Welcome back to Road To Disney. On December 15, 1966, Walter Elias Disney passed away from complications due to lung cancer. The company that he built was now without his guidance and creativity. This caused a drastic shift in the way they made their films. There was a lot of trial and error as they moved away from fairy tales and more into smaller stories. The animation used during this time was a huge step down from the previous era thanks to the use of xerography. You’ll notice a lot of heavier lines and a rougher, grimier look. A lot of these films didn’t do well critically and/or commercially (with some exceptions that we’ll get to), leading to Disney’s decline in popularity, hence why this era is called the Dark Age. On the bright side, most of these films will go on to become cult classics. So let’s begin our look at the Dark Age of Disney with…
Release Date: December 24, 1970
When a wealthy woman decides to leave her fortune to her cats, her butler decides to get rid of the cats by throwing them over a bridge. But when he fails, the mother cat and her kittens meet a stray cat, who helps them find their way back home. Out of all of the films that Disney released, this is one of their weakest and most forgettable. The story doesn’t really grip me, it’s as predictable as you’d expect. Most of the characters are bland with the most interesting ones being the alley cats and the two dogs who chase after the butler. Speaking of the butler, he’s a really bad villain. Driven by greed and willing to murder a bunch of cats, he’s not that interesting. Even the music doesn’t do it for me, though Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat is a bit catchy. This isn’t a bad movie, but it’s not a good one, either. It’s pretty middle-of-the-run. I give it a 3/10.
Release Date: November 8, 1973
There’s been many different versions of Robin Hood through the years and one of the more well-known versions comes from Disney. Their version of the story is more lighthearted and every character is an anthropomorphic animal: Robin Hood himself is a fox, Little John is a bear, etc. The story is a Robin Hood story: the titular character stealing from the rich and giving to the poor while trying to win over Maid Marian. Even though this is a film aimed at kids, there are some things that older audiences can enjoy. The characters are serviceable, especially the leads. The romance subplot between Robin Hood and Maid Marian is kinda cute. The villain, Prince John, is a great prissy villain. His arguments with Sir Hiss make for some great comedy. I just love the idea of a villain being a physical and/or mental man-child who happens to be in power. It draws some parallels to some world leaders in real life. There is a lot of action scenes that are creative and entertaining. The final act is the best part, when the whole village is trying to get their money back. I love how the pace starts off slow and quiet, but when shit hits the fan, it goes from 0 to 100 real quick. It leaves you hanging in your seat while you’re rooting for the heroes to win. This isn’t a perfect film, though; it recycles character designs and animation from The Jungle Book. But it works for this film fine enough. Kids will enjoy this film and so will some teens and adults. I give it a 7/10.
The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh
Release Date: March 11, 1977
Winnie The Pooh. Who doesn’t know about Winnie The Pooh? One of the most simple characters with such a worldwide appeal. This is something Disney knew about and showed off with this film. There’s not much of a connecting narrative, it’s just the life and circumstances of these characters living in the Hundred Acre Wood. What makes this film works is its simplicity. The scope of the film is smaller and easier to get invested in and the atmosphere is really warm and likable. All of your favorites are in this movie: Tigger, Piglet, Rabbit, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga, Roo, Christopher Robin, and Winnie The Pooh himself, who’s one of the most likable characters in fiction. Doug Walker pretty much sums up why this character is great: he makes mistakes, but he also has a positive attitude. Hell, all of these characters are great. There’s a lot of fourth-wall jokes involving pages of the book and the characters interacting with the narrator. And they get creative with some of the scenes like the trippy Heffalumps and Woozles. I love the ending where Christopher Robin has to leave and he has this conversation with Winnie The Pooh.
This is some emotionally heavy stuff right there and I appreciate it even more as an adult. The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh is a simple film that does exactly what it needs to do and people of all ages can appreciate it. I give it an 8/10.
Release Date: June 22, 1977
An organization run by mice dedicated to rescuing abduction victims get a case about a orphan girl who’s held captive by a crazed treasure hunter and forced to go fetch after a valuable diamond. Two members of the organization, Miss Bianca and Bernard, take the case. This is another Disney movie that I would throw in the forgettable category. It has a somewhat creative idea for a kids’ movie, but it’s not that interesting when executed. There’s a few funny moments with the villains and some decent moments with Miss Bianca and Bernard, but I didn’t care for everything else. I couldn’t stand the little girl and a lot of scenes feel like filler. It’s not bad, but it’s not anything phenomenal, either. The most noteworthy things about it is that someone snuck in a picture of a topless woman in two frames AND it spawned a sequel 13 years later that was miles better than this one. As for The Rescuers itself, I give it a 4/10.
The Fox And The Hound
Release Date: July 10, 1981
A fox pup named Tod and a bloodhound puppy named Copper become best friends. But their friendship is strained when they realize that they’ll be mortal enemies because they’re different species. This film is a combination of cute and sad. The cute stuff revolves around Tod and Copper playing around when they’re younger. Their friendship is the strongest part of the film, even when the cuter stuff does drag. The film gets darker in the second act when they’re older and Copper becomes a hunting dog. Because of the pressures of societal norms, their friendship is close to ending. Not making things better is when Tod accidentally injures Chief, another hunting dog, Copper now hates Tod and swears vengeance. I feel like this would’ve been more effective if Chief had died. From what I’ve heard, that was what was originally planned. There’s also the scene near the end where Copper protects Tod from his owner, who was going to shoot him. It showed how strong their friendship is. The Fox And The Hound isn’t perfect, but it’s an effective movie with heavy emotion. I give it a 7/10.
The Black Cauldron
Release Date: July 24, 1985
The Horned King seeks after The Black Cauldron, which would help him raise an army of the undead. He’s opposed by a young boy, a princess, and other characters who seek out to stop him. Even the greats have their misfires and there’s very few Disney movies that are a misfire like The Black Cauldron. This movie BOMBED like no other Disney film before it. It bombed so hard, it lost to The Care Bears Movie in its first week. That is embarrassing. This was the first animated Disney film to be rated PG, which means they were going for a darker, more mature story. And they missed the mark. The most compliments I can give The Black Cauldron is that it has decent animation and the Horned King look creepy as hell, but that’s about it. The main character is annoying as shit. He won’t shut up about being a hero, yet he doesn’t do anything hero-like worth praising. The princess is a pointless character, which is an appropriate description for most of the characters in this movie. There’s this furball named Gurgi who serves as the comic relief and dear God, his voice is like nails on a chalkboard. Even the Horned King kinda sucks, being defeated WAY too easily. The sad thing about this movie is that there is some potential in this story. Hell, with the current trend of Disney remaking their animated movies into live-action, this could benefit the most out of a remake. As it is, this movie represents Disney at their low point and I’m giving it a modest 3/10.
The Great Mouse Detective
Release Date: July 6, 1986
When a little girl’s father has been abducted, she turns to detective Basil of Baker Street and Dawson for help. Together, they try to save her father while stopping the schemes of Basil’s archnemesis, Professor Ratigan. With how much of a bomb The Black Cauldron was, The Great Mouse Detective was refreshing because it’s a damn great movie. A lot of people I know and follow online have placed this movie in their Top 5 or Top 10 in terms of Disney movies and I don’t blame them. A lot of the movie is a battle of wits between our hero and the villain. Basil is basically the mouse version of Sherlock Holmes; smart, insane, egotistical, and likable. He’s the kind of hero you root for to win, especially dealing with Ratigan. This is classic Vincent Price enjoying every second of being evil and it leaks through his portrayal of Ratigan. He’s intellectually on the same level as Basil, but he uses his intellect for evil. Dawson is a good sidekick and the little girl was tolerable. The animation is a huge step-up from the previous films, especially when you get into the third act. Basil and Ratigan have their final battle in the clock tower and this is where you see the use of computer animation and it gels seamlessly. We also see Ratigan lose his cool composure and turn into the monster he truly is. And that’s The Great Mouse Detective, a smart, fun, creative film that kids, teens, and adults alike can enjoy. I’m giving it a perfect 10/10.
Oliver & Company
Release Date: November 18, 1988
Loosely based on Oliver Twist, an unwanted kitten meets a street dog and his gang of other dogs to survive the streets of New York City. The dogs are in the care of a thief who owes money to a loan shark. Oliver & Company came out in the same week as The Land Before Time, the third film from former Disney animator Don Bluth. Land Before Time felt more like a classic Disney movie with stellar animation, contrasts between light and dark, and themes of prejudice, death, moving on from death, and survival. Oliver & Company, on the other hand, feels like a product of its time and it’s underwhelming in comparison. I didn’t care about ANY of the characters, not a single one. The music was kinda meh except for Why Should I Worry, sung by Billy Joel. That song is a classic and is the best thing to come out of this movie aside from the animation, which perfectly captures the atmosphere of New York. I know it’s a Disney movie and there’s bound to be major changes, but the changes they made to Oliver Twist doesn’t make sense. Why make most of the characters animals? Why make Dodger older than Oliver? Why set the story in modern times? Who knows? As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of this film and I hope to never see it again. Though Why Should I Worry will stay in constant rotation. I give it a 4/10.
After underwhelming returns and less than impressive movies in general, it seemed like Disney was way past its prime and was never going to regain its glory days. But the groundwork has been set for something even better and everyone loves a good underdog story. In the 90s, Disney went through another resurgence, releasing some of the best movies they have ever made. You all know where this is going. Next month, we’re diving into the Disney Renaissance. I cannot wait.