I’ve seen a lot of Disney related nostalgia pop up over the last few days: The live action Lion King trailer. The Disney princesses appearing in the new Wreck-It Ralph: Ralph Breaks the Internet movie. Even just a few days ago, I sat down and watched Warren Beatty’s lavishly colorful Dick Tracy film.
Movies and related media have always impacted my life. I can tell you where I was, and what I was doing from movies, games, or TV shows. And none have had more of a resonance for me than Disney.
But I will admit that Disney isn’t what it used to be these days in terms of “magic”. Oh certainly, its reach on entertainment is global and omnipresent. It’s getting to the point that, even if you’ve “never been a fan of anything Disney”, chances are, you’ve been well indoctrinated into their media empire, from ABC to ESPN. Liked Infinity War? Disney. Star Wars? Disney. Family Guy? Disney.
Disney today feels less like a creative studio and more like an IP acquisition firm. And that’s not to say that I enjoy some of their current product, but really looking at their current landscape of reinterpreting their entire animated film catalogue to live action, heavy reliance on specific properties instead of their bulk library of media and their growing monopoly of entertainment media at large….
I really miss Disney of the 1990’s.
Disney came a long way from the rough road that they traveled after the death of Walt Disney. The studio seemed directionless, and wasn’t creating new beloved films that it known for. However, when CEO Michael Eisner came along, he shifted the company’s direction into something far more successful.
The changes weren’t always ideal. For every George Lucas collaboration, Touchstone Pictures, theme park expansions,and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, there were also decisions that could have cost the company some of its most beloved properties. Eisner didn’t see the animation department as viable, and nearly axed the group entirely, but The Little Mermaid became the saving grace that led Disney into its “Renaissance” period.
The “Disney Renaissance” lasted from 1989 to 1999. The films produced during this time period elevated “children’s entertainment” into movies that well competed with any other movie in the theaters. Among the highlights were Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, each lavishing rich animation, Broadway style music (from notable composers and lyricists like Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, and Tim Rice), and new characters that stood equally alongside Walt’s own era of creations.
Disney’s live action films and studio/filmmaker collaborations brought new ideas to the general audience. Movies like Dick Tracy and The Rocketeer made their own comic book based impacts well before “cinematic universes” were ever conceived of. Other new properties such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids hearkened back to those older quirky films. Other animated projects, such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Pixar’s Toy Story showed the innovation and risks that the Disney studios were once known for.
This “new age” also extended to television animation. While Saturday morning and after school fare had usually been low budget, The Disney Afternoon featured shows like DuckTales, Chip “N’ Dale Rescue Rangers, and Darkwing Duck, that introduced or reinterpreted beloved characters, showcased a higher standard of animation (which Warner Bros. Animation upped their own standards to directly compete with Disney), and incredibly catchy theme songs that people can still recall by heart when prompted.
Disney even set new standards in video gaming. Working with companies like Sega and Capcom, Disney characters became “cool” to play on a home console, ranging from those Disney Afternoon shows, Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, and even Disney animators lent their talents to games with titles such as Aladdin and The Lion King.
Disney in the 1990’s was inescapable. From Disney Adventures Magazine, to collecting the latest movie merchandise from The Disney Store, to even Walt’s Disney World’s growth into an actual “world” (introducing Animal Kingdom in 1998), Disney constantly made “new” properties without relying on any outside influences.
A lot’s changed since the 1990’s. In the 2000’s Eisner finally got his wish to axe 2D animation (though John Lasseter brought The Princess and the Frog and a new Winnie the Pooh film before fully transitioning Disney Animation into computer animated films). Disney leaned heavily into cloning out as many Disney Channel stars as they could. There were a few highlights, like Lilo & Stitch, and the early Pirates of the Caribbean films, but the flourish was largely gone. Disney has evolved from a creative powerhouse to an entity not unlike Star Trek‘s Borg Collective, Marvel Comics’ Galactus, or Transformers‘ Unicron.
Today, Disney’s primary goal looks to be collecting as many outside studios and licensed properties as it can, and leaning on those. Instead of focusing on a wide swath of animated fare or unique concepts, they double down on ones that make the most impact at the box office, and cling to it like nothing else exists (I’m looking at you, Frozen). That’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed some of their new films and ideas. The Marvel Comics films remain consistently enjoyable even in their weakest entries, and initial goodwill of the Star Wars acquisition won me over, until they ran the franchise like a juggernaut.
Don’t even get me started about the loss of the Disney Infinity video game, and backing out of the console market to solely work on mobile apps.
With the 2010’s nearly over, the next decade will undoubtedly bring yet another evolution to Disney’s business goals. I predict that future will be largely digital, but hopefully, Disney will look back on some of those creative processes that they found in the 1990’s, and look for new ways to expand those concepts, and not view it as how can they mine further nostalgia for profit.