Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Second Disney Renaissance is Upon Us

The snow is coming down pretty hard right now here in Greensboro, North Carolina, and given the continued success of Frozen - which recently passed Despicable Me 2 to be 2013's third-highest-grossing film - now seems like a good time to expand on my recent theory of the Second Disney Renaissance. I've mentioned it before in my reviews of Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, but I think it needs further explanation.

First, what do we mean by "Disney Renaissance?" There are a couple of qualifiers to this statement. Generally, this is discussed only in terms of Disney's animated feature-film output, so live-action movies will not be considered. By that same token, for the purposes of my argument, I'm only including the works of Walt Disney Animation Studios, which will exclude films released by Disney but produced by other companies, such as Pixar. So I'm working from what counts as Disney's animated film canon, of which there are currently 53 features.

Disney's early films, such as Snow White and the Seven Drawfs, Pinocchio, and Bambi make up the first period, though some will argue that Disney's "Golden Age" stretches from 1937 all the way through The Aristocats in 1970. This is a tricky period to define, since it includes a number of films that are still rightfully celebrated today, including Dumbo and Sleeping Beauty, but also oft-forgetten features such as Make Mine Music and Saludos Amigos. But in general, the pre-1970s period is considered greatly successful for Disney, both in terms of reputation and financial success.

More after the page break.

However, the 1970s and 1980s are something of a dark period for the Mouse House. Certainly films like The Rescuers, The Fox and the Hound, and Oliver & Company have their fans, especially in today's Internet Age. However, at the time they were routinely considered failures, at least to the standard that the company held. This began with the internal conflicts surrounding the production of  Robin Hood, which was the first film the company made without Walt Disney's personal involvement (he died in 1966). Other productions featured internal turmoil as well, and expensive films such as The Black Cauldron tanking at the box office only furthered the company's decline as an animated-film power.

The Disney Renaissance (hereby referred to as "the First Disney Renaissance" for this argument) refers to the period in the 1990s (1989 - 1999) when Disney's animated films flourished again. The film that kicked it off was The Little Mermaid, which found critical and financial success by going back to basics: not only is it a fairy tale musical, but it's also the first continuation of the "Disney Princess" line since Sleeping Beauty (ending a 30 year gap). This was followed by the success of Beauty & the Beast, which became a huge hit and was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. (I'm ignoring 1990's The Rescuers Down Under, since pretty much everyone else does too). Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas would follow, each becoming an acclaimed hit. And while they didn't quite capture the zeitgeist or remain in the popular conscience the same way as the aforementioned films, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan are also included in this string of success.

At the turn of the millennium, though, Disney's winning streak was once again broken. Starting with Fantasia 2000, the company had a string of films that failed to meet expectations: Dinosaur, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, The Emperor's New Groove, Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Meet the Robinsons, and Bolt were considered good but not great, and the particularly disastrous one-two punch of Home on the Range and Chicken Little represented a new nadir for Disney animation. There were several factors that likely attributed to this decline. First was the rise of Dreamworks Animation, Disney's top rival, which saw huge successes with films such as Shrek and Madagascar during 2000s, as well as other animation houses score hits (Blue Sky Studios' Ice Age, Animal Logic's Happy Feet). Second, Disney found even greater success in its collaborations with Pixar, which yielded a major hit during the First Renaissance (Toy Story, 1995) that was followed in the 2000s by Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and cresting with Toy Story 3. With so much money coming in from these films, Disney was able to shoulder a few blows when it came to its in-house animated films. Pixar's films were also hailed by critics, scoring reviews that rank them among the best films of all time, period, with Up and Toy Story 3 following in Beauty & the Beast's footsteps to Best Picture Oscar nominations.

But something has been changing in Walt Disney Animation Studios over the past ten years. The roots of this sea change are in the studio's decision to reduce, and ultimately nearly excise, its hand-drawn animation wing in recent years. In fact, since 2005 the only Disney films to feature traditional hand-drawn animation are The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh. At the same time, other studios were beginning to struggle: Dreamworks' Shrek and Madagascar sequels - as well as the many sequels to Ice Age - were still making boffo box office returns but were diminishing in quality, while original films weren't exactly setting the world on fire (Over the Hedge or Surf's Up, anyone?). Lastly came what had been unthinkable: Pixar's decline. Now, this isn't to say that the studio's output has been a financial disaster. But the output after 2010 - Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University - hasn't inspired the same critical raves, and rumors of internal conflicts coupled with the delay of The Good Dinosaur from 2014 to 2015 suggest a studio in trouble.

So the time was right for a Second Disney Renaissance (2009 - present), and Disney ushered it in the same way it did the first: with a princess. The Princess and the Frog presented the beginnings of something new, returning to musicals and fairy tales, but with a new twist: instead of a traditional adaptation, the story was transposed to 1920s New Orleans, and for the first time featured a black princess. This was followed by Tangled, which blew the doors wide open: critics loved this new interpretation of the Rapunzel story, and audiences responded in turn. Winnie the Pooh was critically-beloved, but somewhat faltered at the box office, while Wreck-It Ralph and especially Frozen were enormous critical and commercial successes.

This current period is often referred to the "Disney Revival," which is certainly an appropriate label considering the history. But I think it's time to refer to this as the Second Disney Renaissance because these films match - and possibly exceed - the quality and success of their First Disney Renaissance contemporaries. Both periods represent some of the best work that Disney has committed to film, utilizing technological advances to create films that were revolutionary and essential to the development of the medium. On this level, it's not that the films of the Second Disney Renaissance are striving to be like those of the first; they've already accomplished this feat.

The difference between the two periods, beyond time, is how they approach their subjects. The First Disney Renaissance films utilize classical storytelling, remaining narratively faithful to the original material while being aesthetically steeped in Romanticism. The visual splendor of these films - and they were splendid - had an almost dreamlike quality, whether it was King Neptune's underwater realm, the expansive plains of Africa, or the blocky cities of Ancient Greece. The scores for these films - often by Alan Menken - swelled with orchestral strings, be-bopped through fun sing-alongs, and felt like the works of classic Hollywood cinema. If anything, these were films that were always looking back at a time when these stories mattered. This built-in nostalgia is a major factor in the glowing affection that millennials feel for these films today (myself included).

The films of the Second Disney Renaissance, on the other hand, are modernist works that look forward. This is evident in the new physical frontiers that these films are exploring, from the arcade of Wreck-It Ralph to the New Orleans of The Princess and the Frog. But moreover, these films are taking their narratives to places that Disney hasn't necessarily explored heavily. There's a revisionist sheen to these films, especially the princess films (The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Brave, Frozen) as they place the fairy tales we're familiar with in new contexts to further explore their themes. And those themes have become much more modern: whereas the romantic arc was almost always foregrounded in the films of the First Disney Renaissance, in these films they're backgrounded, if present at all (Merida, for example, scoffs at marriage altogether in Brave). In fact, the main relationships in these films are often non-romantic. Frozen puts an emphasis on the relationship between sisters, Brave focuses on mother-daughter relationships (a major deal for Disney, which has a long history of absent mothers), and Wreck-It Ralph and Winnie the Pooh both emphasize friendship. Even The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, which do have strong romantic arcs, direct significant attention to the independent spirits of their female protagonists. These are films that are expanding their thematic material, looking beyond the scope of romanticism and into other facets of the human experience.

So what does the future hold for the Second Disney Renaissance? Looking back at the First Disney Renaissance, it's hard to make a direct comparison, since both have followed different patterns in quality by release (the First was more linear, the Second has been scattershot). Disney's next film, Big Hero 6, is their first animated film based on a Marvel property, but from what little has been released looks promising. It's hard to say right now, at the presumptive midpoint, if this period will enjoy the longevity of its predecessor. But this recent string of success is a welcoming sign that the studio is back in peak form, and the future certainly looks bright.

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