Not Happily Ever After: Why the Disney Renaissance Ended…

disney

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.

 

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Do the Oscars Matter Anymore?

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It’s that time of year again: when people come together to talk about what some famous actresses wore—who wore it best—oh, and which film won Best Picture. Probably something artsy and serious. Sometimes it’s deserved—a film of true excellence and craftsmanship in writing, acting, and directing. But usually it’s just a film that you may or may not have seen. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve decided all serious dramas will be relegated to DVD viewing—‘cause, you know: why do I need to see talking faces on a big screen?) Also, movie prices are astronomical, so—okay, I see it: I’m part of the cycle and why Hollywood is nickel and diming every potential film that passes through their gates in the hopes of production. No wonder they’re settling for the bottom line so often—a “sure” thing (read: sequel, prequel, or remake of something that did legitimate business once). But I digress.

Anyway, it’s the Oscars again. And of second most importance, it is 2017. I make a point of the year because frankly, I don’t believe the Oscars are nor have been the same for a long time now.

I often wonder what my younger doppelganger today would think of this Hollywood pastime now. What do young, budding (okay, and gay!) dreamers like me today think of this rapidly declining tradition of awarding the “Best” in Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences?

Cut to: me in the early 1990s. Maybe because things often look better in retrospect or I just didn’t know any better because I was a kid, but: the Oscars felt like they meant something back then. The five, count ‘em, just five nominated films for Best Picture (more on the topic of that category being expanded to ten nominations later) really felt like they earned that coveted spot. Each film that was nominated felt special, and it was usually a tight race that was more or less about merit and not just politicking by studios and adhering to social trends of the day.

Culturally, budding gay—I mean, budding dreamers of all stripes only had a few outlets to view their favorite stars back then: People magazine, and “Entertainment Tonight”. Which meant we were primed and hungry to see all these stars convene on one epic night—a smorgasbord of glamour, glitz, and at least to an idealistic kid like me back then: talent!

The Oscars have been cheekily dubbed “The Superbowl for Women”—in terms of annual cultural impact and significance. But unlike the actual Superbowl, the Oscars have been morphing and changing notably, and gradually eclipsed by other smaller Superbowls in the past two decades.

In the age of Twitter, TMZ, and the E! Channel, we can literally follow our favorite stars online 24/7 to see what they ate for breakfast or what color their kids’ poop is; spy on them as they exit an airport terminal via shaky video footage, or consume their daily lives in a craftily executed weekly reality TV show.

With these enlightening options that we’ve been blessed with through technical progress, the mystery of what it means to be rich and famous and talented has become rote and accessible in ways never before imaginable.

I have a feeling my teenage doppelganger today would view the Oscars the same way I viewed silent films or drive-in movie theaters when I was a teen in the 1990s.

Perhaps in response to this changing culture (read: poorer ratings for the telecast—undoubtedly due to the Academy’s penchant for nominating “serious” films that don’t do much business at the box office)—the category for Best Picture was expanded to include up to ten nominees, in 2009. The Academy claimed this was a throwback to the early years in the 1930s and ‘40s, where there were up to ten nominees per year—but many cynical observers assumed it was a blatant attempt to nab more viewers for the annual show. The quip “Are there even ten films worthy of being nominated every year?” hit the web quicker than you could say ‘Action!’. Incidentally, the Oscars suffered its lowest TV ratings ever the previous year, so read into the subsequent change however way you want.

As I alluded to earlier, I could relate to the criticism on the merit of today’s films—let alone their worthiness of being nominated for such an honor. In our current cinematic climate, I think the cap of five nominees is/should’ve been more relevant than ever—an elite prestige worth striving for, artistically.

Nearly a decade later, the expansion of nominees hasn’t made a mark on me as an Oscar viewer or a movie fan. If anything, it makes it harder for me to remember what films were nominated each year—but that could be more of a reflection on my waning interest for the show altogether.

In 2016, the Academy was confronted with yet another issue—this time one of moral. The lack of diverse nominees that year spurred a boycott by many African-American artists and viewers, who claimed a racial bias against them. Although I understood the greater issue of diversity, as a minority myself even I had reservations about the campaign. Was the Academy biased, or were there simply no quality films that year that starred African-Americans (or other ethnic groups)? If it was the latter, for instance—the issue wasn’t the Academy, but the movie industry itself.

Nonetheless, in true form, the Academy reacted swiftly with their image in mind—claiming they would add a significant amount of women and people of color to their voting bloc. The validity of this gesture aside, the consequence of this detrimental publicity also left a viewer like me wondering how sincere future nominations would be. As well intentioned as the campaign was to shed light on the Oscars’ lack of diversity, the fallout could be that they might overcompensate and recognize films (not people, mind you) of lesser merit to meet political correctness.

This shifting of objectives and influences only aided the rapidly declining relevance of the Oscars in my eyes. It was not about simply awarding the best films anymore—but a commercial and social experiment gone awry.

But this was nothing new overall: the Oscars have always been about more than just the merit of moviemaking, of course.

I turned eighteen when the world entered a new millennium in 2000, and the year “American Beauty” won against a highly publicized award campaign for its chief rival nominee that year, “The Cider House Rules”. Maybe because I’d technically became an adult and therefore achieved full enlightenment at last, but the fact that a movie studio launched a publicity campaign to swarm voters to choose their film was not lost on me. Apparently, voters don’t just go into hibernation and pick winners, then emerge back into the real world alive and rejuvenated by the purity of their choices.

The validity of their choices has often been debated for other reasons as well: awarding an actor or director for their current, less stellar work simply to acknowledge their greater body of work is another common longstanding ploy.

That being said, it’s safe to say that the curtain has finally gone down on my love affair with the Oscars. Honestly, the last few years I’ve been less and less drawn to the extravaganza. As late as 2013, I still recall having a few vestiges of excitement that I’d had in my youth—feeling like I was witnessing something greater than myself. But the past two years and on the eve of this year, it’s dawned on me now that the heyday of the show has long joined the past. It doesn’t detract from the merit of truly good movies, but that’s the thing: good movies and the Oscars are not the same thing, and they haven’t been for a long time.

So it’s that time of year again—when people come together to talk about what some famous actresses wore—and who wore it best. Oh, and which film won Best Picture. Exactly. That’s all it is.

 

 

Why do people love the 80s?!?! (Try the 90s!)

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America’s unnatural love of all things 1980s is like society’s reverence towards pregnant women: you can’t really counter it without sounding like a complete monster. But since I’m already an inherent outcast twice removed, I guess I’ll be the brave soul to take a stab at it (the ‘80s).

They say trends come in twenty-year cycles. I was born in the 80s, and I remember as a preteen, being glad when all the saccharine gaudiness of the decade vanished by the early 1990’s. Little did I know that it would all come skipping back in an even more mannered, pretentious form—ten years later when I was in my TWENTIES, in the ‘00s.

By 2003, you couldn’t surf the web without coming across an article that proclaimed: “Check out your favorite redheaded ‘80s celebrities HERE!” or hear a song that didn’t sample a classic ‘80s synth-pop ballad, or have a conversation with an adult girl who didn’t squeal: “Ohhh, I LOVE the ‘80s!” Basically, it was like crack in the ‘80s: integral to the social scene.

If you can’t guess by now, I have highly objective reasons why I don’t like the ‘80s. I came of age in the decade that succeeded it: the ‘90s. When I say “come of age”, I mean the (first) era of maturing in one’s life—your teen years.

Nothing is as great (or bad) as when you are a teenager. If I came of age during the 1890s, no doubt I would be sitting here clamoring about how great churning butter was, and how kids these days are missing out on savoring fermented cow milk you procured with your own two hands. So I’m aware that I suffer from a little bias.

For me, I feel sorry that kids today didn’t grow up with angry, forlorn, edgy alternative-rock singers who managed to somehow be both dangerous and mainstream in this perfect window of time known as the 1990s. It was a truly magical time. I mean, MTV not only PLAYED music videos for significant chunks of time, they actually focused on music from earnest, serious artists. Music hadn’t been this socially aware and provocative since the ‘60s!

TV and movies vastly improved in my eyes too. Gone were the days where a movie focused solely on a nuclear family going on vacation, or a kid taking a day off from school. Movies with higher concepts were in vogue now: the term “indie” exploded, with all its subversive and innovative connotations. Disney rode a triumphant wave of Renaissance for the first half of the decade. Summer blockbusters pushed their art to new, exhilarating heights with movies like “Jurassic Park” and “Forrest Gump” setting records.

TV shows delved into darker and more progressive parts of the cultural psyche, with shows like “The Simpsons”, “Seinfeld”, “The X-Files” and “Roseanne” (although some of them debuted in the late ‘80s, they came into their prime in the ‘90s). Shows didn’t have to pander to the ideal family unit anymore. They could push the boundaries of what we found funny or intriguing, and succeed.

Look, I get the objective reasons why people love the penultimate decade of the twentieth century: it was simple. Sweet. Goofy. Over-the-top. Everything my fellow gay men love, which is why all gay men have some voluminous playlist somewhere that is nothing but ‘80s, ‘80s, ‘80s—as well as the perfect ‘80s getup outfit, should they have the divine fortune of crossing paths with an ‘80s-themed party. The ‘80s is like your kooky, fun, and slightly frivolous aunt. Whereas the ‘90s is your cooler but more sedate and socially conscious uncle. It’s kind of obvious who you’d rather party with.

But this is why I don’t like the ‘80s: I don’t like things that are simple, sweet, and over-the-top. It’s not my style. I’m the jerk that likes things to be ironic, dark, and brooding, hence: I will always identify with the Gen-X-dominated ‘90s. And hence: why most gay men have a convenient blind spot for this decade altogether. Seriously—can you imagine a gay man squealing about the ‘90s? ….? Only if they were forced to go to a ‘90s-themed party; they’d be squealing about their “other obligations that night”’—to get out of it. No gay man wants to be reminded of a classic Tarantino movie. It’s way too heavy, and our lives are already heavy enough. The same can be said for society at large, truly.

But the ‘90s are innocent as well, compared to the subsequent decade(s) that follow it. For one: during that decade, “social media” only went so far as logging into AOL via your phone cord, selecting a terrible login name, and signing into a god-awful chat room with other strangers. We had virtually no digital footprint, and honestly: many minds and lives were saved because of it. Terrorism was not truly a household word until the tragic events that ignited it on a fateful day in New York City, the following decade. We didn’t have such a politically divisive country due to a polarizing president yet. And a recession, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the 1930s, hadn’t yet imploded.

So if you want something innocent, fun, but with a little more edge and a smidgen of self-important angst, why not make a pit stop in the decade before the ‘80s (if you’re going backwards in time)? You can geek out to Ace of Base, camp it up to the Spice Girls—but you can also show your gritty, “street cred” side by wearing baggy gangsta pants or grungy thrift-store plaid. The ‘90s had its perks too, ya’ know.

Thankfully, it is the 2010’s now—well over twenty years since my favorite decade started its rotation under the sun. It’s finally getting more of the “respect” I always knew it deserved. Too bad it takes twenty years for some people to arrive to the party—but better late than never.