Disney's Plunge

Commentary by James Berardinelli
November 6, 1997

When it comes to discussing the animated films of Walt Disney Pictures, there's so much to be said that a volume of books couldn't begin to do the subject justice, let alone a short article. So let me begin by delineating what I'm not going to talk about. In the first place, I refuse to wax nostalgic about the great Disney classics of the '30s and '40s: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Fantasia. Nor will I dwell on the lesser greats of the '50s and '60s: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, One-Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, and Lady and the Tramp. And I won't recall the one great Disney animated film of the '70s, The Rescuers, nor attempt to dissect the reasons why the studio wishes everyone would forget about The Black Cauldron. Instead, I'm going to concentrate on Disney during the '90s (actually, beginning in 1989) - - the era of the recent renaissance -- and how, in less than one decade, the studio has plummeted from brilliance to mediocrity.

On November 17, 1989, just one month short of the twenty-third anniversary of Walt Disney's death, The Little Mermaid was released. It was the fifth Disney animated film of the decade, and it arrived in theaters only a year after its predecessor, Oliver and Company, made its appearance. But this film was different. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (The Great Mouse Detective), The Little Mermaid was a lighter, more lively and energetic film -- a magical concoction of animation and music that could appeal to adults and children equally. Suddenly, the great animated studio which had been teetering on the brink of oblivion for the better part of a decade, was alive and well.

From the opening scene of The Little Mermaid, it was apparent that this wasn't business as usual. There was a freshness to this film that hadn't been apparent in any Disney feature since The Rescuers. More importantly, however, music had been integrated into the story's fabric. Disney films had always been known for catchy tunes but The Little Mermaid went a step farther it became an animated musical, complete with several memorable tunes ("Kiss the Girl" and "Part of Your World") and one genuine show-stopper ("Under the Sea"). The vocal characterizations were provided primarily by unknowns (the lone exception being Buddy Hackett), and all of them were solid.

One of the driving factors behind The Little Mermaid's success was the inclusion of the songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. This duo, who were known for their work on Little Shop of Horrors (both the off-Broadway play and the movie), provided the spark that previous Disney pictures lacked. In fact, Ashman's contribution was so great that he was accorded not just a "lyricist" credit, but one as executive producer, as well.

The Little Mermaid was not a huge financial success, but it generated a new interest in Disney's animated features and more were on their way. As The Little Mermaid hit screens, two additional projects were already heavily in development: re-tellings of Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. It would be two years before either was ready, however. The studio filled the gap in 1990 with a Rescuers sequel (The Rescuers Down Under), which was a pale shadow of the first and the last gasp of Disney's "old" animated tradition.

When it came out in late 1991, Beauty and the Beast was arguably the most heralded animated feature of all time. In fact, Disney was so certain that they had a critical and popular hit on their hands that they previewed the movie to a New York City press audience when it was only 70% complete. The film, a dazzling combination of first-rate artwork, memorable characters, unforgettable songs, and effective storytelling, went on to enchant both critical and popular audiences. Beauty and the Beast represented Disney's pinnacle. The animation far surpassed that of any previous feature, presenting a level of detail hitherto only imagined. And the Menken/Ashman songwriting team outdid their Little Mermaid work, penning tunes that not only played well outside of the theater, but created the most thorough musical spectacle ever to grace the animated screen. The opening number, "Belle," is truly a sight to behold, and the most famous sequence, the ballroom dance, features a breathtaking combination of computer-generated and hand-drawn art. Everyone involved with Beauty and the Beast deserved to be justifiably proud, and their effort was rewarded with a Best Picture Academy Award nomination (the film, which in my opinion should have won, lost out to Jonathan Demme's creepy-but-overrated The Silence of the Lambs).

A sad moment accompanied the release of Beauty and the Beast Howard Ashman, one of the key figures in the new animation era, died of AIDS-related complications shortly before the film opened. Disney honored him in the closing credits by noting that he "gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his heart." It is no coincidence that the slow, steady decline of Disney's recent wave of pictures began where Ashman's contributions ended.

Disney was on a roll. One year after Beauty's bow came Aladdin. By now, Disney's animated films were catching on with both children and adults, and, while Beauty had been financially successful, Aladdin would become the first animated blockbuster. National sneak previews the weekend before the movie's official release were mobbed, with tickets often selling out as soon as they were put on sale. Disney's merchandising department went into overdrive, greatly exceeding the campaign that had accompanied Beauty and the Beast's release.

After the light seriousness of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin was a vast change-of-pace, thanks in large part to the vocal genius of Robin Williams. Williams, using his talent for improvisation, created one of the most memorable of all Disney characters, and the Disney animators got into the spirit, drawing the genie in a manner that would compliment what Williams brought to the part. But the film's comic tone wasn't the only change for Aladdin. Unlike its two predecessors, Aladdin featured a male hero. The female was reduced to the role of a spirited love interest.

The songs of Aladdin were a cut below those of Beauty and the Beast. Ashman had penned the lyrics to eight before his untimely death, but late changes in the script necessitated scrapping more than half of those. Stephen Schwartz was brought in to replace Ashman. Menken continued as composer. Unsurprisingly, the best tunes are the Menken/Ashman collaborations: "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali". This would be the last memorable animated Disney soundtrack that Menken would be involved with. (Note: Menken's best post-Ashman contribution is arguably the work he did for Disney's little-seen, live action musical, Newsies. The film as a whole was mediocre, but the songs were fun.)

1993 brought The Lion King, the animated film that shattered all previous box office records. Not only did the film become the highest grossing animated motion picture of all time (a title it still holds, four years later), but it also reigned as the biggest money maker in the history of Disney movies. In terms of the total year-end tally, The Lion King finished a close second to Best Picture Forrest Gump, whose phenomenal success surprised just about everyone.

Yet, although The Lion King was an undisputed financial triumph, it was, at least in artistic sense, a step down from Aladdin, which, in turn, had been a step down from Beauty and the Beast. The Lion King was certainly entertaining, but it lacked the inventiveness of its immediate predecessor and the depth of Beauty. The songs, penned by Elton John and Tim Rice (with an assist from Hans Zimmer), were a mixed bag, featuring a few memorable tunes ("Circle of Life" and "Can You Feel the Love Tonight") and several that would be better forgotten (including the grating "Hakuna Matata"). James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons provided noteworthy vocal performances, but just about everyone else was generic.

Arguably, The Lion King was the last of Disney's recent run of very good-to-great motion pictures. Pocahontas, which came to theaters one year after The Lion King, only made about half as much money and was less highly regarded by most critics. The hero and heroine were not remarkable, the songs (by Menken and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, were largely unappealing (the lone exception being "The Colors of the Wind", which was so hyped that it was impossible to forget), and the animation a cut below that of its predecessors. There's nothing in Pocahontas that rivals the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast, the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin, or the opening number in The Lion King. I rated the film rather highly () because it took a few chances. First of all, there were no cute, talking animals (there were cute animals, but they didn't talk). Second of all, it had a different sort of message. Finally, it dared not to have a happy ending. This is the first Disney animated film to end on a "down" note as the hero and heroine found that happiness ever after isn't even guaranteed in a cartoon.

Some of the most notable objections to the movie came from those who were offended by Disney's artful re-interpretation of history. In reality, there was no romantic relationship between Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, and, when she encountered the English, she was only 12, not the well-endowed teenager of this version. However, Disney has never been known for staying true to its source material. The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast both made significant departures from their respective fairy tales, and Aladdin was so different as to be almost unrecognizable (The Lion King was from an original story). However, it's one thing when Disney rewrites fairy tales and history lessons. It's another when they hack to bits a recent classic novel, like Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was exactly what they did in 1996.

Viewed simply as an animated movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was fine. The artwork was impressive, the good guys were likable, the sidekicks were funny, and the bad guys were nasty. The real problem was a startling lack of faithfulness to a well-loved novel. Hugo's Hunchback is a tragic tale of bigotry and religious intolerance; Disney somehow managed to transform this sad story into a family film. Much was made of the movie's supposedly-"dark" tone, but, in many ways, it was less grim than The Lion King. Most of the subtlety of Hugo's novel was sucked out, not to mention one of his chief themes -- the criticism of the Church.

The film's lack of faithfulness to the novel was understandable, considering the target audience, but that wasn't Hunchback's only flaw. The songs, again by Menken and Schwartz, were boring. Eight years after the film's release, I remember almost every tune from The Little Mermaid. Only a year later, I can't recall even a bar from anything sung in Hunchback. On top of that, there was a serious miscalculation in one of the vocal castings. Demi Moore was unable to create a convincing Esmeralda. Other well-known voices have been featured in Disney movies -- James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Mel Gibson -- but no one has failed as badly as Moore to inhabit her character. Every time Esmeralda spoke, it wasn't the lively gypsy we were hearing, but the actress who played her.

As disappointing as Hunchback was, 1997's Hercules was even more distressing. A regurgitation of The Little Mermaid with subpar artwork, lifeless songs, and a male hero, Hercules represented the worst that Disney had offered since its resurgence. I came close to not recommending the film, but, after careful consideration of the primary audience, I relented with an unenthusiastic rating. Hercules took the dark mythology of the Greek demigod and cleaned it up, eliminating such salacious details as the circumstances of the hero's conception and his murder of his wife and children. The result was less-than-inspiring, but it might have been better if we hadn't already seen it in The Little Mermaid. The artwork, which was more angular than usual due to the inspiration of British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, appeared rushed and incomplete, and there were none of the breathtaking displays featured in Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and even Hunchback. The less said about the songs, by Menken and David Zippel, the better. In Hunchback, the music was boring. Here, it was bad.

It's worth speculating a little about why Disney's product has been in such a precipitous decline. The most obvious reason is a lack of competition. When you consider the non-Disney animated fare available in the last decade, it has been pretty horrible. Titles like Balto and Ferngully leap to mind, both of which were far worse than even the weak Hercules. With no one to challenge its work, Disney has become lazy and complacent, rightly convinced that even a mediocre offering is far better than anything any other studio can put on the market. Fortunately, that may be about to change. With 20th Century Fox's Anastasia and several projects from Dreamworks, the animated field is being re-invigorated. The era of Disney's virtual monopoly may be coming to an end.

Another likely reason for the plunge is simple greed. Many of the recent Disney releases have had a "rushed" feel, from the downhill quality of the artwork to the banality of the music. This was especially evident in Hercules, which seemed almost incomplete. The Beauty and the Beast work- in-progress had a more polished feel. This is the result of Disney's desire to release a new animated film every year, and the increase in quantity has had an adverse affect on quality. No matter how many different teams are employed on each picture, corners are occasionally cut to meet deadlines, and the results are apparent on screen. Disney should also note that the public may be tiring of this movie-a-year strategy. Since The Lion King, revenue has been in a constant decline, and advance sales of Hunchback videocassettes were nothing like they were for Aladdin or The Lion King.

From Beauty and the Beast to Hercules, it has been a steady slide. If the trend continues, future offerings like 1998's Tarzan may no longer merit even a lukewarm recommendation. Disney needs to turn things around, and quickly. The sooner they get back to making quality animated films, the better for everyone -- for them, for their audiences, and for their stockholders. We know what the studio is capable of -- Beauty and the Beast was one of the best motion pictures (animated or otherwise) of the decade. Now it's just a matter of returning to that pinnacle. No one would be happier than me to give Tarzan, or whatever follows it, an enthusiastic nod of approval. For that to happen, however, Disney has to right its current course and begin an ascent back to the level where "Disney" + "animated" = "quality."

© 1997 James Berardinelli

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