Breaking Down The Later Disney Renaissance, Part 1

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Much like the so-called “Dark Age” of Disney Animation that occurred from the late 1960s up until the mid-1980s, the second half of Disney’s beloved Renaissance tends to get quite the write off. Like the transitional times of the 70s and 80s, the latter half of the Renaissance and its flaws are due to many things and not just one thing or another, but at the same time there was a lot of good that happened during this time.

First off, who was in charge of Disney when the Renaissance was nearing the halfway point? Michael Eisner was CEO, Jeffrey Katzenberg was Chairman and oversaw the development of the animated pictures until his departure in late 1994, and the company had lost President Frank Wells. He had died in a helicopter crash shortly before The Lion King‘s summer 1994 debut.

Many pinpoint Pocahontas as the beginning of this particularly troubled era…

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Pocahontas is a very easy target. Pocahontas came off of a string of critically acclaimed films that topped each other at the box office. It was a mountain of momentum spurred by the successes Disney started to have in the first few Eisner-Katzenberg years, truly starting with the record-breaking success of The Little Mermaid in 1989 and ending in 1994 with The Lion King. Pocahontas collected $141 million at the domestic box office in 1995, a sharp drop off from the grosses The Lion King ($312 million) and Aladdin ($217 million) pulled in, stateside. In addition to that, it was not warmly received by critics… In fact it was kind of drubbed.

Supposedly, from there on out, it was disappointment after disappointment… Well, was it all that bad? Let’s take a looksy…

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Pocahontas, I think, indeed put the breaks on Disney Animation’s chugging success train, but the signs were there long before that film was completed. Then you may ask… “But wasn’t the beginning of the early Renaissance some idyllic time where Disney was firing on all cylinders, enthusiastically making big hit movies again?”

Let’s start with Jeffrey Katzenberg, former Chairman of the Walt Disney Studios and a prominent figure behind Disney’s Renaissance. In fact, he pretty much tried to insinuate that he was mostly responsible for all that success, too. He had come to Disney in early 1985, brought in by his Paramount partner Michael Eisner, who was named CEO of the company in 1984 after so many things had gone down during the tail end of the previous administration.

Katzenberg admittedly knew very little about animation when he first arrived. Katzenberg, I suspect, grew up like pretty much everyone else his age. He was born in 1950, so he must’ve been raised on a Saturday morning cartoon diet. The mid-1960s was when animation’s reputation slumped, and when Walt Disney had died. By that time the medium was being looked at as – more so than ever before – a kid’s medium. Disney’s family-friendly films, the Saturday morning cartoons, every Hays Code-era cartoon… After the introduction of the MPAA’s rating system in 1968, that all seemed like kids’ stuff. Katzenberg was a teenager in the mid-60s, so yes it’s not surprising that he would be ignorant towards the medium coming into Disney. He probably “grew out of” Disney and animation when he was a preteen in the early 1960s…

He infamously hacked up The Black Cauldron in post-production, removing some sequences that were said to be pretty violent. The team behind that troubled picture wanted an edgier film for the teen and adult audience that Disney was chasing at the time, Katzenberg didn’t want to have any of that. Disney animation was for little kids and childish adults, and that was *that*. He never really took no for an answer, either. Then he had the budget for Basil of Baker Street cut in half, and had the studio change the title to The Great Mouse Detective. His reasoning? The title would be too confusing for “kids”, never mind the fact that the film is based on a children’s book series that has the same name. Another excuse was the flopping of the Steven Spielberg-produced Young Sherlock Holmes from the previous year. “Too British-sounding” for an American audience was supposedly another reason.

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Katzenberg would eventually learn new things as the years went on, but he still held that attitude towards the medium. (And still does, to some extent.) During a test screening of The Little Mermaid, kids in the audience were bored during the ‘Part of Your World’ sequence, Katzenberg wanted it cut out… Yes, one of the cores of the film… Cut… Because a random batch of little kids in the test audience got bored. It was Katzenberg who also pulled *all* of the marketing for The Rescuers Down Under after it posted okay-ish numbers on opening weekend, cutting the film’s legs off before it could even begin to run. Before it could trot out of the gate. The film flopped and is unjustly forgotten.

Now The Little Mermaid ended up being a fantastic film, Disney’s greatest since the Walt years and leagues ahead of the transitional period features. It had an energy that was missing in many of those post-Walt films, the story was tight, the pacing was almost just right, the music by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken was spectacular, the characters were great, it’s an iconic film for many reasons. Oddly enough, Katzenberg reportedly suggested that the film – prior to its opening – could disappoint and make less than Oliver & Company, because the lead character was a female. I know, your head spins in frustration right now.

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Beauty and the Beast began life as a more serious project, one that would be similar to the 1946 film adaptation of the classic story, directed by Jean Cocteau. Richard Purdum was set to direct this iteration of the film, but Katzenberg halted it dead in its tracks, and had the whole project turned into a musical comedy in the vein of The Little Mermaid. Instead of making something fresh and new, Katzenberg had the studio essentially recreate the success of their then-recent smash hit, complete with Ashman and Menken returning to do the songs! That’s something Walt Disney would’ve never done. With Pinocchio he made a new film, not Snow White 2.0. He emphasized that you couldn’t break ground by repeating yourself, that you “can’t top pigs with pigs”, referring to when the public didn’t react with much enthusiasm to the sequels to his Three Little Pigs Silly Symphony short. The same goes for his other animated features. Cinderella was his second fairy tale princess story, finished nearly 13 years after Snow White‘s release, but the picture only shared some similarities with that earlier film. It was not a retread of it by any means. The same goes for 1959’s Sleeping Beauty.

However, Disney Animation simply needed to stay alive once more, even after the sometimes troubled 70s and the unpredictable early 80s. Thankfully, Beauty and the Beast was still elevated by great storytelling, lovable characters, and the Ashman-Menken duo’s resplendent songs. Despite its qualities, I feel the film was also an early indicator of where things were heading. Beauty and the Beast‘s nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars in early 1992, I think, was another step to the oncoming problem. Beauty and the Beast would be the first animated film ever to get a Best Picture Oscar nomination, though it ultimately lost to The Silence of the Lambs. I feel this nomination created a sort of arrogance. There was a new attitude, one that implied that Disney was “finally” making high art. Disney themselves added to it, implying that everything made beforehand was only for children, or wasn’t deep or complex enough.

To me, many writers nowadays echo this sentiment. I’ll come across tons of articles that talk about animation, and their respective writers all walk into this tiger trap… They’ll say things like “animation got more adult and complex during the Disney Renaissance”, or “animation used to be for kids only, until the Disney Renaissance.” If you know a thing or two about Disney and animation, you’ll know that these are ridiculously untrue and borderline insulting statements. Walt Disney had said many times that he didn’t aim his animated works at a target audience, but rather “the audience”. The makers of the great cartoon shorts of the Golden Age? They weren’t aiming those things to the young’uns, at all. I don’t think “children’s movies” even existed back during the Hays Code days, an era where all Hollywood studios absolutely had to make motion pictures that were suitable for a wide audience. If “kid’s films” existed during the Golden Age of Hollywood, then Walt Disney’s studio certainly wasn’t the one making them.

Anyways, Beauty and the Beast was Disney Animation’s first “prestige” picture. They took the critical acclaim, the box office results, and the Oscar nomination… and ran with those things. I think Katzenberg, Eisner, and rest of the top brass, began their chase for the next Best Picture winner. Katzenberg took the in-development Aladdin and dissected it top to bottom, retooling and tooling the heck out of the picture. They seemed determined to make that very animated feature that would get the Best Picture Oscar that Beauty and the Beast did not get.

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Aladdin, however, was more of a zany, irreverent comedy. Katzenberg didn’t approve of the version that was in the works, but in the case of Aladdin, he was ultimately right. The finished picture was still a bit generic and it cut-and-paste elements from Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but its comedic energy made it feel more cartoon-like, much less like a stuffy wannabe-prestige picture. It feels a lot looser, and as a result, far more comfortable and less at war with itself.

Completed in 1992, Aladdin debuted eight months after Beauty and the Beast didn’t get the little gold statue. By this time, Jeffrey Katzenberg was likely waist-deep in the production of Pocahontas, which Rescuers Down Under director Mike Gabriel pitched at one of the studio’s “gong show” meetings in 1990. Basically, a “gong show” meeting was a gathering of the staff and the executives. A creative would pitch an idea, the gong-banging meant “next!”. The Romeo & Juliet story that exec Peter Schneider was developing at the time was combined with it, Katzenberg was fully on board because it had everything in it that would make it the next Beauty and the Beast: A big epic Broadway-style love story musical drama that would touch upon the darker side of American history, and it would gel perfectly with the times, in a post-Dances with Wolves world.

Katzenberg set his sights on that, while the in-development The Lion King was viewed as the more experimental picture. Or just an inferior “talking animals” movie, while Pocahontas would be the real deal. One was a B-team sort of picture, the other was the A-team project. The prime production! Katzenberg wanted Pocahontas to be more “adult” in tone and structure, and sought to achieve this by having the creative team dial down more fantastical elements and have the animals in the movie not speak at all. Originally, the intention was to have Governor Ratcliffe’s pug Percy speak and once in a while encounter a goofy John Candy-voiced turkey named Redfeather.

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Pocahontas feels like a vehicle more than a truly creative endeavor. Coming offf like an embarrassing presentation by Disney’s top brass, the film is their attempt to be socially conscious and mature. A step above the emotional love stories like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and the sheer comedic entertainment of Aladdin. Their attempts to tackle American history and the treatment of Native Americans results in a picture that goes completely south, and how! There’s nothing wrong with retelling a chapter in American history as a fantasized, Romeo & Juliet-like musical. Several liberties are taken, that doesn’t bug me… The way they go about all of it is so, so, so frustrating and baffling. It is not the animators’ faults, it’s not the Disney Animation team’s fault… They had a job to do, and that job was to make the movie that the suits wanted.

The suits not only wanted a serious, “prestige”, Oscar-chasing drama, they also wanted a movie that 5-year-olds wouldn’t get bored at. One that would also successfully sell McDonald’s Happy Meals. You can’t just mesh those two kinds of movies together, nor should you ever pitch Disney Animation at kids first. It is hard for many to believe, but… Walt Disney’s films soared because he didn’t pitch them to children, he made movies that he hoped the audience would love. Again, that big misunderstanding of earlier Disney animation rears its ugly head here and would continue to do so throughout the rest of the Renaissance. The backwards approach of aiming at the kids first would be this picture’s biggest undoing.

Sheds of this are in the earlier Renaissance films, too. Beauty and the Beast has some comic relief characters – LeFou and Chip – that were commissioned by Katzenberg, because he wanted to have things in those films that would keep bored kids interested. The Lion King has fart jokes, intrusive slapstick and humor during the intense climax, and tends to undercut its own dramatic ambitions. Walt didn’t do that with his features. He and his crew balanced comedy and darker material with finesse. Pocahontas takes these little flaws and amplifies them. The offering is often an unpleasant experience.

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All of this is made worse by the fact that the story doesn’t explore its subject matter in a nuanced way. They already had a strong conflict in the two groups of people having their prejudices towards each other. The film illustrates this well enough early on, showing the Natives’ suspicions about the pale visitors and the white settlers’ concerns about the “savage” natives. But subtlety gets stomped out because the film has a “bad guy”. The bad guy in question is Governor Ratcliffe, who is really just after gold. Instead of exploring the settlers’ racism and prejudice with subtlety and grace, the executives instead give little kids a clear-cut villain who makes everything go wrong. He escalates everything, Pocahontas and John Smith’s romance play second fiddle to this. You know, just in case those “dumb” little cookie-chompers couldn’t tell that the hard feelings the two groups had towards one another was already the conflict…

This is what truly hurts the film, it talks down to both adults and children. Another thing that Walt did not want to do with his output. He assumed his audience, no matter how old, was intelligent and could understand the storytelling of his films on some level. Pocahontas assumes that it needs to loudly teach a history lesson so that it doesn’t go over the head of the most dimwitted person. You can also show young audiences what prejudice and such are like without using a bad guy who is more interested in riches than anything. Compare that to one of the studio’s most recent films, Zootopia. While not a historical story, Zootopia – in an Aesopian manner – tackled modern prejudice, biases, media manipulation, and political corruption. It didn’t spell it out for kids or adults, it was so well integrated into its ever-changing action-adventure narrative, it had a rhyme or reason for being part of the story to begin with as it all tied into the film’s world building. The villain in that picture uses that fear to further herself, and to compromise the “predators” that she has contempt for deep-down. She’s not alone, though. Our main characters have their prejudices, too! The characters’ interactions with each other wonderfully show the biases at work, not exposition or over-the-top histrionics. That’s because current Disney Animation is filmmaker-friendly, it’s not run by executives who don’t understand or care about animation.

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The animators and creative team did what they could though, and boy did they. Pocahontas alternates between jaw-dropping and mind-boggling because of this. The art direction of the film is gorgeous, particularly its color work and minimalism. Many of the characters are animated with such care, even if many of the human designs are very flat. The settlers have much more caricatured looks, while the Native Americans look much more life-like. The animals have the oddball designs, none of these design schemes really mesh, at all. That all being said, gosh darn do the filmmakers stage it so well. The way the picture is directed and the way the shots are composed, you almost want to adore the film.

I can’t think of any other Disney animated movie that aggressively makes me want to love and despise it at the same time, and that may sound weird, but this is how I truly feel about Pocahontas. The executive-mandated pap annoys the ever-living heck out of me as a person who loves and respects animation, and as a person who doesn’t want entertainment to treat me like a numbskull. But the art direction, the music, the way it’s all played out, the way it’s directed and how each scene is pulled off… I can’t get enough of it! It’s kind of like fast food. It’s not good for me, but damn it is it so tasty and scrumptious! Oh, the story is also pretty serviceable even though Pocahontas and John Smith are rather bland as main characters.

Let’s talk about the music! The music is both awesome and awful. ‘Colors of the Wind’, anthemic and beautiful-sounding as it is, has lyrics that are so on-the-nose. ‘Savages’? Horrible, horrible, horrible in terms of the lyrics, yet so epic-sounding and so intense. ‘Just Around the Riverbed’ is way less offensive than these two, but it still is yet another “I Want” musical number. (Renaissance box #6, checked!) The only really great songs here are the opening numbers, the rousing ‘Virginia Company’ and the lush, atmospheric ‘Steady as the Beating Drum’. If lyricist Stephen Schwartz operated on that level for the other musical numbers, the soundtrack would be fine. The tender love ballad ‘If I Never Knew You’? Guess what, that got cut from the movie. Why? Same reason Mr. Katzenberg wanted ‘Part of Your World’ axed from Little Mermaid. Very nice move, Disney executives. Very nice. Thankfully, fans and history won’t let them forget that.

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I also have to talk about ‘Mine, Mine, Mine’, the film’s other villain song. I already dislike the fact that the film has a clear-cut bad guy in it, and the song itself borders on parody, but yet I love every second of it. Bombastic, energetic, so over-the-top that I find myself enjoying the heck out of it. But why? The animators, musicians, actors, and directors make the scene so delightful. If this film wasn’t about Pocahontas or American history, perhaps all of this would’ve made for a pretty decent animated musical.

It is really hard for me to pinpoint it, it really is, but this is not a middle-ground movie. It’s too lowbrow and junky for the highbrow, and they sure had a field day with it when it came out. Anyone who has contempt for “Disneyification” will *easily* lose their mind watching this film, or anyone looking for something that’s somewhat historically accurate. It’s entertaining enough for those who don’t demand much, and I try not to demand much myself. See, it’s not a good film to me, but it’s not awful, it’s kind of… Average-ish? Passable? Again, what the animators and team did with what they had… They put their all into this picture, it’s on the screen, it’s every bit as well-made as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.

A spade is a spade, though. The executive-conceived stuff is jarring, insulting, confused, and parodic. So much so that it pierced the film in the heart, and a lot of audiences weren’t too pleased. A lot of critics certainly weren’t pleased, either. The film is pretty much the generalizations about Disney Animation as a whole rolled into one thing, the film pretty much is the reason why Disney is often sneered at, and why Disney Animation continues to be viewed as a kids’ thing. Katzenberg left when the film was in physical production, heading off to form DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. His infamous stormy relationship with Eisner came to a close and he was out, but Pocahontas is very much his baby… And it shows. Big time.

So would the next feature, ironically Michael Eisner’s little pet project, be better? Or would it have the same problems? See you in part two!

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2 thoughts on “Breaking Down The Later Disney Renaissance, Part 1

  1. Also, I feel like they felt the need to “apologize” in some way for the cultural inauthenticity of PETER PAN and wanted to do something that relied less on comic caricature and more on historical accuracy, but at the same time in addition to all the other ways that undermined the film’s historical accuracy, they borrowed from PETER PAN by making the relationship between Ratcliffe and his aide similar to that of Captain Hook and Mr. Smee. Even Ratcliffe’s pencil-thin mustache is a lot like Hook’s.

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  2. Thank you for this. It frustrates me when people sum up the later Renaissance under one or two sentences, without looking deep into it. I also agree that the story and character issues in the film were done WELL before Katzenberg left, and Wells passed (since the film was already in post-production). It is a shame that they wanted to replicate so much in this. If the story was more accurate to the real story (making John and Pocahontas friends instead of lovers), and if the conflict/prejudice between the two groups was developed naturally without a villain, this COULD have been one of their best.

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