Welcome back to Road To Disney. Well, the wait is finally over. For those of us in the 18-35 age range, most of our favorite Disney films come from the 90s in what’s known as the Disney Renaissance. This era was Disney going back to what made them the number one animation force in the first place. Musical fairy tales were back and bigger than ever, expanding upon past themes and techniques and utilizing newer ones. Some of these films would have successful Broadways adaptations. For most Disney and animation fans, films from the Renaissance era are considered to be some of, if not, the best films in the medium. This might get a little lengthy because I’ve watched these movies so many times ever since I was little and have so much to say about them. So let’s dig right in with the film that started it all.
The Little Mermaid
Release Date: November 17, 1989
Based on the Hans Christian Anderson novel, a young mermaid princess named Ariel wants to explore the human world and is in love with a human prince, much to the dismay of her father Triton. She makes a deal with the sea witch Ursula to become human in exchange for her voice. This movie was a return to form for Disney, who went back to what made them great in the first place. The animation is excellent; the colors pop, all of the movements flow like water (get it?), it’s classic Disney revised into a new era. The music is great; Alan Menken did a great job crafting songs for each mood. Under The Sea, Part Of Your World, Poor Unfortunate Souls, Kiss The Girl, we know them all. The characters are also great. Flounder, Sebastian, Scuttle, etc., serve their roles as comic relief well. Triton is a powerful, overprotective father with some really good character development. Ursula is a great villain with a kickass half-octopus design. Eric is a major improvement for Disney princes, mainly because he has personality and he’s likable. Ariel is an interesting case in terms of people’s perception of her. Some love her, some hate her. To the people on the latter boat, Ariel is someone who gets what they want and doesn’t go through any character arc. Yeah, I can sort of see that. Plus, there is that old cliche of love at first sight that you see in a lot of Disney movies (hell, it’s something you see in a lot of films period). BUT in spite of that, I still like Ariel. In spite of her character flaws, she has determination to get what she wants and her curiosity of the surface world is very intriguing to watch. I find the scenes when she’s on land cute. I also like how she and Eric have to work on building a relationship, even if they knew each other for three days. There’s no point in comparing this movie to the original story because Disney would never go that far as to kill off the main character. Still, The Little Mermaid is a damn good movie that still holds up. It’s no surprise it was the start of something great. I give it a 9/10.
The Rescuers Down Under
Release Date: November 16, 1990
When a young Australian boy named Cody is abducted by a poacher to search for a rare giant eagle and her eggs, it’s up to Bernard and Miss Bianca to save him. When it comes to the Renaissance films, people don’t talk about this film as much as they do the others. It’s not a musical, it’s a big adventure with thrills galore, which makes it stand out compared to Disney’s other movies. And it. Is. Awesome. This is another case where the sequel surpasses the original because the original Rescuers was nothing special. The animation is a major step-up. Just watch the flying scene with the eagle. It’ll take your breath away.
Another improvement is the characters. I like Cody way more than Penny from the first movie. At least he has a character trait that wasn’t just barf-inducing cute. Bernard and Miss Bianca are great as well. We get a subplot of Bernard trying to propose to Miss Bianca throughout the whole film, but things get in the way, including a womanizing hopping mouse named Jake. The villain, Percival McLeach, is one nasty poacher who wants to find the giant eagle and her eggs to sell them off for money and he’s willing to do anything to accomplish that goal. There’s also a lot of exciting action and thrills within this adventure that both kids and adults can enjoy. It doesn’t follow the traditional Disney formula that we know, which probably explains why it underperformed at the box office (that, plus, Disney pulled all advertising after the first week). More people need to see this movie because it’s a hidden gem that’s worth everyone’s time. I give it a 10/10.
Beauty And The Beast
Release Date: November 22, 1991
An arrogant prince is cursed by an enchantress to look like a beast. He is also given a magic rose and must find true love before all of the petals fall. Otherwise, he will remain a beast forever. It seems like all hope is lost until he meets Belle. Can he find true love or is it too late? This is one of the most beloved films in animation to the point where it became the first movie in the medium to score an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Does it deserve all of the love it got? Hell yeah. This is some of the most gorgeous animation in Disney history. It knew how to balance bright and colorful and dark and moody. Belle is probably one of the best female characters in Disney history. Smart, pretty, kind, confident, she’s almost too perfect. The Beast has a great design; he looks like a fusion of a bear, a wolf, and a bison. Initially, he’s kind of a selfish dick, but through Belle, he eventually shows a softer, more compassionate side to him. I like how both Belle and the Beast had to work on forming a relationship and I like how they don’t tell you how much time has passed which leaves room for the viewer to guess. The villain of the movie is Gaston, who would’ve been the hero in any other story. He’s also one of the more realistic villains. He’s a good-looking arrogant jerk who usually get what he wants and when Belle says no to his advances, his actions become more and more sadistic and he becomes more of a monster than the guy who looks like a monster. He’s the perfect foil. We all know the side characters: Maurice, Lumiere, Cogsworth, Le Fou, Mrs. Potts, Chip, etc. The music? Bruh. The titular song is a work of beauty, especially during the famous ballroom scene. Be Our Guest is catchy as hell and Gaston is a great villain song. I can safely say that Beauty And The Beast is the closest Disney has ever gotten to making something perfect. This is the Disney fairy tale at its peak and I don’t see the point in trying to remake it (alongside other movies). Just like with Rescuers Down Under, I’m also gonna give it a perfect 10/10.
Release Date: November 25, 1992
Aladdin comes across a magic lamp containing a genie who can grant three wishes. He uses one of those wishes to become a prince to impress the Sultan of Agrabah and his daughter Princess Jasmine. This puts him at odds with the Sultan’s grand vizier Jafar, who’s scheming to overthrow him and become the Sultan. I remember watching Lindsay Ellis’ video on the rivalry between Disney and DreamWorks and she said that Aladdin was the first DreamWorks movie and the case she made for that statement makes sense. Celebrity voice cast, humor that the kids won’t get, but the adults will, the pop culture references. This was DreamWorks before DreamWorks even existed. Thank Jeffery Katzenberg for that. Still, I love the shit out of this movie. Aladdin himself is a thief with a golden heart. He’s not doing it because he wants to, but because he has to. He’s likable and charismatic, but he’s also driven by selfish motivations like wanting the girl and it comes back to bite him in the ass later on. He has great chemistry with Jasmine, who is just a bombshell. Dude, she may not be real, but she is hot. Jafar is an awesome villain with a cool design and a menacing voice. Iago is pretty much Gilbert Gottfried. I thought he had some funny lines in this movie and so did the Sultan. Do I even need to say anything about Robin Williams as the Genie? His improvisations make this movie, even with some of them being really dated. The songs are classic Alan Menken. My favorites are Arabian Nights, Friend Like Me, Prince Ali, and A Whole New World. Dude, when Aladdin and Jasmine were flying around the magic carpet and they were singing the latter song, it was perfect. I got nothing else to say. This is a great movie and I’m giving it a 9/10.
The Lion King
Release Date: June 24, 1994
A lion cub named Simba is groomed by his father and king of Pride Rock, Mufasa, to be the next king, but things take a turn when his uncle Scar plots to get rid of them both so he can become the king. Simba has been exiled and years later, he must now reclaim his rightful place in the Circle of Life. You guys have no idea how long I’ve waited to talk about this movie. I said that this was my favorite Disney movie of all time and it still is. I’ve watched this movie more than any other and my love for it hasn’t changed. Where do I even begin? This movie has a huge scope in terms of animation and music. The backgrounds perfectly capture the African landscape and makes it look huge. From one of the best intros to any movie to the wildebeest stampede scene to Simba seeing his father in the clouds to the climax, there is so many highlights animation-wise. The music is fucking epic with a score by Hans Zimmer and songs written by Tim Rice and Elton John. You heard that right. Elton John. I like four of the five songs in this movie; Circle Of Life, I Just Can’t Wait To Be King, Be Prepared, even Hakuna Matata. I’m ambivalent towards the movie version of Can You Feel The Love Tonight. Elton John’s version was better. Simba is a likable main character. Johnathan Taylor Thomas pulls off a young Simba who’s a bit arrogant and he did a great job at the heavier emotional moments. Adult Simba is one of the few times Matthew Broderick was good outside of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. James Earl Jones as Mufasa is the best movie dad in the universe. Funny enough, he also voiced the worst movie dad in the universe as Darth Vader. That’s range right there. Mufasa is the kind of father we all want; strong, powerful, and with a big heart. In the first half of the movie, you see the bond between Simba and Mufasa, which makes the latter’s death more heartbreaking. Scar, voiced by Jeremy Irons, is a villain that I love and hate for the same reasons; he’s evil and cunning at the same time. He puts Simba in harm’s way by having him sit in the middle of a gorge and have the hyenas trigger a stampede coming his way. When Mufasa goes in and saves Simba, Scar sees this opportunity to throw Mufasa into the stampede, resulting in his death. Yeah, that scene when Simba finds his dad and realizes that he’s dead fucked me up when I first saw it. Tears were flowing down my face like waterfalls. Then comes Scar, who blames him for his father’s death and forces him to run away. That is just evil. Rafiki is great (R.I.P. Robert Guilliaume), Nala is cool, and the comic relief characters, Zazu, Timon and Pumbaa, and the hyenas, serve their purpose to bring levity to this emotionally heavy film. To say that this movie was huge would be an understatement: it’s currently the highest-grossing traditionally animated film of all time and used to be the highest grossing film in animation until Shrek 2 came out. And then Toy Story 3. And then Frozen. I could talk about this film all day, but I got other movies to talk about, so I’ll wrap it up: The Lion King is my childhood and I am going to give it a 10/10. Call me biased, but that’s how I feel.
The Little Mermaid, Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King. Disney were killing it with these animated films and were seeing nonstop critical and commercial success. There’s absolutely nothing that could kill their momentum, right? Well…
Release Date: June 23, 1995
English settlers arrive to the New World and come across the native Powhatan tribe, including Pocahontas, who falls in love with one of the Englishman John Smith. Conflict between the two groups grow and threatens their love. Funny story: during production, this was the movie that Disney was hoping to be a smash hit while they didn’t think The Lion King was anything special. Funny how time and perspective works, doesn’t it? While The Lion King ended up being one of the biggest animated films of all time, Pocahontas underperformed. Don’t get me wrong, it made money at the box office and won a bunch of awards, but critics and fans weren’t loving it like they did the previous films. Why? Well, let’s look at it. The positives? The animation is pretty to the eyes, it has some really good music, and it’s at least trying to portray the Native people of America in a positive light, going as far as to cast actual Native Americans in these roles. But this movie has flaws the size of Texas. I’m not going to talk about historical inaccuracies in this movie because we could be here all day. The story is vanilla and predictable, trying to tell a story of the white man coming in to Native lands with themes of prejudice and love and you know what’s gonna happen. This wouldn’t be an issue if we cared about the characters, but the characters in this movie are extremely bland. Pocahontas herself is not interesting. I get they were trying to portray her as a free spirit, but you know how some people think Ariel didn’t have a character arc? Well, Pocahontas has that issue tenfold because she has no character to fall back on. She also has no character flaws, making her a Mary Sue. John Smith, voiced by Mel Gibson, is the boring good-looking white savior who falls in love with the exotic dark-skinned girl from another world. You’ve seen this archetype before. The villain is Governor Ratcliffe and he’s a generic villain driven by greed for gold. The raccoon and hummingbird only serve as the cute comic relief character who’ll sell toys and you could do without them due to the story they’re trying to tell. Let me make something clear; Pocahontas is not a bad movie. It has good animation, good music, and there is some ambition behind it, but everything else is meh, making what is considered to be the weakest Renaissance film. Disney were doing so well before and then this comes along to bring their hot streak to a screeching halt. So much wasted potential. I give Pocahontas a 5/10.
The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
Release Date: June 21, 1996
A deformed man lives in the cathedral of Notre Dame as its bell ringer and has never went outside due to the word of his guardian Judge Claude Frollo. When he decides to leave the tower in order to attend the Festival of Fools, he comes across a beautiful woman named Esmeralda. But Frollo hates people like her and wants to rid the world of them. There’s three types of reactions to this movie: Disney enthusiasts who love it, Victor Hugo fans who hate it, and those who are ambivalent towards it. Even though The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is one of the darkest Disney movies ever made, it’s relatively tame in comparison to its source material, which contains stuff that Disney would never get away with and risk alienating their audiences. It’s kinda weird that the family-friendly studio chose to make a movie out of a story about religious hypocrisy and the abuse of power. Still, for what they did, they made something enjoyable. There’s only one word to describe the animation: huge. Like The Lion King, the scale of the whole movie is gigantic and so is the music. The music gives me chills every time I hear it, especially with the choirs. Quasimodo is a likable character with a warm aura to him and he’s voiced by Tom Hulce, who played Mozart in Amadeus. His singing voice isn’t the best, but there’s so much passion put in that you get sucked into it. Just listen to Out There. Esmeralda is great as well. Maybe I’m just glad to see a dark-skinned female character with actual character. A lot of people hated the gargoyles, which I don’t have strong feelings for and I get it, they’re annoying. Others have brought this up, but it would’ve been genius if the gargoyles were just figments of Quasimodo’s imagination. It could’ve been a great psychological analysis of someone who’s been isolated from society their entire life. But they don’t commit to it, which is a shame. Frollo is easily one of the top 5 best Disney villains. He’s a dastardly scumbag who commits horrible acts and tries to justify himself as doing God’s work. Just like any religious fundamentalist. The dude killed a mother and tried to drown her baby in the beginning of the film. Because that’s what God wanted. He’s also the most layered villain as he doesn’t enjoy what he does, he feels conflicted, especially with his feelings towards Esmeralda. This culminates in what I and many others consider to be the best Disney villain song in Hellfire. It’s a peak into his soul and there’s a tug-of-war between committing to God and fulfilling his desires. You gotta give Disney props for doing a movie that dives into themes like prejudice, religion, and even lust. It’s not perfect, but I really like this movie. I give it an 8/10.
Release Date: June 27, 1997
Hercules, the son of Greek gods, is turned near-mortal and spent 18 years living among mortals. When he finds out he’s the son of Zeus, he sets out to be a hero, which will lead to him crossing paths with Hades, who plans to take over Mt. Olympus. Hercules is one of those movies that I’ve watched more times than I can count on my two hands. My mom is a huge fan of this movie. As for me? I still like it, but the more I watch it, the more problems I notice. The story is basically a superhero origin story, which is funny because a lot of superheroes, especially Superman, were inspired by Greek mythology. Speaking of, anyone trying to compare this to Greek mythology is wasting their time. Just like with Pocahontas, they were making shit up. In the actual mythology, Hades isn’t evil, Hera is a vengeful bitch who wasn’t the mother of Hercules (Hercales in the original), and Zeus is constantly sticking his dick into anything that has a vagina. I’m pretty sure at least half of Europe are descendants of Zeus because of his horndog escapades.
Back to the movie. A lot of the music is gospel-influenced, which is weird and does not fit this film. Go The Distance is a pretty decent song (I’m not going into the Michael Bolton version because fuck that) and I Won’t Say I’m In Love is pretty catchy. The designs were the byproduct of Gerald Scarfe, who did art for Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It gives the film and its characters a distinct look. The weakest elements are the characters. Hercules is the kind, wide-eyed hero we’ve seen many times. Megara is basically Lois Lane, the sassy damsel-in-distress who has to be saved time and time again. Zeus is the loving dad in spite of what I said about him earlier and Phil, the guy who trains Hercules, is just Danny DeVito playing Mickey from Rocky. The best character is easily the villain, Hades. While James Woods himself is just that crazy uncle who listens to Rush Limbaugh, he did a fantastic job portraying Hades more like a car salesman or a scummy lawyer. I always get a laugh when he’s pissed off. The whole vibe of the movie feels like they’re trying to recreate Aladdin, but I’m not sure it works to the same degree. I wouldn’t call this my favorite Disney movie or one of the best, but it has enough elements that I can enjoy it. Call it a guilty pleasure. I give it a light 6/10.
Release Date: June 19, 1998
When the vicious Huns, led by Shan Yu, invade China, the emperor calls upon a draft for every man to join the army. Mulan decides to impersonate a man to take her elderly father’s place in the army and fight the Huns. Here’s another film that would easily be in my top 10 in terms of Disney movies. I love it that much. The film isn’t 100% accurate to Chinese culture, but does anyone expect Disney to be 100% accurate with any culture? Still, it makes for some nice animation and great colors. Mulan herself is a great protagonist and a certified badass. She wants to fight in the war to bring honor to her family. She doesn’t use physical strength to overcome challenges, she uses her brain and strategizes on the spot, which makes her a perfect warrior. Eddie Murphy plays a dragon named Mushu and it’s one of his better performances in the 90s. The army characters are excellent, especially Yao, Ling, and Po. They provide a lot of great comedy. I’m probably one of the few people who thinks Shan-Yu is a good villain. People think he’s one-dimensional because he doesn’t have a motivation. To those people, I give you this quote from The Dark Knight:
“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
That’s exactly what Shan-Yu is, a force of nature who just wants to destroy shit and he’s the perfect adversary for Mulan. Plus, he gets shit done. The songs are pretty good with the best one easily going to I’ll Make A Man Out Of You. That song is awesome. It makes you want to work out and be the best that you can. When you hear those drums in the beginning and then the horns and strings kick in, you have no choice but to sing along. It’s that awesome. The Cantonese version, sung by Jackie Chan, is just as good. Check it out if you haven’t.
I love how this film pokes fun at the absurdity of gender roles and how the main character doesn’t function by said roles. It’s a girl power movie that both boys and girls can enjoy and this boy gives Mulan a 9/10.
Release Date: June 18, 1999
An orphaned human baby is adopted by a family of gorillas and has grown up to adapt to the jungle. When he comes across a group of human explorers, including a professor and his daughter, he’s determined to find his place in the world. Tarzan is the last movie in the Renaissance era and I think they went out on a good note. The animation is stellar, blending traditional and computer animation seamlessly and it holds up. Watch the scenes when Tarzan is swinging through the jungle. They flow like a river. Tarzan himself is a badass character. He’s exactly what you expect; swinging through the jungle, acting like an ape, kicking all sorts of ass. His internal conflict about his identity is a compelling one. Jane is adorable; she’s a damsel-in-distress character, but she’s completely out of her element in the jungle, so it makes sense. Her and Tarzan have great chemistry as she teaches him about the human world and he teaches her about the jungle. Terk is voiced by Rosie O’Donnell and as someone who doesn’t hate Rosie O’Donnell, she services the role as the comic relief adequately as does Wayne Knight’s Tantor. Hell, I like the fact that they didn’t make a big deal out of Terk being a girl or made that her character. Clayton is a hunter who serves as a guide for Jane and her father and he’s a generic villain. Just like Ratcliffe, he’s motivated by greed, but is looking for gorillas instead of gold. As for the music? Screw what Doug Walker says, I enjoy the Phil Collins songs. Unlike the previous Disney films, none of the characters do any singing (with one or two exceptions), it’s Phil Collins pushing the story forward and looking at what drives the characters. It’s a great soundtrack going to a really good movie. Tarzan is a story that’s been told many times and this is one of the best versions so far. I’m giving it an 8/10.
But not everything lasts forever. At the turn of the new millennium, Disney would face new challenges that would affect the quality of their films and make them rethink how they operate. Thus, we enter a second Dark Age.