disney's reach and audience became much more international, the protagonists and supporting characters and even the villains had to diversify. It's also easier to have that with stories that various cultures are familiar with.

The Renaissance, unlike the period that preceded it, was ambitious in terms resetting the status quo. The first trend that was bucked was the idea of what constitutes a Disney Princess. Belle was a reader, Jasmine wanted life outside the palace, and she, Pocahontas and Ariel wanted to be able to think for themselves. Mulan was very much the same, and she was even delving into the ideals of feminism and equality. Miss Bianca, Esmeralda, and Meg were all very sure of themselves and confident, self-styled women. Jane was an explorer and unafraid of going it alone.

And the men had a strong showing as well: Aladdin the adventurer, Tarzan the world's first parkour expert, Quasimoto (who can't relate to the guy who feels constantly outcast?), Hercules, the Genie...
As much as I don't want it to become a feminism debate, there is an obvious need (imagined or not) for movie promoters to sell to either "boys" or "girls". The recent example of Tangled makes it pretty obvious that executives still see them as separate demographics. Flynn and his horse were marketed towards boys to get them to come see a Rapunzel flick. But the Rapunzel character's pretty good too (but we'll get to that later) and every movie of the Renaissance managed to play to both sides of the gender line without patronizing either. Basically, kids growing up each found a character they could relate to. As a 90s kid, I could attest to this. I have a deep personal connection to the Renaissance, which maybe gives me a bit of "nostalgia fog" when trying to judge these movies fairly against the current crop of movies. Nonetheless, were there other elements that helped capture the magic that eluded Disney Animation for two decades?

Howard Ashman
It is a credit to all the songwriters of this period that the Renaissance might be most remembered for its music. But in particular, with Howard Ashman providing lyrics for the first few movies, earning award nominations and wins for his movies.
There is a reason that Disney movies are often seen as animated Broadway musicals, because the teams that wrote them were so engrossed in musical theatre themselves.
Also, it's because the characters had so much heart, and that is after all what most defines musical theatre characters. We cared about the characters because they cared so much about the world around them.
Ashman in particular was able to effectively convey want and need in concise and clever lyric, even managing subtle exposition without it ever feeling like we were being background filled-in.
When Ashman passed, Beauty and the Beast was dedicated to him:
To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950–1991."

True Love, but Other Important Lessons Too
Of course, true love doesn't go away, not for Disney. It's always a staple of their movies. But how it's presented is always different and some of it is successful, some of it isn't. I talk about it at length in a previous Blog entry.

There are also other important things Disney taught us during this time, and what makes it really special is that this period is especially good at not being preachy about their lessons. They're simple, but incredibly subtle.
Aladdin's is be yourself. Mulan told us to never give up on something we believe in. Pocahontas, Tarzan, and Hunchback taught us to appreciate the world around us. Lion King was much in line with Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility.

The characters all found love along the way, but they weren't really looking for it.
Sure, everything was love at first sight, it always is. But the Renaissance found a way to suspend disbelief and make the characters come from a real enough place that we bought it all.

The Voices
It may seem like a fairly obvious point, but celebrity voice casting hadn't really been done until Aladdin, and it made for some really excellent vocal performances.
Would these movies have been the same? See how many of these names you recognize and if you can remember whom they played during the Renaissance:
Rosie O'Donnell
Glenn Close
Brian Blessed
Eddie Murphy
Nathan Lane
Rowan Atkinson
James Earl Jones
Matthew Broderick
Whoopi Goldberg
Jonathan Taylor Thomas
Cheech Marin
Jim Cummings
Gilbert Gottfried
Frank Welker
Lea Salonga
Jerry Orbach
Angela Lansbury
David Ogden Stiers
Mel Gibson
Tom Hulce
Jason Alexander
Kevin Kline
Demi Moore
Danny DeVito
James Woods
George C. Scott
Bob Newhart
Eva Gabor
and John Candy