I saw a documentary a while back called The Pixar Story (available on Instant Netflix). In an interview with Bob Iger (the new C.E.O. of Disney and Michael Eisner’s replacement) he spoke about the troubles Disney has had the past ten years or so.
While it is true Eisner presided over the production of some of the best work the Walt Disney Company has ever done, beginning around 1994 he began slowly driving the company into the ground. Eisner is responsible for the departure of Jeffrey Katzenberg (who left to head Dreamworks Animation), the shift of Disney’s focus to The Disney Channel (i.e., Lizzie McGuire, Even Stevens, Hannah Montana, and the like), and, as Roy E. Disney (Walt Disney’s nephew) said upon his Eisner-induced resignation, the devolution of Disney into a “rapacious, soul-less” company.
In the interview, Iger recounted how shortly after he took over, during the daily Main Street Parade at Disney World, he realized which floats were getting the loudest cheers. They were the classic Disney films like Snow White, Cinderella, and Pinocchio and the classic contemporary films like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King (largely the work of the Jeffrey Katzenberger Eisner forced out).
The difference between these and some of the not-so-classic Disney features like Brother Bear, Oliver & Company, and Treasure Planet, it seemed to Iger, was quite simply the story-telling. Where Eisner had decided to end all production of traditional animation in favor of Pixar-style 3D, Iger realized the reason Pixar had been trouncing Disney at the box office from the beginning wasn’t the animation style, but that they knew how to create realistic, compelling characters and tell good stories.
Iger said that this epiphany is in fact what led him to end the Eisner-instigated Disney/Pixar feud and effectively merge the two companies, putting Pixar in charge of Disney’s creative side, leaving the current Disney people in charge of the marketing and business side.
Iger has it exactly right. I think (at least implicitly) we all recognize the two great eras in animation—the First and Second Golden Ages. The first includes the great early Disney features:
Tell me your heart didn’t swell as you scrolled past all those pictures.
Disney's work from Snow White in 1937 through Sleeping Beauty in 1957 (or perhaps One Hundred and One Dalmations in 1961) was the best it ever did. This First Golden Age of Animation was not limited to feature-length films, however. This is also the age of Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry.
From then on Disney did good work, but it wasn't of quite the same caliber as what had come before (perhaps due to Walt Disney's death in 1966). This era saw the release of The Sword in the Stone, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Robin Hood, The Rescuers, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, The Fox and the Hound, The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, The Brave Little Toaster, and Oliver & Company.
I know some of you are screaming at the computer screen right now. Many of these are near and dear to my heart as well (especially Sword in the Stone, Winnie the Pooh, and Fox and the Hound), but I think it is safe to say that, on the whole, they don't carry the weight of a Cinderella or a Bambi.
But we said there are two Golden Ages. In 1989 Disney released The Little Mermaid, ushering in a new era of classic animation:
Earlier we said that it was around the release of The Lion King in 1994 that Eisner began the downward spiral—the features got progressively worse: A Goofy Movie, Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan, Tarzan, Dinosaur, The Emperor's New Groove, Atlantis, Lilo & Stitch, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons.
Granted, while a couple of these don't quite count as they're in 3D, and a couple are pretty good (like Mulan, Tarzan, and Lilo & Stitch), even to the point that I would include them as part of the Disney Renaissance. Nevertheless, it's the trend that's important, which peaked with The Lion King. It's no wonder Eisner decided to focus on The Disney Channel, direct-to-DVD sequels, and merchandise. Perhaps it is no coincidence that it was in 1995 that Pixar released Toy Story and began its seemingly endless stream of instant hits, filling the void Eisner created. All I can say is thank God Pixar has taken over.
Consider the following chart:
The red bars are those films which are generally considered to be a part of the Golden Age of Disney; the green are those of the Disney Renaissance; and the blue everything else. While there is definitely some overlap amongst the three categories (for example, Sleeping Beauty grossed less at the Box Office than Mulan, and Mulan earned less than Dinosaur, the general trend is pretty clear.
But Box Office earnings aren’t necessarily (certainly not on their own) the best indicator of a film’s quality. Let’s look at RottenTomatoes’ ratings for all the Disney films:
Here we notice a much denser sample, and even more overlap, but I would argue that these are anomalous ratings which could be reasoned out on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, here again, the average rating for each category obviously favors the films of the First and Second Golden Ages.
Of course, like the First Golden Age, the Second was not limited to the big screen either. The late 80s and 90s saw the best cartoons for television ever produced. It is these that we will consider in the upcoming sequel to this post: "Saturday Morning Classics."