With Disney’s recent purchase of 20th Century Fox for the eye-watering amount of $71.3 billion, it’s hard not to believe that one day our souls will belong to them too. Like a weird, major studio-themed Infinity Gauntlet, Disney is buying our entertainment as we know it. Though not necessarily a bad thing, it’s certainly scary to hand over a part of our lives to a major entertainment company. Disney movies, as of right now, have been largely hit or miss with the live-action remake of Dumbo (2019) getting a shocking 47% on Rotten Tomatoes, vs their other latest remake Mary Poppins Returns receiving 78%. So let’s take a look at what is supposed to be Disney’s best era: the Disney Renaissance of the 1990’s.
The Disney Renaissance was the period between 1989 and 1999 (though, this has been interpreted as lasting as long as 15 years) where Disney was popping out 2D animations like a hyperactive gumball machine. It gave many Millennials and Gen Zs their childhood, and soon the live-action remakes will provide this for a new generation, but more on that later.
Perhaps the sudden surge of technology during the 90’s had changed entertainment already, with the birth of the World Wide Web and DVD having finally been developed for general audiences in 1995. Disney was at its prime with the increasing affection for DVD over VHS. Not to mention Disney animated films dominating the box office three out of the ten years. Lion King (1994) was the fourth highest grossing film of the decade, making a staggering $1.7 billion made worldwide. With Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) becoming the highest grossing films of their respective, consecutive years. Beauty and the Beast was also the first animated film to get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.
While Disney was pulling a “started from the bottom, now we here” vibe, let’s look at the movies released in Disney’s golden era.
The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid starts the Renaissance with a bold tale of a mermaid who wishes to be on land and meet a human prince. This movie goes swimmingly against Disney’s losses, which had arguably started since Walt Disney himself had died. The romantic tail of Ariel and Eric had stellar reviews, and grossed $211 million worldwide, starting Disney’s comeback off with a strong kick. The Little Mermaid added to the fire of what Disney has become known for: fantastical stories brought to life by memorable heroes and villains and paved the way for the rest of the decade.
Beauty and The Beast
As stated before, Beauty and The Beast was the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture, and rightfully so. The warm-hearted tale has singing and dancing furniture, and possibly romanticises Stockholm Syndrome, but all is good when hearing “Be our Guest” by Alan Menken for the 45th time in a row… personally. The Best Picture nominee had elevated Disney from being just another movie company, to one worth being taken seriously for both its animated and live action works.
With a remake coming out this year, and its original teaser trailer sparking controversy, Aladdin has been widely discussed as to whether or not the 2019 retelling will do justice to the original. Aladdin was a childhood favourite of mine, as I still remember all the words to “A Whole New World” and fondly think of Robin Williams’ performance. As the highest grossing film of 1992, Aladdin had brought the idea of cultural representation from the shadows and into the limelight by gradually developing the idea of using a cast filled with people of colour, something that is still a problem today. Aladdin was well received at the Oscars for its original score by Menken, as well as sound mixing and sound editing.
The Lion King
Fun fact, The Lion King was originally going to be called “King of the Jungle” before the studio had realised lions did not live in the jungle. This Shakespeare furry adaptation is the fourth highest grossing film of the 90s and the 9th highest grossing animated film of all time. Starring Matthew Broderick, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, and many more stars, The Lion King almost didn’t need Elton John’s musical contributions to become a hit. With its Broadway adaptation still selling out since 2007, The Lion King has become an instant Disney classic with both its brutal reality and incredible music.
Though not yet purchased by Disney until 2006, Pixar was distributed by them in the 90s, making Toy Story a Disney milestone. Toy Story is the first computer animated film to hit cinemas and grossed almost $192 million in the domestic box office. Starring Tom Hanks and Tim Allen and directed by John Lasseter, Toy Story had begun the widespread love for computer animation and remains timeless today. Yeehaw, Bullseye.
While Hercules may make Greek Mythology look more innocent than it was, it was the first animated Disney film to be inspired by mythology rather than a fairy tale. It was also the follow up film to both Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame after those films were heavily critiqued for the seriousness of the issues they handled. Hercules was Disney’s attempt at “lightening up” (insert Zeus joke here), and what better way to do that than to hire Danny DeVito.
As the final film on this list of Disney’s most influential 90s films, Mulan holds a special place in my heart as the first Chinese Disney princess. Mulan essentially steps out of the conventional fairy tale mould by portraying herself as a man in order to join the Chinese military in her father’s place. Mulan was the first major representation I had of any Asian character, let alone a whole cast. Not only did Disney create a brilliant outcast from all the other fairy tales, but they showed a person of colour and female protagonist being equally powerful as any of their other heroes.
So, Disney’s Renaissance: was it the best decade for Disney? Or do you prefer the 2010s with Tangled and Frozen? Or even the 1940s with Pinocchio and Bambi? Either way, it’s probably going to get a live-action remake soon.
HONOURABLE OMISSIONS: A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Tarzan, A Goofy Movie
Words by Alyssa Tang
This piece originally appeared in Edition 3 of Pelican 2019, GOLD.