Not Happily Ever After: Why the Disney Renaissance Ended…

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With the recent slate of Disney films being released to theaters, it could be mistaken that we’re in the 1990s again. In the past two years, Disney has released live action remakes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Next year Mulan will follow suit. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is officially in the works now too. All of these films are based on blockbuster animated features from Disney that premiered in the 1990s.

They were part of the illustrious era of animated feature films known as the Disney Renaissance—from 1989 to 1999. And frankly, it’s easy to see why these films still seem to be relevant—chronologically and culturally: the generation that grew up with these films, mostly Millennials born between the early 1980s through the mid 1990s, have yet to reach age forty at most—and barely finished college at the least. They’re also a notoriously nostalgic group, like most Americans—but with an even more ubiquitous platform to perpetuate it—on social media and the Web.

They grew up with the Disney Renaissance and have ostensibly kept the relevance of its animated features alive—literally two decades after its official end. With at least half of the films from the era slated for reinterpretation as major live action films, their enduring grasp on popular culture is unquestionable.

As a member of this generation and a bona fide Disney buff, I cant attest that the memory of these films are indeed as vivid and fresh today as they were when I was at the target age for their appeal. They are touchstones of my childhood, imbuing me with a sense of wonder and a worldview that I still hold onto to this day.

Nonetheless, the Disney Renaissance did have a clear beginning and end. It veritably ceased to produce more new films to augment its original run, after 1999. As any Disney fan or even a casual observer will recall, subsequent animated features from Disney experienced a steep drop in popularity for nearly a decade afterwards, in spite of a continual output of releases then.

As a fan with unrelenting exposure to these animated films, I have arrived at a conclusion as to why the phenomenon of the Disney Renaissance drew to a close at the end of the last century.

My theory is rooted in the catalyst that started the Disney Renaissance and made it popular in the first place. Kick-starting the era in 1989, The Little Mermaid was the first fairy tale that the Disney studio had worked on in thirty years. This was largely why it was a resounding success, because it returned to the formula that had worked so well for Disney in the past: a fairy tale musical, centered on a princess. Disney had erroneously abandoned this formula for nearly two decades prior to this, and suffered commercially and artistically with audiences.

Per hindsight, however, I believe the rediscovery of this Disney formula during the Renaissance era would also become its own undoing. If the era had one fault, it was that literally every film adhered to the formula, stringently, with the exception of The Rescuers Down Under, an early entry to the era that proved to be a commercial misfire, tellingly. Every other animated feature between 1989 and 1999 consisted of: a beautiful or outcast protagonist—usually orphaned by one or both parents, amusing sidekicks, romantic interest, colorful villain, an epic setting, and a roster of songs that covered the requisite themes of life goals, romantic love, and villainy. This is not to dispel the considerable diversity of creative and technical achievement of the era—producing some of the most ingenious, memorable and astonishing feats of song, visual, and characters—not to mention an unprecedented level of representation for the first time from Disney (lead characters of different ethnicities: Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan).

Nonetheless it’s quite revealing to see that, when compared to previous eras of Disney animated features, no other era could be accused of the same homogeneity: the Golden Age, from 1937 to 1942, only had two films that featured romantic love, only one princess, and two clear musicals. The Silver Age had several films without romantic love or a musical format as well. These two eras are arguably the biggest rivals of the Renaissance, in popularity and artistic achievement. Both reached a demise for their own disparate reasons—economical downturn after 1942 due to World War II, and the death of Walt Disney in 1966, respectively.

The theory of redundancy during the Disney Renaissance had also possibly begun to take shape as early as the mid-way point of its run: after four stellar blockbusters from the studio, things suddenly slowed down with the release of Pocahontas in 1995. Widely viewed as the first critical let down of the era, things didn’t immediately return to form in 1996 or 1997 either, with the releases of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules. Both films failed to draw audiences back after the misstep of Pocahontas. Something was amiss.

Audiences were being drawn elsewhere too: computer animation. This is perhaps the most commonly held theory of why the Disney Renaissance came to an end: towards the end of the 1990s, a new medium was dawning—usurping traditional, hand-drawn (2-D) animation that Disney was known for. With the release of Toy Story in 1995, a resounding success not just for being the first major computer-animated feature but a true triumph of story, audiences found a new outlet for family-friendly films that appealed to all ages. A slew of computer-animated (or CGI) films followed in gradual succession for the rest of the decade and beyond, none of which followed the renowned Disney formula—and often to critical and commercial success, surpassing even Disney. If the Disney Renaissance proved that animated features could appeal to all ages, CGI animated films proved that they didn’t have to be based on classic, existing literature—opening the doors for innovations in story that just happened to be married to a very innovative technology, now coming to its own at the end of the twentieth century.

Although I agree that CGI certainly disrupted Disney’s momentum in the latter half of the 1990s—particularly since CGI animated features have ostensibly remained more popular with audiences and critics alike, and 2-D animation has never come back into vogue since—I still stand by my theory that it was more of content than just medium. Also, the onslaught of CGI feature-length films actually occurred rather slowly, and did not immediately crowd the market that 2-D Disney animated features dominated: after Toy Story was first released in 1995, the next CGI films were Antz and A Bug’s Life, both premiering in 1998. That left three full years in between, which subsequently saw the release of three Disney animated features to vigorously fill the void to maintain their stronghold on audiences—yet they didn’t. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, and Mulan were released by Disney during this period and though not critical or commercial failures, were far less renowned than their predecessors from the Disney Renaissance. Again, a malaise seemed to have settled with audiences, which could be read as a reflection of the medium’s output. Audiences surely weren’t just holding off for the next great CGI film, after only having witnessed the medium’s sole initial output in 1995. The average moviegoer had no idea how the CGI medium would eventually fare, though it was clearly a technological advancement. (It wasn’t until 2001, that the medium exploded with simultaneous releases of multiple CGI animated films, cementing it as a mainstay in cinema).

It was apparent that audiences had simply grown tired of the Disney formula, and so the business changed after 1999, just as it did after the Silver Age in 1967—when the studio entered a prior era of commercial and critical malaise, following the death of Walt Disney.

With that, it’s also helpful to understand what followed the Disney Renaissance: from 2000 to 2008, the Post Renaissance era indeed echoed the era that followed the Silver Age—the Bronze Age of 1970-1988, when the studio struggled to redefine its identity to audiences then too. The resulting films in the new millennium would reflect these efforts, striking into new territories such as Science Fiction, original stories not based on classic tales, even the CGI medium as well—which would be a portent of the studio’s eventual direction. Most of the films from this era didn’t quite resonate enough with audiences to turn them into classics.

The Revival era followed in 2009, with yet another rediscovery of the formula—with Tangled cementing Disney’s return to the zeitgeist, followed by Frozen. Both were clearly fairy-tale musicals centered on a princess, but married to the new CGI medium now, which Disney has converted to indefinitely to fit with the times. Aside from the new look, these films are quite similar to the Renaissance formula. Audiences responded and propelled these films into the public conscience as they did in the Renaissance era, hence the new namesake.

But if these new films from the Revival are following the same virtual formula as the Renaissance, why did the Renaissance cease in the first place? Shouldn’t it have endured, unabated, by sheer demand?

Again: we just needed a break. As a lifelong Disney fan, with the benefit of hindsight, I couldn’t fathom a Disney Renaissance-style film being released by the studio every year for the next two decades after Tarzan, the last of that era, in 1999. On some level, I would enjoy it purely as a diehard fan, but it would almost become campy—a parody of itself if you will. As much as audiences loved the Disney Renaissance, we can also sense artistic malaise. The formula had gotten monotonous and stale—again, already by the midway point of its era—and audiences clearly reacted with their wallets.

Does that mean that the Revival era is doomed to repeat history? Surprisingly, it may be averting this fate because: although it certainly has resuscitated the Disney formula, there’s one telling factor that separates it from the Disney Renaissance—it’s not following the formula for every new film. To their credit and maybe by calculation, they’re not just doing princess stories or fairy tales exclusively. Maybe that’s part of its success: Big Hero 6 and Zootopia are some of the titles that are as divergent from fairy tales and princesses as you can get. Both met with clear commercial and critical acclaim—unlike the misfires of previous eras that also strayed from the formula.

Whether they realize it or not, perhaps this is what audiences need. We will always love and adore princesses and fairy tales, but there needs to be variety. There’s nothing wrong with having a studio trademark (family-friendly films, music, artistic visuals), but the trademark can be broad and expand. Art is about change, pushing boundaries, and expanding possibilities. Sure, we do like some degree of familiarity—all art has a core familiarity: a movie has a beginning, middle and end; music has notes and instruments, verses and choruses. But along with familiarity we need variety.

Perhaps Disney has a new, unprecedented confidence and competency that is allowing them to achieve something they weren’t quite able to do in the past: successfully tell classic stories and original new stories, concurrently. Disney may have failed at pursuing either one at various times in the past, not because either one was theoretically bad—but because they just weren’t truly creating something exceptional. As mentioned, they were going through the motions after a certain point during the Disney Renaissance, settling into a creative ennui—or alternately, striking into new territory with dubious artistic vision, during the Post Renaissance for example. But if a story is truly told well, it can potentially succeed. Audiences will respond to something special even if it defies current trends, as they did when The Little Mermaid reignited this medium that had virtually gone defunct for nearly two decades, kick-starting the Disney Renaissance in 1989.

Will Disney get it right this time? We can only wait and see.

Any long-running institution is going to experience inevitable peaks and valleys in relevance and vitality—hence the different eras of Disney feature animation that exist in the first place. I am resigned to the eventual fate of the storied Disney Renaissance of my youth, because to borrow a platitude: good things can’t last forever. Sitcoms come to an end. Book and film franchises end—and can even be revived again after a certain period of absence (sound familiar?). The much-beloved Disney Renaissance is all the more revered because it wasn’t permanent and was limited in duration. It lends it a rarity that further incites gratitude and veneration. It was beautifully fleeting, as all life is.

It’s almost as if the beginning and ending of each era was inevitable—because like all art, Disney feature animation is an evolving medium. The studio is learning their craft in real time, and we get to watch it unfold onscreen.

 

The View vs. The Talk

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I love watching women gab. As sexist as it sounds, I’ll just say it: they’re good at it. I imagine it’s the equivalent of people tuning in to watch physically fit men play sports. Also, if I really want to fully commit to being politically incorrect: maybe it’s part of my DNA as a gay man to enjoy hearing women yak about everything from the profound to the frivolous. I can relate, and it’s fun.

Since the beginning of this decade, we’ve had two major choices to see the biggest and brightest women in pop culture do just this, on daytime T.V. in the U.S.

Venerated journalist Barbara Walters set the precedent in 1997 with a show called “The View”—featuring ‘different women with different points of views’ sitting around a table and discussing the day’s biggest headlines. They ruled the roost as the lone standard for such a concept, until 2010 when former child actress Sara Gilbert had the sterling idea to do an offshoot of the format (with the angle that it’d consist of a panel of “moms”—although its predecessor never played down the maternal status that most of its panelists could claim too). As a viewer though, I wasn’t discerning—it made sense because: in a nation as large and diverse as ours, one of the benefits is how we can expand on commodities… like talk shows. After all, there have been multiple late night talk shows for decades now, competing directly with one another and thriving in their own right regardless of the saturated market. When a new daytime talk show featuring a panel of half a dozen women talking about topics in the news with their “different points of views” popped up, we took it in stride.

Both “The View” and “The Talk” have succeeded with viewers and been nominated for the same daytime Emmy awards throughout the years, solidifying their place in the pop culture lexicon.

But is there a difference or a clearly superior one?

“The View” has the advantage of experience on its side: thirteen more years over its rival. With that plethora of time, it’s seen and done many things it can learn from. Infamously, placing two panelists who are diametrically at odds with one another in perspective is ratings gold: when outspoken liberal Rosie O’Donnell was recruited as the show’s mediator in 2006 during the contentious Bush/Iraq War years, fate was written on the wall—she would ultimately come to blows with then-outspoken conservative panelist Elisabeth Hasselback the following year. It was the best daytime drama that needed no script.

The show also has the undeniable class factor that only a highly respected figure in the journalism field like Barbara Walters can provide. Although “The View”’s reputation has ebbed and flowed as any long-running entity is prone to, its pedigree is still rooted in solid stock.

It’s not without its trials. The show has “jumped the shark” as much as a talk show can do, in the sense of creative/production malaise. Since the 2010s, there has been a highly visible turnaround in the show’s panelists—it’s hard to even keep up with who’s officially on the roster these days, like watching your favorite sitcom characters getting replaced by new actors or new characters that you just don’t care for. Many of the new recruits were blatantly regrettable as well (Candice Cameron Bure and Raven Simone dragged down the credibility of the show, imho! Thankfully, their tenures were scant). The show has even rehired previously retired or exited co-hosts such as longtime favorite Joy Behar, Sherri Shepherd and even Rosie O’Donnell herself (who ultimately only stayed for one season again in 2014, mirroring her infamously clipped first round).

“The Talk” also tinkered with its lineup initially after its debut season, which is to be expected of a fledgling show though. It found its footing with a consistent lineup afterwards, and has only had one panelist replacement since.

Another difference with “The Talk” is its less emphasis on formality. The show humors its audience and viewers by directly asking them questions after bringing up a headline—from a serious news story to celebrity gossip, mediator Julie Chen will offer a concluding missive to encourage monosyllabic responses, boos, hisses, or laughter from the live audience reminiscent of, well, a daytime talk show (a 1990s version moreso, though).

Since the show is filmed in Los Angeles, another distinction from its New York City predecessor, it also has a daily celebrity-themed guest correspondent who contributes a pop culture headline (adding to the inevitable pop culture news that permeate the show anyway), in a segment loosely dubbed “Today’s Top Talker”.

As one can guess, “The View” and its reputation skews more towards a serious, politically-themed show. Although its current longtime mediator Whoopi Goldberg is a veteran Hollywood actress, she is outspokenly political and even good-naturedly mocks the more frivolous pop culture news she’s required to broach regularly (read: reality show fodder).

Other panelists, regardless of how short their tenures have been in recent years, have frequently been renowned political pundits as well, something “The Talk” has steered from completely. Currently, Senator John McCain’s daughter Meghan McCain is the resident conservative Republican on “The View”.

“The View” has also expanded its most well-known segment, the roundtable discussion deemed “Hot Topics” from just a third of the show’s running time to half or more now, betting on the attention-grabbing headlines and the often heated exchanges between the ladies on the panel to sustain viewers.

Both shows have the requisite celebrity guest interview in the latter half of the show. Again, “The View”, naturally more political, regularly invites political figures such as former president Barack Obama and several political commentators. “The Talk” relies entirely on celebrity guests, occasionally some that are not even major draws. This is moot, since I only tune in to each show to watch the ladies yak amongst themselves in their roundtable segments.

Judging each show based on my proclivities, I do have a clear conclusion of which one succeeds most. “The View” tides me over, for the aforementioned reasons above—it has more legitimacy but is still able to delve into melodrama, camp, and frivolity. Although its high turnover rate is unnerving and dispiriting, it has enough mainstay power players to anchor it. As a child of the 1980s and 1990s, I have a bias for Whoopi Goldberg as a pop culture fixture. Comedian Joy Behar’s sassy Italian schtick hasn’t gotten old—or perhaps, twenty-one years later on the show, I’ve also grown attached to her presence. As for the rest of the current panelists, I feel neither strongly for or against them. Sara is the bright blonde who keeps things light or at least centered; Sunny adds more diversity and a touch of primness. Meghan obviously serves as an antidote to the clear liberal slant from the two veterans of the show, and for the most part I enjoy her dynamic. Not to paint her as an archetype, but I love a good “nemesis”, and Meghan is one by default, constantly having to defend her political party whenever President Trump drags it through the mud, which is often.

“The Talk” is sufficient enough, but my taste doesn’t quite extend to audience participation and an overabundance of pop culture fluff. And although they currently have the steadiest panel lineup longevity, I’m not especially fond of any of the panelists: mediator Julie Chen is too proper; Sara Gilbert is insightful but staid as well; Sharon is the venerable one who’s been around the block—but is a bit too mannered and biased in her outspokenness; newcomer Eve hasn’t proven her worth yet beyond tugging the median age of the group down more; and Sheryl Underwood plays up the sassy black woman trope a bit too much.

Each show brings something to the table, and it’s merely a matter of taste. To me, I primarily blur the edges that separate the shows. They’re like two sitcoms that have an overlap of similarities and differences, and I like them both for different and similar reasons.