The Top 10 Disney Renaissance Movies
The Disney Renaissance refers to the animated movies released from 1989 until 1999. During this decade, ten films came out. Nine of these films were critical and box office successes. These movies revitalized the animation department in the Walt Disney Company.
Without this resurgence, the Animation Department could’ve gone bankrupt. Many of the animated movies we love today may not have existed. The Disney Renaissance ignited new interest in animated films and introduced new classics. Here’s my ranking of the ten Disney Renaissance films.
10. The Rescuers Down Under
The Rescuers Down Under was a box office bomb. It was the only unsuccessful film of the Disney Renaissance. It was also the first animated sequel released in theaters.
I was never a fan of The Rescuers, but I enjoy watching the sequel more than the original film. I like the Australian Outback setting. I love that Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor both reprised their roles as Bernard and Bianca. Joanna the goanna is an adorable, villain sidekick.
However, this movie is forgettable. It’s an okay movie, but not great.
The music in Tarzan is fantastic. Phil Collins’s unique voice and songwriting style compliment the tone of the film very well.
Other than the music, the rest of Tarzan is average. The movie starts out strong. The first ten minutes brings out the tears and it’s quite powerful. That strength of emotion dies after that. I’m not even sad when Kerchak dies. I feel like he deserves and I’ve never understood Tarzan’s bereavement for him.
The first half of the film is superior to the second half. Once the other humans enter the picture, I find the movie less interesting. Tarzan is worth watching, but I wouldn’t run out to buy the Blu-Ray.
I hate when movies related to the character Hercules take place in Greece. Hercules is the Roman equivalence of the demigod. Heracles is the Greek equivalence. If every other character is going by their Greek name, Hercules should go by his as well. It’s a small detail of the film, but it’s always bothered me.
Hercules came out after Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Both of those films are rather dark and profound. The comic infusion of this film counterbalances its predecessors, making it stand out. I still find this movie funny, even though I know every line. The voice cast is spot on. The Gospel music in this film is a different approach. I like the music, but I don’t think that it’s the best soundtrack of the Disney Renaissance.
Hercules is a solid film. It’s not the movie I would use to teach Greek mythology. But the movie is enjoyable and a great time.
Mulan is another film with great music which is a common theme of the Disney Renaissance. Focusing a movie on Chinese culture is an interesting choice. It’s a great way to introduce young children to China. I love Eddie Murphy’s role in the film, although his later animated voice work now outshines his Mushu days.
My biggest pet peeve with Mulan is the ending. Mulan is one of the most feminist Disney characters. That feminism peters out toward the end. Why is a romantic relationship necessary? The film focuses on the sacrifices a daughter makes for her father. Does Mulan need a relationship to make her father proud? That’s counterintuitive to the entire film. I’m not saying that I don’t like that Mulan and Shang form a romantic relationship at the end. The filmmakers should’ve saved it for the sequel.
Pocahontas also has solid music. There was a song deleted from the film called “If I Never Knew You” that’s pretty good as well. You know when you’re deleted songs have merit, you’ve got a good soundtrack.
Pocahontas takes risks and I respect the filmmakers for it. Pocahontas is Disney’s first attempt at creating a story based on a historical event. Granted, the film is completely historically inaccurately, but that’s Hollywood for ya. Pocahontas and John Smith are Disney’s first interracial couple.
They’re also the first romantic pairing that separates at the end of the film. These differences may not seem as extreme today, but they were in the mid-nineties. I commend Disney for expanding themselves and doing an untraditional ending.
Pocahontas deals with the issue of racism which is a topic that is still difficult to discuss. Racism is a deep and complicated issue. It’s not a topic that’s present in many family films because it’s a difficult issue to explain to children. But Disney presents the issue of racism with grace and dignity. With Pocahontas, Disney gives depth and meaning to animation.
Robin Williams is the genius who makes Aladdin. Most of Robin Williams’s lines were ad-libbed. He provided the filmmakers with over thirty hours of recordings. That’s incredible. Without Robin Williams, I don’t think this movie would have been as successful as it was. Without a doubt, Genie steals the show.
Aladdin provides some diversity that Disney was lacking. Jasmine is the first non-white princess. The Arabic setting is different. Usually, Disney uses a European or American setting. Aladdin was a gateway for Disney to explore other cultures in their films. And audiences responded well to it.
I always found the morality in Aladdin confusing. It’s okay for Aladdin to lie and become the future Sultan of Agrabah. But it’s not okay for Jafar to lie and become the future Sultan of Agrabah. They both commit the same crime of treason, yet only one of them gets punished for it. The other gets rewarded.
Also, why does it take Jasmine so long to recognize Aladdin? He looks exactly the same from when they met in the marketplace. Yet, she couldn’t recognize him right away because his clothes are different. It’s odd and never fully explained.
Aladdin is a strong film with a strong soundtrack. It’s never a bad time to watch it.
4. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the most underrated Disney film of all time. This film takes enormous risks that wouldn’t happen today. Anyone who’s read the Victor Hugo’s novel knows that The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t a story for children. It’s about lust and hypocrisy.
And Disney utilizes those themes in their movie. I still find it amazing that they did that. Without a doubt, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a better film when you’re an adult. As a child, you don’t understand all the complexities of the movie. But as an adult, you get the sexual innuendos.
The love triangle between Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Phoebus is innovative. In any other Disney film, Quasimodo and Esmeralda would be together at the end of the film. It would be the story of how love is blind and beauty is irrelevant. That doesn’t happen in The Hunchback. Instead, the two beautiful people get together.
Esmeralda never once looks at Quasimodo as anything more than a friend. The audience, along with Quasimodo, is forced to accept that. The Hunchback takes less of a fairytale ending, solidifying its unique nature.
The soundtrack is strong. The voice cast is superb. The villain is amazing because he believes that his evilness is piousness. Frollo never believes that he is doing wrong and that’s what makes him so interesting.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a family movie that pushes boundaries. It’s dark a film. It has edges, but it’s still Disney. There is some restraint, but not a lot of it.
3. The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid is the film that initiated the Disney Renaissance. Before The Little Mermaid came out, the filmmakers were wary of its success. They thought it wasn’t possible for it to make more money than its predecessor Oliver & Company. That film was a modest success. However, The Little Mermaid was the first animated film to gross over $100 million dollars. In 1989, no one ever dreamed that an animated movie could make that much money.
The Little Mermaid makes every child wish they were a mermaid. The animation is stunning. Water is always difficult to animate. It’s hard to make water look and act real. Disney makes that process seem flawless. The characters are wonderful. The Broadway-style soundtrack is flawless.
The Little Mermaid is almost a perfect film. The only contention I have is that Ariel isn’t the one who saves the day. If this movie came out today, Prince Eric wouldn’t have been the one to ram Ursula with the ship.
But I could watch this movie anytime, regardless of who defeats the bad guy.
2. The Lion King
The Lion King was the highest grossing animated film for nine years. It inspired two television series, a Broadway play, and various theme park attractions. There is no way to describe the power this movie has. It’s, by far, the best version of Hamlet I have ever seen (The Lion King based off of Shakespeare’s play…no I’m not making that up). It’s hard to imagine that most of the animators didn’t want to work on this film.
Everyone always talks about how “Circle of Life” is one of the best film openers. They tend to forget that a reprise of the song is the film’s ending. The movie begins and ends with birth. This physically illustrates the circle of life. It gives the movie a constant flow. “Circle of Life” cements that flow. Having the film open and close with this song, completes the film’s circle. I don’t think they could have written a better song or put it in a better moment. It’s great storytelling.
There are no imperfections with The Lion King. There’s just one movie more perfect.
1. Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. This fact alone gives credence to it being the best film of the Disney Renaissance.
How Beauty and the Beast uses music in the film is fantastic. Take the opening song, “Belle”. “Belle” is a five-minute, operetta-style song. Having a song of this nature is unprecedented in a Disney film. A song of this nature is usually exclusive to a Broadway stage. However, the amount of work this song does is incredible.
“Belle” introduces the protagonist, the protagonist’s problem, what the protagonist wants, the setting, the villain, the villain’s problem, and the villain’s relationship with the protagonist. The song does all of it FIVE minutes, something that can’t be done with five minutes of dialogue. That’s amazing. The music in the film pushes the boundaries of how music can function in a film.
There are small plot problems scattered throughout the film. However, those plot problems are barely noticeable because the movie is unbelievably good. The music is outstanding. The plot is entrancing. It’s hard not to love the characters, even the villains. You can’t not love Beauty and the Beast.
When you can’t be in Walt Disney World or Disneyland, there’s not much better than watching one of these Disney renaissance movies!
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Special thanks to Brittni Sutter for writing this article! As a lover of all things Disney, I’ve made it my life’s mission to learn about the history and artistry the House of Mouse. I’ve vacationed to half of the resorts and plan to complete the Disney Parks mecca in the coming years. I fill my life with as much magic as Disney can muster and I love encouraging others to do the same.