Disney Renaissance: Why ‘Frozen’ Is Reviving the Company’s Golden Era of Animated Films
Once upon a time, going to see a Disney movie in the theaters was an event.
Disney was at the top of its game, releasing blockbusters with innovative animation, incredible vocal talent and Broadway-level music. These films didn’t rely on the wow-factor of 3-D technology or the grapevine of social media to gain steam. They were — and still are — classic films that were handcrafted to stand the test of time.
This era, known as the Disney Renaissance, lasted from 1989 to 1999. For those of us who were fortunate enough to be children during that special decade, the Disney Renaissance represents a time of great cinema that seemed to be gone forever. However, with the recent success of Disney’s ‘Frozen,’ it appears that the House of Mouse is gearing up for a resurgence.
So what made the Disney Renaissance so great?
Many of Disney’s greatest masterpieces — including ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘Aladdin,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘The Lion King’ — were released during these years. It was a boom of creativity and talent.
Timing is also key. Many of these movies hit theaters before DVDs and the rise of home theaters. Before straight-to-video films, audiences knew it would be epic when a Disney movie was released. In the second decade of the 2000s, it’s easier than ever to buy, rent or stream a Disney movie. In fact, the world is inundated with entertainment and means by which to share it. (I’m looking at you, Facebook and Twitter.) The Internet is expediting the rate at which kids grow up and with a ’90s comeback at hand, people are looking back to more innocent times. The combination of nostalgia, inundation of low-quality movies and and return to simplicity sets the stage perfectly for the revival.
It’s worth noting that in recent years two Disney movies, ‘The Princess and the Frog’ and ‘Tangled,’ have arguably moved the public toward a want for a second Disney Renaissance. However, while both films garnered commercial success, neither matched all of the criteria I’m setting forth to determine which movie will, in effect, launch the newest Disney boom.
One common thread
Many of the movies released between 1989 and 1999 were based on classic fairy tales (‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Aladdin’). While other films like ‘The Lion King’ and ‘Mulan’ were based in previous stories, the fairy tale element helped launch franchises such as the Disney Princesses.
‘Frozen’ continues the tradition, finding its roots in Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen.’ The movie will induct not one, but two, princesses into the existing franchise.
‘Tangled’ and ‘The Princess and the Frog’ are also based on fairy tales (the latter being the first to return to the tradition of retelling since the end of the Disney Renaissance). However, like the company’s first renaissance, it wasn’t pioneering a concept that made the films so great. Disney made fairy tale films long before ‘The Little Mermaid’ was released in 1989. It was the fresh energy, enthusiasm and perfect cocktail of elements that launched the Disney Renaissance with ‘The Little Mermaid’ 25 years ago. ‘Frozen’ brings these same qualities, as well as the potential to ignite a revival.
Musical power couple
One of the most standout elements of great Disney movies is the soundtrack. Music from the films of the Disney Renaissance has proven to withstand the test of time. The duo behind the music in many of these films are Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. The pair began working together in the 1970s, before moving to Broadway and eventually to the Disney canon.
With two Grammy Awards, two Golden Globe Awards and two Academy Awards, Ashman and Menken are the men behind the tunes for ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Aladdin.’ (Ashman passed away in the middle of production for ‘Aladdin’ and thus was only able to complete three songs for the movie. For the rest of the musical numbers, Menken worked with Tim Rice.)
Ashman and Menken’s partnership was clearly as magic as the stories themselves. The accolades, as well as their legacy at Disney, proves that the pairing was arguably one of the greatest in cinema history. It stands to reason that if the Disney Renaissance is revived, another duo will step up to carry the torch.
Enter Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.
The husband-and-wife songwriting team won an Oscar for ‘Let It Go’ from ‘Frozen,’ so they are already off to a solid start. The dynamic would definitely work for future Disney films, especially since the couple bring the Broadway feel that elevates great movie songs.
Although Menken worked on the ‘Tangled’ soundtrack, it’s arguably not as commercially successful as his Ashman collaborations. Additionally, Randy Newman’s ‘The Princess and the Frog’ music was great — but Newman is very closely linked with the Disney-Pixar films. Allowing Lopez and Anderson-Lopez to take the helms of the strictly Disney franchises would be a firm announcement that a second Disney Renaissance can and will happen.
Into the airwaves
Some of the standout points of movies released during the Disney Renaissance were the pop versions of songs from the soundtrack. For instance, ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ‘Aladdin,’ ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Hercules’ all included songs that were released to radio as pop singles. Likewise, ‘The Princess and the Frog’ and ‘Frozen’ both featured tracks that were re-recorded as pop songs.
Demi Lovato’s radio-designated version of ‘Let It Go’ was moderately successful on the charts, but when the original take from the movie was released to radio, it was a massive hit. Idina Menzel’s version reached the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making it the first to be so successful since Vanessa Williams’ ‘Colors of the Wind’ peaked at No. 4.
Having a major pop ballad flood the radio-waves is an essential part of the Disney Renaissance experience. Before social media, YouTube and iTunes, the radio was an integral part of discovering music. Seeing a Disney movie was a treat in itself, and one that could be relived with a simple ride in the car, thanks to the movie’s soundtrack being featured on the radio. It was immersive — and because the songs were so amazing to begin with, it worked.
Timing is everything
While movies like ‘Tangled’ and ‘The Princess and the Frog’ have set the stage for a Disney revival, ‘Frozen’ is the true indicator that the company is on the verge of another renaissance. Not only does the 2013 movie have all of the qualities of some of Disney’s greatest films — its release occurred at a key time.
As technology continues to accelerate and children seem to be growing up faster and faster, there is a pull to return to more innocent times. The ongoing ’90s resurgence only emphasizes the overwhelming interest in nostalgia. If Walt Disney represents escapism, then great Disney movies provide a complete — and satisfying — means by which to step away from one’s problems.
The massive success of ‘Frozen,’ the highest-grossing animated film of all time, proved that Disney has the ability to revive its golden era and that the public is more than willing to embrace it. In a time where serialized franchises rule the big screen, epic animated movies provide a welcome dynamic to the cinema world.
I can never go back to that time when my sister and I and our friends would make a day of seeing a Disney movie — and relive it for weeks afterward — but there’s a bittersweet nostalgia in thinking that children living in 2014 can have the opportunity to make those lasting memories too. Disney, the ball is in your court.