The Downfall of the Disney Renaissance/Beginning of the Post-Renaissance era

 

 

 

https://animatedkid.wordpress.com/2014/09/07/walt-disney-animation-studios-review-dinosaur/

It has been a while since I have made a discussion blog like this, and because this year was so disappointing to me when it comes to the blog, I need to bring back what is more enjoyable content in AnimatedKid.

Late Renaissance
THIS is the focus of the discussion. Or at least the start of it.
Pre-Acquisition Productions
Filmsthat had most (or all) of their production done before the Pixar acquisition. Dinosaur is not included because at the time of production and release, it was not a part of the WDAS canon.

I think it is very agreeable that the studio was climbing its Magnum Opus during the early 90s with films like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King in many ways. Each film was breaking box office records (now that they were counting European gross totals, which was not done with earlier releases), winning awards (mostly for their songs), albums charting the Billboard 100, critical acclaim, strong characters to look up to, Disney re-establishing themselves in pop culture again, and a lot of accolades and profits entering the studio. The executives were happy, the animators were finally able to express their creativity freely, and it was just a good time. And then……. things went south. In order to really study when things went down, we need to look at dates, and when certain films were in production.

The start of the downward spiral.
The start of the downward spiral.

Pocahontas was released on June of 1995, and as we all know, it was a critical failure, and performed a lot less than what Disney was expecting.  Soon enough, merchandise for the film was pulled, and the reception of the film has not improved 20 years later. Many blame this film for the “failure” of Disney up until the 2010s, and while I understand the sentiments, we need to look deeper.

The film started pre-production in 1990, and things were starting to pick up in 1992. What other films were being worked on at the time? Aladdin was finishing production (the revamped version took 2 years to make), and The Lion King was in the same level as Pocahontas. The former was seen as the b-project, while the latter was the a-project. Most of the top workers were working on Pocahontas.

When the downfall of the Disney Renaissance is concerned, a lot of other factors that are thrown around lead to a few actions. The first point that is often made is that the death of Frank Wells is one of the main reasons why the Renaissance fell. In my opinion, I think it had more of an effect on the Post Renaissance than the actual

Renaissance. Frank Wells passed away in a helicopter crash on April 3rd, 1994.  He was cited as being the middle man between Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, and after his death, there was a lot of political turmoil within the company over his CEO and President job, causing Katzenberg to leave the company in September 1994. It is easy to say that Pocahontas suffered from some of the main influences leaving the studio, since it was after The Lion King, and before Pocahontas. The main problem though is that Pocahontas was done production already, Hunchback was well into production, and the movies Hercules and Mulan started production early that year. Many of the issues with these films were already made when those other events happened. The only film that I could see that had significant impact on these events is Tarzan.

Hunchbackposter

In the early 1990s, the execs brought in Broadway personnel to help them implement the Broadway feeling into their films, which included Hunchback and Pocahontas. I just want to repeat that these two films were in production in the early 90s, so we need to focus on the production period and what was going on at that time. Apparently the directors of Hunchback were told by Katzenberg himself to drop their storyboards for The Lion King to work on Hunchback. All three of those films were the main priorities at the Burbank studio; all of them being seen as these epic stories with a lot of drama. As you can see, “the bigger, the better.” Changes were being made to Pocahontas and Hunchback for political and religious correctness, and executive meddling in both films were said to be extremely high and rampant. They were paying a lot of attention to what people were saying about the early Renaissance films, like how films Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid had no mothers, which they used in Pocahontas. As you can see, all three execs had their input in both films.

Before I get lost too deep in my ramblings,  I need to bring up the third point that people cite as the end of the Renaissance, which is the death of Howard Ashman in March of 1991. Not only was he the lyricist of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, he was also the un-credited director. His opinions and thoughts ended up changing a lot of what came to be the films we know and love today. I am personally kind of 50/50 on this because he only had a big influence on those films, and many of the efforts he put into Aladdin was rewritten or taken out all together after his death. Apparently he was going to work on Pocahontas after Aladdin (since it just started production before his death), and maybe if he stayed alive for a few more years, he would have ended up working on Hunchback, since it was mostly the same crew who worked on Beauty and the Beast working on that film. His inputs could have easily changed a majority of what is the Pocahontas and Hunchback we know of today, and these films could have been the Magnum Opus of Disney. But, that is an if.

Hercules_(1997_film)_poster
Focus was slowly turned into adding more comedy and lightness.

It is time to move onto Hercules and Mulan. Both started production in 1994, and there is not as much known about the production of these films than the two prior. Seeing that the boyish The Lion King was a success, duo Clements and Musker (who finished Aladdin a few years prior) wanted to work on a film called Treasure Planet, which they have been trying to get off the ground since the late 80s.  They were working on this for all of 1993, and at the same time, there was a Greek film that was being in the works called The Oddysey, which was rejected. The initial draft for Hercules was being slowly worked on in 1993, but the story took place in the Trojan War, and both sides were to seek Hercules for their secret weapon. Hercules makes a rash choice, and has to make up for it. As you can see, this is a completely different draft than the final one that we have come to know. Katzenberg had his hand in this film, where he told them that Treasure Planet was on hold, and that they were working on Hercules first. Things kicked off in early 1994, and then after countless meetings, they decided not to base it off of ancient history closely at all. Clements and Musker than wanted to incorporate Micheal Jordan in the film, considering Hercules being the “Jordan” of that time when it comes to celebrity. This is a personal theory of mine that I am about to explain, and not based on fact whatsoever. I think that after Pocahontas under-performed critically and financially, they decided to make Hercules a lot lighter to contrast the criticisms that were made against this film, especially since Hunchback was too deep into production to change the script for. Some tweaks were made, and then they decided to go full-on out to try to draft away from all of the heavy features from Lion King to Hunchback.

The side project in Florida.
The side project in Florida.

Mulan was being worked on in 1993 down at the Florida studio, which was being used previously for shorts and featurettes. Apparently the studio was allowed to work on their own independent film after helping with Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.  A bit beforehand, there were two shorts that were being worked on; one called China Doll (which is about an oppressed girl being whisked and romanced by a European man), and another one based on The Song of Fa Mulan. These projects were combined together to start off with the early draft of Mulan, which consisted of another arranged marriage, with the father carving out her fate and arrangement in stone, which Mulan breaks, and runs off to avoid this fate. Chris Sanders did not like the way this film was going (it was a romantic comedy), and wanted the film to be closer to the original legend. I am glad this choice was made, because it would have made Mulan a lot more like Pocahontas and Jasmine, and we did NOT need another rehash of that plot and arc. They changed Mulan’s character to be more appealing and selfless. I do not know when this happened, but Roy Disney told the directors to include Mushu into the story, and Michael Eisner told the directors to include Cri-Kee into the story. There were no animal sidekicks in the earlier drafts, but they were demanded to be included. As you can see, a lot of things with these two films were being changed and re-tooled based off the reception of the films earlier, and to follow a formula. Hercules was changed from something that was not that serious, and Mulan was changed to be a film that was more subdued and less…… “Princess-y”. This was in the middle-to-late 90s.

I mostly focused on the production periods of the last 4 films, without talking about the reception after they premiered. Pocahontas and Hunchback were obvious respectively released in 1995 and 1996, and it is important to note these dates, and when the films after Mulan went into development. When Pocahontas was released, it was seen as a disappointment compared to its predecessor, though Michael Eisner stated in January 1996 that it has become one of the most successful films, equaling Beauty in the box office, and doing well when it comes to the merchandise. People complained about the wrong choice of adaption, the poor representation of Native Americans, claiming that the story and characters are uninspired, despite the music and animation flourishing. Many saw this film as 5th, compared to the other Big 4. Despite many feeling like it was less than stellar, it was nominated and won countless awards for the studios; pretty much the exact same awards that the other 4 won. When The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released in 1996, there were reports of it not only underperforming compared to the Big 4, but also to Pocahontas. Despite that, it still performed well, but just a bit less than Pocahontas. Apparently France liked the film when it was premiered in early 1997, and overall, there was a lot more positive reviews and thoughts about the film, despite others not liking it for its unfaithful adaption of the film, disparaging the values of Christianity, and claiming it to be too dark and scary for children. It underperformed when it came to the awards, even compared to Pocahotnas. It was nominated for many awards,but it was not winning the awards like they were previously. It was even nominated for a Razzie, though the category it was nominated for only existed for that year. From a production standpoint, 1996 was the year the Renaissance ended, but when it came to released films, it was not until much later.

 220px-Fantasia2000_Poster

Approximately months or weeks before Katzenberg left the studio in 1994, he approached A Goofy Movie director Kevin Lima to produce Tarzan at the Canadian studio, but declined at the time. After Katzenberg left, Eisner approached him again to do it at the Feature Animation studio in Burbank, which he accepted. What I found more interesting about the production of this film is that many workers finished Pocahontas and Hunchback to instantly work on Tarzan. In early 1997 (after Hunchback was leaving theaters), Bob Tzudiker and Noni White (husband and wife) were hired to add humor into the film, and for re-writing purposes. So this pretty much reinforces that a lot of changes were made when it comes to humor and lightness after the reception of Pocahontas and Hunchback in the later films, though they still kept the creativity, and the formula that they were working with. I am not going to go into the production of Fantasia 2000, other than the fact that it started production in 1991, and was worked on for the entire decade due to many issues.

Grooveposter220px-Atlantis_The_Lost_Empire_poster

Preteen males in, Renaissance style out.

Remember me stating that the official Renaissance in the studio ended in 1996? The reason for this results in the fact that the new project were about bringing the preteen boys in, and kicking out the formula that they stuck with for the last decade.

The Emperors New Groove was supposed to be a huge production which is based off the story Kingdom of the Sun, and Eisner approved the project, because Allers had a huge hit with The Lion King the same year. In early 1997, director Mark Dindal was contacted to join the project, fearing the film having the under-performance of Hunchback, and told to add as much humor as he can to the film. As we know, there was a complete overhaul, and the film had to be started from scratch in 1998, and the film became ALL about the humor, and lost any of the “big, huge, grand Renaissance style” it had in the early drafts. Atlantis: The Lost Empire in general was in a completely different avenue from any Disney project, especially of the Renaissance. It was conceived in late 1996, and the Hunchback crew were recruited to stay together for this project. This film was the first since The Rescuers Down Under to not have any songs, and the crew wanted to build on any of the mistakes they made with Hunchback.

 

Hercules was released in 1997 receiving mixed to positive reviews at the time, though it made less money than Hunchback and Pocahontas. It did not win awards, and it still had a lot of controversy. Many consider this to be the worst of the Renaissance era, and what killed it for them. Mulan did a lot better in theaters during 1998, making more money than Hercules, and receiving better reception than all three prior films. Many considered this film to be a resurgence from the last 3 years. While things were not as well as they were in the first half of the 90s, things seemed like they were going upwards.

 

Tarzan was a whole different story. It made TONS more than all 4 films beforehand, and even outgrossed Beauty and the Beast in the box office. It opened to strong reviews, and won more awards than the prior 3 films. Countless of the songs were doing well on the charts, and its album peaked at #5. It was like they were returning to the times of Lion King and Pocahontas regarding awards. Neither Mulan or Tarzan followed the formula fully, but the strong stories, characters, and the technique remained the same. The few modifications they made seemed to have worked. If only they kept up with this…….

The little Florida project
The little Florida project
The huge project, and new Disney.
The huge project, and new Disney.

With Walt Disney Animation Studios existing for almost a century, it is easily expected that history will repeat itself a few times. We saw this situation with Dumbo and Bambi, and decades later with The Lion King and Pocahontas. The scenario I am referring to is that the lesser, cheaper product is seen as a tool to make more money for the more expensive, producer-favourite A product, but the more successful one ends up being the B-product. This was the case with our next two films.

Lilo and Stitch was a product of these larger-budget films earning less and less revenue in the late 1990s. Like Mulan, this was a film that was not expected to do that well, and was not the “star project” that people in the studio were rushing to see, and it was worked on at the Florida studio like Mulan was. I do not know when the film specifically started production, but if I could predict, it was around 1997 or 1998 when the studio finished up on Mulan. Atlantis was one of the two big projects in the studio, because they wanted to capture the pre-teen and teenage male audience. The other one we spoke about briefly in the mid 1990s, and that film is Treasure Planet. The film was put on hold in late 1993, so Hercules could start development, but right after that, Ron Clements and John Musker rushed back to this film. Apparently there were a lot of struggles with taking elements from the book and putting it into a space setting, especially relating it to the current audience. A lot of changes were being made late into the production, which involved time, and I am sure attempts to make it more appealing to guys.

220px-Brother_Bear_Poster

Brother Bear was another film that started development around 1997/1998 (as you can see, another issue was that there were too many films being pushed out in a 3-4 year timespan), since Eisner demanded there be another animal film, because the last animal film (The Lion King) did so well, and they needed to change things up. The story involved there being a bear who had to become a bear and had to learn how to be the King of the forest -_-. Then the story was changed to make it about a father-son relationship between a younger bear and an older bear, but the older bear was turned into Koda to get more charm into the film (cough cough, more merchandising).

Now that we are in the Post-Renaissance era completely, lets go over the reception of the first few films released in the era. Fantasia 2000 flopped in the box office, Emperors flopped in the box office, and Atlantis flopped critically and financially. Unlike the later Renaissance films, these films were tanking in the box office, and the reviews were even worse than Pocahontas for some of them. The huge issue with this was that these three films were released in the timespan of a year and a half, which means a lot of money lost in a short period of time.

I guess this is a good time to talk about Pixar and Dreamworks, since it did affect this era. During this time, Toy Story 2, Monsters. Inc, and Shrek were being released, and capturing the critical praise and the revenue that Disney was not receiving. The execs thought that it had to do with because those films were in CGI, while their own films were in traditional animation. This would only be the start of a very drastic battle. I did not mention it earlier because CGI had no affect on the release and reception of Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan, and to a lesser extent, Tarzan and Hunchback. Pixar released 2 films at the time, Disney was still bringing in the money and nominations, and Dreamworks did not become major competition until the 2000s. At this point of the early 2000s, Walt Disney Animation Studios were not even receiving the nominations like they were a few years prior.

Did you all notice that most of the early to mid Post-Renaissance films started development in around 1997/1998? Not only were they trying to go out of their way to capture an audience they were not familiar to, but they were making much more projects at one time than they were in the Renaissance. They were literally working on 5-6 films at a time. It seemed like they were trying to throw anything out there to see what works.

It was sometime in the early 2000s when Home on the Range officially took way with the production, and it was around this time that they decided that this film would be one of the final traditionally animated films the studio would make. Emperors, Fantasia 2000, and Atlantis were not making a splash, and while Lilo did a lot better, it still was not enough. While I do not think things were final when it comes to the end of traditional animation at this point, it was clear that they wanted to dabble a bit more into CGI. Oh, I forgot to mention that Eisner demanded that the story for Home on the Rage be changed to make it more suitable and marketable.

220px-Homerangeposter

There was a small increase in quality when it comes to the Post Renaissance, and that came when Lilo & Stitch was released in the summer of 2002. It was praised by critics, made a lot more money than the other films in this era (though it made less than most late 90s films), and ended up becoming a franchise a few years later. This small success that the studio celebrated due to this film, things sharply took a turn for the worst only a few months later when Treasure Planet was released. Not only did it perform poorly in the box office, but it was a colossal flop. The huge budget of this film was not recouped, and the film made a lot less than Atlantis. A lot of money was lost from this film, and it was detrimental to the animation studio. Weeks later, Disney announced that they would be closing the animation studio, and will be using CGI from then onwards. There was no big DreamWorks or Pixar release in 2002 to blame for this. Disney was at rock bottom, the public and the studio was resenting Eisner, and things were worse than they were in the 80s.

The Eisner hate grew relentessly within the early 2000s for countless reasons. One was that he had his hand in all the films of the early 2000s, demanding all of these changes of the films to market better to boys, the DisneyToons sequels diminishing the legacy of Disney as a whole, and continuing to strain the relationship with the much needed Pixar. Him ousting Roy. E. Disney definitely soured everyone against him as well. He was soon forced out of the company by 2004, but the damage had been done.

Chickenlittlemcgiposter220px-Meet_the_robinsons

It was around this time that Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons was put into production. Pixar and DreamWorks became bigger competition, and the flops the studio was grating the studios last nerve. The development of these two films pissed off Pixar, because they were supposed to be the ones who made the CGI films, and things were growing sour with the two companies. Pixar’s contract was expiring within a few years, and to end things on a bitter note is not a good idea at all. At this point, Disney was not even competition to the other studios, and were left in the dust. As the final traditionally animated films Home on the Range and Brother Bear completed production, many of the animators and directors that were there for over a decade were fired, both 2d animation studios in Burbank and Florida were closed, and the final films in that medium did not make much of a splash.

Brother Bear did end up making more money than most of the films in the era, but was critically unsuccessful. Home on the Range completely flopped, lost the studio a lot of money, was critically panned, and is also deemed responsible for the death of traditional animation.

The issue with all of this, is that Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons did not make anything any better. Chicken Little did make more money than all the films in the Post Renaissance era, but was more panned than any other film in the era, and is seen as the worst Disney film. Meet the Robinsons got more mixed reviews, but did not make much money either. We know what happens after these films, which leads to the current era, but we are not talking about that. Bolt is not being discussed because most of its production took place after the acquisition, and does not really fit in with this category.

So what is my overall point of making the blog?

Late Renaissance covers

I do see that the Renaissance kind of ended because of the formula that they decided to stick with, and the constant retooling to make it more politically correct, but some of the reception these films received were kind of an over-exaggeration. Katzenberg had his hand in all of these films in one way or another before he left, some of the choices made with these films took place before the in-studio fighting reached its climax, and the factors relating to the late 90s are not necessarily the same as those in the early-to-mid 2000s. I forgot to mention earlier that a lot of the soundtracks at this time were still charting pretty high on the Billboard 200, while Lilo was the only exception in the next period. From a production standpoint, the two eras were made in completely different mindframes.

Post-Renaissance

I am not here saying that all Post-Renaissance films are treacherous, not at all. They were trying to adapt to the changing society when it came to animation and technology, which caused this bumpy period. There were a lot of productions, with so little time to create, market, and to put out. In my opinion, the production and the theories about the late Renaissnace and the Post-Renaissance to be more interesting than the early Renaissance.

What do you all think about these two periods, and what was really going on at the time? We always just say that they are “less than stellar”, but there is never any focus on the behind the scenes aspect, and how certain dates add up. Is the late Renaissance and Post Renaissance eras even worth having this conversation? Thank you for reading this long post. I was thinking about it for a while, and when something is stuck in my head, I have to purge it out. Sorry if this seems like a complete mess.

 

Overall, this was a period where Disney was trying to break away from their previous identity, while trying to follow the moving momentum that their contemporaries set. 14 films were released during the time, and what’s most important is that they got out of this tough period, and currently are in new heights for Walt Disney Animation Studios.

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8 thoughts on “The Downfall of the Disney Renaissance/Beginning of the Post-Renaissance era

  1. Great article. You bring up some really interesting points.

    I think it was a combination of different aspects. For one, yes, Ashman’s death had a big impact. As I recently pointed out, he was more than just a lyricist, he brought structure to the movies he was working on and deeper themes. I actually think that Aladdin would have been a better movie if they had stuck with the “son feels like a failure” theme Ashman was boing for. As it is, it is mostly Robin Williams performance which rescues the movie…and the fact that the male finally got their own Disney Princess movie.

    The next problem was Disney becoming lazy. If you look at the Disney movies of the past you realize that Disney wasn’t the type of movie maker who repeated himself too often. He was always testing out new waters. But Disney kind of stopped doing that and instead used the Broadway principle on every single movie. By the time Pocahontas came into theatres, it was already boring, but Disney needed two addition years to caught up with it and finally try to mix it up.

    The problem then was less that they mixed it up, but how they did it. Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Island (whose failure I blame more on the circumstances than the movie itself) were both very personal productions in the hand of creative animators. But a lot of the other movies stink of Disney chasing after the newest trend instead of setting their own pace. And when they did, they threw something in…Fantasia 2000 is an example for that. It could have been a fantastic movie, but no, they just HAD to add those celebrities and ruin the mood of the movie.

    1. I thought that his death was not a big impact, but then I started thinking about how important he was to those two films, and it had me wondering what if he was alive to continue onto Pocahontas? Could you imagine what that would be like? It seemed like the execs took over his importance in these films. I would have preferred it if Aladdin had that story as well. Genie is fun, but he was over-saturated.

      Disney did never like to repeat much at all, which they did do with this era. I do believe that Pocahontas and Hunchback benefited from the Broadway formula, it was getting old.

      Treasure Plant did have many factors when it came to the financial failure of the movie. I started thinking about if Katzenberg did not tell them to stop Treasure Planey, and released it after Hunchback. I do not know if it would have made the Renaissance improve or decline even more. I don’t think it would have flopped, but it would have been interesting.

      The Post-Renaissance was definitely chasing after the new trend, and their hearts were not into it. Disney maybe should have went to releasing a film every few years instead of 1-2 films a year at the point of the early 2000s, to get things together.

      1. Well, that would have meant lay-offs…which nevertheless happened eventually when they switched to CGI, but still. But I never understood why they released Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Planet in the same year.

  2. Lilo and Stitch was released in 2002 same with Treasure Planet most likely because if either was released in 2001 or 2003, they would clash with another Pixar movie.
    Following the release of The Rescuers Down Under, Mike Gabriel who directed that movie and story artist Joe Grant first partnered on adaptation of Swan Lake but it was eventually canceled when an agreement couldn’t be reached with ex-Disney animator and animation director Richard Rich who was developing the Swan Princess so they made Pocahontas (Sweatin’ Bullets later titled Home on the Range started development when that film began production). If they were able to, I am sure that if it would be the first in a series of films that led to the Renaissance’s downfall.
    The directors for Hunchback were actually attempted to develop an animated feature based on the Greek myth of Orpheus. I am not sure if the renaissance would improve or decline if Jeffrey Katzenberg had not told them to drop everything to work on Hunchback. It would have been after Pocahontas
    You know how Katzenberg was hostile towards a sequel to Fantasia, if he did not mind there being one, this would not kill the Renaissance finally.

    1. Hey Evan, thanks for the brilliant comment.

      Interesting that they canceled The Swan Princess for Pocahontas, and the Orpheus movie for Hunchback. Katzenberg’s over-insistence with green-lighting films definitely was a sign of the start of the end. That movie sounds really interesting.

      Now that I think about it, you’re right. I think there was a lost confidence with the WDAS films, so they put Lilo and Tresure Planet under the same year as a security blanket, while the Pixar films were strong enough on their own.

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