(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. Today’s column both serves as an introduction to the series, and tackles the first film of the Renaissance, 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective.)
The future of animation at the Walt Disney Company was bleak in 1984. It was a transitional year for the company as a whole, in which Disney narrowly avoided being the victim of a hostile business takeover, welcomed new blood into its executive suite to right the ship, and expanded into making more mature films with the Touchstone Pictures subsidiary. But when Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells all joined Disney from rival studios, their arrival didn’t initially suggest a new era of filmmaking and theme-park development that laid the foundation for the corporate behemoth that now owns Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, Hulu, and 20th Century Fox.
Their arrival suggested doom and gloom for the studio that served as the true foundation for the company. Because Katzenberg in particular, soon after starting at Disney, was shown a rough cut of the studio’s next animated film. And he wasn’t happy.
A Phoenix From the Ashes
When Katzenberg requested a test screening of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ in-production 25th feature film, The Black Cauldron, what he saw was a disaster of such large proportions that it was possible that the animation studio would be gutted entirely. The film’s high budget, murky characterizations, and grim storyline was intended to appeal to teenage boys, never a common demographic to show up at the studio’s animated fare. Katzenberg’s response to the rough cut was so fierce that he demanded to edit the film the way he would a live-action film back at Paramount Pictures, where both he and Eisner had previously worked.
Though Eisner and others were able to convince Katzenberg not to edit the film himself (an arduous process for animation compared to live-action), the damage was done. Moreover, few people outside of the older-guard animators who worked on the project could truly defend what Katzenberg had seen. The version released in the summer of 1985 wasn’t quite as grim or bloody as the version first shown to the executive. But the expensive film performed poorly at the box office and primarily alienated its audience, serving as a nadir for the House of Mouse from which the animators had to rise like a phoenix from the ashes.
Mercifully, Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS) avoided the axe after The Black Cauldron. Instead, WDAS began one of the most important, influential and creatively fertile periods in modern cinema. The era known as the Disney Renaissance represented nothing less than a new Golden Age of feature animation from a studio that had revolutionized the form in the 1930s and 1940s. The success of the Disney Renaissance led to competition from other studios, and eventually an entirely new form of animation usurping the hand-drawn style.
Compiling the Disney Renaissance
The term “Disney Renaissance” is widely assumed to encompass the years 1989 to 1999, starting with the release of The Little Mermaid and ending with Tarzan. But here’s the thing: the demarcation point, as well as the term itself, are entirely fan-created. Per a tweet from a Disney character artist, though WDAS and the Walt Disney Archives do have self-imposed eras, none of them use the term “Renaissance”, and none of them encompass the entirety of the 1990s. Calling it the Disney Renaissance may not be official, of course, but it’s still appropriate. That said, at least to this writer, the common grouping of Disney Renaissance films doesn’t tell the whole story.
2019 marks a number of notable anniversaries for Disney’s animation studio, specific to the Renaissance. It’s the 30th anniversary of The Little Mermaid, the 25th anniversary for The Lion King, and the 20th anniversary of the releases of Tarzan and Fantasia 2000. Add to that the fact that the Walt Disney Company is in the middle of mining its own animated films for live-action and/or fully computer-animated remakes — Aladdin, The Lion King, and Mulan will all be released in remade form in the next 12 months — and there’s really no better time to revisit the Disney Renaissance in its fullest form. Over the next few months, I’ll be revisiting 13 films that truly incorporate the rise and gradual fall of the Disney Renaissance, released over a nearly 15-year period, culminating with Fantasia 2000.
The Little Mermaid is the first out-and-out smash hit from the Renaissance, but it wasn’t the opening salvo. We’ll get to that classic soon enough, but to begin this bi-weekly series, we need to go back a few years. Though The Black Cauldron didn’t serve as the grim finale of Disney’s feature-animation studio, the future of Disney feature animation was still in jeopardy.
Appropriately enough, the studio’s hopes rested on the shoulders of a mouse.
Staving Off Mediocrity
The human savior of Disney Animation in the 1980s wasn’t Michael Eisner, or Jeffrey Katzenberg, though the latter became more heavily involved in the studio’s fortunes throughout his tenure. The studio’s first white knight was Roy E. Disney, the nephew of Walt, who convinced Eisner and Katzenberg to let him serve as the animation studio’s chairman and hopefully guide the animators back onto a successful track. WDAS had, even before the ignominious release of The Black Cauldron, begun to move forward with an adaptation of Eve Titus’ children’s book Basil of Baker Street, following a mouse named Basil (so named after British actor Basil Rathbone) who lives directly underneath Sherlock Holmes’ London abode and solves miniature crimes of his own.
But the failure of The Black Cauldron, coupled with Eisner and Katzenberg’s frustration at, and lack of understanding of, the state of affairs in WDAS as a whole, expedited the process of future animated films. As detailed in James B. Stewart’s book DisneyWar, when Eisner and Katzenberg were shown storyboards for The Great Mouse Detective, a common practice for all animated films up to that point, they were both baffled as to why there wasn’t a written script already. For animators, story work was collaborative, though that would soon change.
Since the 1950s, Disney’s animators had rarely worked so tirelessly on a film that new releases could be unveiled in consecutive years. During the 1940s, Disney released a film each year, but those were packages of short films strung together to feature length, not full-length stories. Once films like Cinderella and Peter Pan hit big with audiences, Disney’s animators could move at a more leisurely pace, even when their films weren’t massive hits. Since the release of Cinderella in 1950, almost all of the studio’s animated features were released with at least one gap year in between, if not more.
But a slow-and-easy pace for animation was about to change. The Basil of Baker Street adaptation was originally scheduled to be released during the 1987 Christmas season, at a $24 million budget. Eisner mandated that the film be released in 1986 (what would end up being just under a year after the release of The Black Cauldron), at a $10 million budget. At the time, per a New York Times article written by eminent Disney historian John Culhane, the combination of a compressed timeline and tightened budget was seen critically by one of Eric Larson, one of the fabled Nine Old Men of Disney animation who’d worked at the studio since the early days. Larson said, “When money is the first thing on the docket, it can only lead to mediocrity.”
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