In the years following the successes of ‘the Golden Era’, Disney animated films began to plummet after box-office flops like The Black Cauldron (1985) and The Great Mouse Detective (1986) failing to resonate with audiences.
It was not until 1985, with a major executive recasting that the studio came back to prominence. When Michael Eisner was chosen as Walt Disney Production CEO with Jeffrey Katzenberg installed as studio head and Frank Wells as President the studio came back to fruition by returning to it’s ‘animation roots’.
This era is known as the ‘Disney Renaissance’ as it saw a successful resurgence in creative animated films which were once more based upon beloved fairy tales and went on to gain financial and critical success. The Disney Renaissance saw the return of the Disney princess after a thirty-year hiatus with the release of The Little Mermaid (1989) and ended with Tarzan (1999).
In this article, I’ll be ranking the ten films that came out of the extremely successful Renaissance period, which saw the Walt Disney Company come back to fruition and back into the hearts of children and adults.
10. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
So The Rescuers Down Under is a sequel to semi-successful film, The Rescuers released in 1977, based on the novels by Margery Sharp. The film follows mice, Bernard and Bianca who are travelling to Australia to save a young boy named Cody from a poacher whom is in pursuit of an endangered bird of prey which they go on to befriend.
I won’t lie to you, I really struggled to remember this film. It was the second to be released in the Renaissance era and I find it struggles to pick up speed as it was released when Disney was testing the waters, trying to establish there new style. Nothing memorable stands out in this film, apart from they are mice… (if you want mice/rats, Pixar’s Ratatouille (2007) is better – just saying!)
9. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
The first musical-drama on our list! The Hunchback of Notre Dame, is Disney’s adaption of Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name centering on the deformed Notre Dame bell-ringer Quasimodo.
The film is really interesting as it shows Quaismodo’s struggles to gain acceptance in the French society as many as shocked and disgusted by his looks. By the end of the film, Quaismodo has come to terms with his looks as he, and his love interest Esmerelda, have learnt that it is heart and inner strength which is important in life – not looks, money or power. This is a really important message for young children to realise and was a very forward thinking move for the Walt Disney Company to put in one of the later Renaissance films.
‘Hellfire’ is also one of the most sinister and terrifying songs in the Disney pantheon and can send chills into the most hardened of hearts through the beautiful imagery and vocal provided by British actor, Tony Jay.
8. Pocahontas (1995)
Pocahontas is based on the little-known history surrounding the Native American woman, Pocahontas and her fictionalised encounters with Englishman John Smith and the British settlers whom invade her native lands.
I really dislike this film. I personally find it quiet dull and bland, with a lack of imaginative story-telling nor voice personality. The film is factual incorrect and deeply offensive to Native history. It is also racially incorrect calling Native people ‘savages’ and ‘beasts’.
However, the film is awarded bonus points as it is beautifully animated. The warm oranges of the sunsets fading into the cool blues of the forest and Grandmother Willow are stunning – particularly notably in the musical number ‘Colours of the Wind’ which went on to win an Academy Award for Alan Menken for Best Original Song.
7. Tarzan (1999)
Disney’s Tarzan was the first major motion picture animation of Tarzan – but it certainly wasn’t the last!
Tarzan follows the life of a young boy who is orphaned in a jungle treehouse after a Leopard kills his parents. He is then raised by a kind and caring ape named Kala and raised in the world of the Gorilla’s until he is ‘rescued’ by Jane Porter and her father on a expedition from England.
The film has amazing visuals of Tarzan flying down tree trunks and swinging through the jungle on vines. But none of this would be as impactful without Phil Collins’ incredible original music. Breaking from traditional animated Disney musicals, the characters did not sing as the directors thought that this Ape-like-Man singing perfect lyrics would be too unbelievable and ruin the feel of the film. Instead Collins acts as a narrator for the film singing the lyrics to ‘You’ll Be In My Heart’. In a way, the music is more recognisable than the film, proven in the recognition the soundtrack received; an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Grammy.
6. Aladdin (1992)
Aladdin tells the tale of a young street rat who dreams of winning big and winning the heart of the Sultan’s daughter Jasmine after mistaking her for a commoner and befriending her, when she has run away from the palace.
The film is based on based on the Arab-style tale ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’ from ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. However as good as Aladdin is as the street rat turned Prince, it is the Genie that steals the show!
We meet Genie in the musical number ‘Friend Like Me’ and it is AH-MAZ-ING. Robin Williams kills it, doing multiple impressions within the song of other famous actors, name checking them and other Disney films. It’s fantastically satirical and one that will be stuck in your head for the rest of the film. Any scene the Genie is in, he steals.
The film is definitely worth watching for Robin Williams’ performance alone.
5. Hercules (1997)
Hercules is an often forgotten and extremely underrated Disney film loosely based on the legend of the Son of Zeus and his labours to return to Olympus.
The story sees Hercules taken from his parents, Zeus and Hera, by Hades’ sidekicks in order to kill him so that Hades can overthrow Zeus and become the ruler of Olympus. However the sidekicks fail to do this and instead turn Hercules into a semi-mortal who cannot re-enter Olympus until he has become a hero.
The reason I have ranked Hercules so high in the list because I truly think it is one of Disney’s most underrate films. It has great musical moments in the training montage with Phil (played by Danny DeVito) as well as empowering numbers such as ‘I Can Go Distance’ and Megera’s love ballad ‘Won’t Say I’m In Love’. Alongside this, Alan Menken’s heroic score is exemplarily.
James Woods’ characterisation of firey antagonist Hades, is equal parts sinister as it is hilarious. He is an extremely comedic villain and is arguably the ying to Robin Williams’ Genie’s yang. A must see film.
4. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
This Disney animated musical is ‘A Tale As Old As Time’ adapted from the fairytale of the same name written by French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumaon in 1740.
The film tells the story of the young Belle, an intelligent book worm who unlike the other women of the village is more vested in reading and learning that finding her one true love. When her father gets lost on a journey through the forest, he is taken prisoner by the Beast. Upon discovering her lost and alining father, Belle volunteers to take her father’s place and stay in the castle with the Beast.
The film tells the story of two opposite beings, coming together learning different qualities from one another in order to become better human beings and learn to love one another.
The film is iconic for a number of reasons; the songs, the score, the visuals, but arguably for many it is Belle’s beautiful golden ballgown. It is a stunning image that makes audiences gasp upon first seeing and it is that visual of Belle and the Beast dancing to Angela Lansbury’s crooning that sticks in the mind of the audience.
3. Mulan (1998)
Based on the Chinese legend of Fa Mulan, Mulan tells the part-fictional story of the young girl who goes to war in place of her ageing father.
With music coming from Donny Osmond and Christina Aguilera, the film has some great hits. They include the emotive and passionate song ‘Reflection’ with its pop version by Aguilera. It also has rousing war songs including the training montage of ‘I’ll Make A Man Out Of You’ which sees Mulan learn her strengths after failing several times. The song encourages the warriors, and in turn the audience, to never give up and persevere through the tough times. It is determination, drive and love that will win in the end.
Mulan is a strong and empowering role model for young girls watching this film. She takes control of her own destiny and is not afraid of failure – she allows it to make her stronger. Mulan, is arguably the leading feminist in the Disney pantheon.
2. The Little Mermaid (1989)
Coming in in second place is my personal favourite Disney film about a red-headed fish, The Little Mermaid.
Based on the fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson, Disney’s adaption of The Little Mermaid sees Ariel fall in love with human Prince Eric after observing him upon his boat on his birthday.
In order to be with Eric, Ariel visits the sea-witch Ursula to trade in her fishy fins for human legs, for three days in order to convince Eric to kiss her to make her legs permeant. However she must trade in her voice, which Ursula uses to her advantage so she can take over the seas and be ruler of the kingdom.
The Little Mermaid is iconic. Just the above image is iconic enough. But if that is not enough to persuade you, then how about the score and music: ‘Part Of Your World’ ‘Kiss The Girl’, ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’ and ‘Under The Sea’ – which went on to win the Best Original Song at the Academy Awards.
Sebastian and Flounder are also some of the best sidekicks Disney has created, especially of the Renaissance era. They are funny, quick witted and add personality that Ariel sometimes lacks.
1. The Lion King (1994)
Was it ever a doubt what this would be the winner ? Of course, taking the number one slot is The Lion King!
The story of Simba and his adventures at home at Pride Rock and in jungle with Timon and Pumba is iconic. From the opening sunrise shot to the ending circular visual of Pride Rock, the film is legendary.
You can happily sit back and watch this film with “No Worries”. It’s easy, happy watching for the whole family with innuendos for adults and childish humour for the young ones alongside perfect casting of the characters who are humorous and engaging along side Elton John’s music adding the perfect ambiance.
The film is objectively perfect, I cannot think of anything that is wrong with the film. There are no bad or boring songs compared to a few duds in Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid for example. It is truly cinematic; perfectly poised and stunningly animated.
I cannot add any more praise or love for this film, if you haven’t watched it; a) where have you been for the last 21 years and b) who even are you?! GO WATCH IT NOW.