I think this decade is our first serious contender for the best Disney decade of all time. Just scroll down and cast your eyes over the titles quickly. See what I mean? There are some strong films here!
I normally get into some spoilers with these films, but just a heads up that this decade’s post is VERY spoiler heavy, so if you want to avoid those, maybe pick back up next time.
The Fox and the Hound (1981, Ted Berman, Richard Rich, Art Stevens)
Ok. So, I regret to inform you all that I have suffered from the Mandela Effect. I 100% thought that Tod died at the end of this film. All of humanity would be destroyed because if I was asked to save it by telling someone the ending of this film, I would have said, “Copper gives away Tod’s location and he gets killed by the guy with the gun.” Sorry everyone. I was almost going to skip over this film, because I didn’t know if I would cope going through the emotional devastation again. As it happens – everything’s fine! No one dies! It’s all good!
There was typical infighting between Ron Miller, Art Stevens, and Wolfgang Reitherman, which was pretty much par for the course with Disney films’ development. Some of them pushed for Chief to die (incidentally, I think it would have worked better narratively if he died), but they were overruled, with Art Stevens not wanting to make the first Disney film that killed a main character. The scene after Chief gets hit by the train had to be reanimated to have him open his eyes after this decision was made, and it seems like taking the cautious route didn’t really pay off for them. Many critics thought the film was too safe, with Sheila Benson from the Los Angeles Times saying the writers were “protecting us from important stuff: from rage, from pain, from loss. By these lies, done for our own good, of course, they also limit the growth that is possible.”
Interestingly, Tim Burton, Brad Bird, and John Lasseter (both of Pixar fame) all worked on the film. There was also a tense transition between the new animation team and the last of Disney’s veteran animators. Citing personality clashes with Wolfgang Reitherman, three veteran animators – Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy – tended their resignations, asking not to receive screen credit for the work that they had done, and sparking 13 more animators resigning. It’s a shame that a company that has given us so much joy, particularly in our childhoods, seemed to have such troublesome productions.
Mickey Rooney and Kurt Russell voice the main characters, and they do a great job. The film is heart-warming in parts, but the deus ex machina of the bear at the end feels really out of place. It’s a shame because I think if they had pushed the envelope a little more, we could have had something special.
The Black Cauldron (1985, Ted Berman, Richard Rich)
This is the movie I was most excited to revisit as part of this project. For some reason, I watched it a lot as a kid, even though it completely terrified me. And it doesn’t seem like I was the only one – critics didn’t like how dark it was, either.
I think this is also the first film we’ve come across that has done a test screening. And it seems like that was a good choice, because the original ‘cauldron born’ sequence was too scary for the children in the test audience, with some of them running out of the theatre. Evidently, that resulted in a lot of editing. The final ‘cauldron born’ sequence actually feels rather disjointed because of this, and also because the removal of those scenes created a jump in the film’s soundtrack, which was never fixed.
It’s a bizarre film that feels tonally different from Disney. It feels more akin to Anastasia or The Swan Princess – films that are often mixed up with the Disney canon, but aren’t quite up to that standard. After what we’ve seen so far from Disney, this feels very much like a departure. Perhaps that’s due to the film having no songs, so the typical musicality of Disney films just isn’t there.
Some facts for you: This was the first Disney animated film to receive a PG rating. It was also the first Disney film that used CGI – the bubbles, the boat, Eilonwy’s floating orb of light, and the cauldron itself, were all created using CGI. Interestingly, the animators also used live-action footage of dry ice to create the steam coming out of the cauldron.
Perhaps it was these ambitious filmmaking techniques that resulted in it being the most expensive animated feature ever made at the time. It made less than half of that money back, earning it the nickname “the film that almost killed Disney”. To add insult to injury, it was beaten at the box office by Canadian animation studio’s The Care Bears Movie (which absolutely slaps, and I would highly recommend).
John Hurt is utterly terrifying as the Horned King and delivers a stellar vocal performance. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the characters. Taran is whiney, Eilonwy is earnestly cringe, and Gurgi is a thinly veiled Sméagol imitation (even down to the vocal performance and the ‘yes master’ acknowledgement).
This is also a weirdly oversexualised film. One of the witches is dressed in revealing clothing, supposedly wearing some sort of medieval push-up bra. This is played for laughs when the bard, who is turned into a frog, gets ‘trapped’ in her cleavage. Ha ha aren’t boobs funny?! It doesn’t give me much hope in thinking animators and writers at Disney aren’t at least a little misogynistic. There’s also a racist portrayal of a Roma dancer, which just wasn’t necessary (I’ll probably have more to share on this when we cover The Hunchback of Notre Dame).
Narratively, Taran is a passive protagonist, the resolution occurs so suddenly, and the film fails to stir me to care. I’m sad to say it doesn’t really hold up. However, it’s since gained a cult following, so what do I know?
(Basil) The Great Mouse Detective (1986, John Musker, Dave Michener, Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson)
This film was such a pleasant surprise! It was so invigorating and refreshing, completely engaging and unexpected. It’s essentially Sherlock Holmes, but for kids, and it alludes to all of those wonderful story elements perfectly.
We actually have the failure of The Black Cauldron to thank for greenlighting this film, but unfortunately, the production team ended up having their budget cut in half, and they were only given one year to complete the film. It’s impressive that this well-rounded film was the result of such a tumultuous beginning.
Of course, the film’s development wasn’t without disagreements within the animation team. The film’s renaming from its original title, Basil of Baker Street, didn’t go over well with the filmmakers, prompting a satirical memo that circulated in-house pretending to be one of Disney’s chairman with an instruction to rename past Disney films. My favourite ones out of the suggestions are The Girl with the See-through Shoes, The Little Deer Who Grew Up,and Seven Little Men Help a Girl. Disney’s infighting will never cease to amaze me.
Vincent Price is excellently cast as Ratigan – perfectly scheming and evil but with a screen presence that makes you unable to look away. While Basil’s character is a little unlikeable, Dr Dawson (our Dr Watson surrogate) is charming, and was actually modelled after Eric Larson as a tribute, the last of Disney’s Nine Old Men who retired after this film.
Basil takes us on an emotional journey, and you feel every beat. I was terrified of the cat who was called by a bell to eat defected mice, warmed by Toby (Basil’s pet dog) and his love for Olivia, and thrilled when we crash through the clockface of Big Ben at the climax of the film. Incredibly, the animators flew to London to get unprecedented access to the clockworks and gears inside Big Ben in order to base their animation on. They finished their research in an hour. Can someone fly me to London on an all-expenses paid trip to research something for an hour? Please?
The film also reintroduces us to the Disney musical, and Ratigan’s ‘The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind’ is deliciously dastardly. Who knew – Disney can be fun!
Oliver & Company (1988, Jim Cox, Timothy J. Disney, James Mangold)
Musicals are well and truly back, baby! This was so enjoyable to revisit, because I have a special place for Oliver & Company in my heart. I’m not saying Oliver was exclusively the reason for me wanting a cat at seven years old, but I think he had some influence.
This film is a furry interpretation of the Oliver Twist story, with enough diversity of characters to keep the film lively and interesting. But I’ll admit it – it’s weird. It feels very disjointed from the films Disney has released in the past. It feels very modern, or at least, modern for the time it was released, and while this isn’t a bad thing per se, it’s hard to reconcile with Disney films’ timeless quality.
The film was a huge success at the box office, but not with critics. Gene Siskel put it well when he said the film ‘doesn’t match up’ to the legacy of Disney’s classics. It’s a predictable narrative, the story is fragmented, and sometimes the mob boss is a little too disjointed from Oliver’s adoption storyline.
The real standout of the film is the casting. Bette Midler plays Georgette, and is perfectly cast as a larger than life poodle-cum-showgirl. The biggest grab is Billy Joel as the voice of Dodger, a Jack Russell Terrier-inspired mix and leader of this slapdash gang. This casting does pose a problem, which was reflected in a lot of the reviews from critics at the time – how does a film cater for the Bette Midler and Billy Joel crowd, as well as appealing to children? Herein lies the trappings of celebrity voice casting, which I will expand on in more detail when we get to Aladdin. However, the feature song of the film, ‘Why Should I Worry?’, is perfectly New York, perfectly Billy Joel, and does a great job encapsulating the mood of the film.
It wouldn’t be Disney without production issues, and in this case, it was the original director being fired. But Oliver gives us some great animation developments. There’s the use of real-life atmos sound to help fill in the streets of New York. The animators also blocked out the scenes on real streets and photographed them with cameras at dog-height to use as animation templates.
Overall, it’s a really fun ride. Narratively, there are a few issues (as soon as Oliver is inducted into the gang, he goes and gets adopted?), and the film leaves a bittersweet note for the future for Fagin and the gang, but it’s enjoyable. ‘Fun’ is how I’d sum up this film, with all the caveats and reassurances that word implies.
The Little Mermaid (1989, Ron Clements, John Musker)
There’s only one thing I can say about this film: wow. This is Disney in its element, truly.
Firstly: Alan Menken. Just look at the track listing: ‘Part of Your World’, ‘Under the Sea’, ‘Le Poisson’ (which enters my vernacular at least once a week), ‘Poor Unfortunate Souls’, ‘Kiss the Girl’… do I need to say more? Fine, I will. The film won two Academy Awards for its soundtrack, and sparked a collaboration with Menken that proceeded to give us the soundtracks to Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Enchanted, and Tangled. The lyrics of ‘Part of Your World’ perfectly encapsulate Ariel’s inner journey. The film has a classic Broadway musical structure, where the songs are not only clever, bright, and engaging, but also advance the story. There is nothing to fault here. Incidentally, it’s also the only soundtrack so far to have its own Wikipedia entry.
Your eyes may have scanned down to check what rating I gave this film, and if they didn’t before, they certainly will now. I can see some people having an issue with this, so allow me to defend myself: the narrative is perfectly structured, with characters having clear goals and motivations. The animation is perfect – I honestly have nothing to fault. The water, the hair (OH MY GOD, THE HAIR) – it’s gobsmacking. Someone drew that. I was fortunate enough to see the original sketches of the ‘Part of Your World’ sequence at ACMI, and they are as stunning as you’d expect.
I’m not the only one to sing the film’s praises – The Little Mermaid is often given credit for breathing new life back into Disney and marked the start of the Disney Renaissance – arguably the greatest period in Disney history.
The animation itself is so much cleaner than previous films. The sketchiness (literally) is gone. The colours are beautiful, and the ‘Under the Sea’ sequence is essentially just Disney showing off at this point. They drew over a million bubbles for this film, and even had to outsource the work of animating the bubbles to China to get it done in time. It’s also the last film to use traditional hand-painted cels in animation. The Little Mermaid being the first in the Renaissance films, and also the last to use xerography and cel painting, made it the perfect transitional film to carry Disney through to a new era.
Infuriatingly, Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg initially rejected production of the film, saying that it would earn less because it appealed to girls. What a shame that it became one of the highest grossing Disney films of all time, earning more than $100 million in its initial run, making it the first animated feature to become a blockbuster. Take that, Katzenberg.
The only fault I’d pick, if I had to pick one, is the characterisation of Ariel. She gets in trouble at the start of the film for not being at a concert to sing about how great her dad is, which is pretty light to make Triton so mad at her. I do think it’s important to admit that this was the trend in storytelling at the time, much like today’s is superheros overcoming adversity, or metatextual references that wink at the audience. It’s also Disney’s brand. Yes, you can say that’s an issue. The same as I think over-zealous insouciance in the vein of Thor: Ragnarok is an issue (watch Jack Howard’s excellent video explaining this in more detail here). But I also think it discredits yourself to paint Ariel as just another passive Disney heroine.
She doesn’t wait for a man to save her. Instead, she actively tries to become part of the humans’ world. She forages for their belongings, collects them, travels to the surface to ask Scuttle about them and to research the things she has found. She rescues Prince Eric without a second thought when they are caught in a shipwreck. She chooses to sign her voice away to Ursula, and at the end, she jumps into the ocean, swimming to save Eric once again. I fail to see how that is waiting for a man to save her. Instead, I see an active, honest, genuine heroine, who makes decisions about her own life.
Yes, she’s sixteen and has fallen in love with the first guy she sees, but if you apply a tiny bit of critical thinking here, you might find that there is a deeper reason for this. It’s not Ariel being superficial. Eric encapsulates everything she loves about humans – adventure, energy, possibility. It’s not that unrealistic to expect that her yearning for humans, her desire to be one of them, means that she latches onto Eric because he represents more than just himself. He represents freedom, possibility, opportunity. She’s attracted to him initially (of course she is, he’s Prince Eric, and we also know instantaneous attraction is possible), because of what he represents.
I feel like it’s just blatantly untrue to say that Ariel is a typical Disney princess who waits to be saved by a man. It not only shows a lack of engagement with the subject matter and outs you as not doing the bare minimum to try to disprove your thesis, it’s also a sweeping generalisation that fits into confirmation bias in the wider zeitgeist. I’m not having it. While I don’t agree with everything she says in this video, Lindsay Ellis’ ‘Reevaluating The Little Mermaid before Disney horks up another live action remake’ also expands a little on this here.
The characterisation of the other characters completely hits the mark, and it’s perhaps due to revisiting the custom of filming the actors for motion reference material, something that was common for the films made under Walt Disney himself. Sebastian toes that line of loyalty to Triton and chaperoning Ariel, perfectly, giving enough comedic relief as a sidekick. Ursula is evil and relishes in it, and basing her on drag queen Devine was an excellent choice.
Eric, ok, can we just have a moment to appreciate Prince Eric? He’s handsome, he’s humble (doesn’t like the ostentatious sculpture he gets for his birthday), he jumps back onto a burning ship to rescue his dog, he doesn’t give up searching for Ariel even when he’s unsure if she exists, he jumps INTO A SHIP, SPIRALLING INTO A WHIRLPOOL, SOMEHOW MANAGING TO STEER IT THROUGH A MAJOR STORM, AND KILLS URSULA. What more could you ask for? He’s wonderful! Prince Eric appreciation club, sign up here, let’s get pins for our jackets.
The Little Mermaid perfectly balances a Disney princess film with a strong female protagonist. The narrative is watertight and unfaultable. I know I am biased, because from now onwards is where we start getting into films from my childhood, but I honestly, objectively, think this is as close to a perfect film as Disney has given us so far.
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