The Disney Renaissance is widely regarded as one of the best eras of Disney animated movies. But what movies does the Disney Renaissance include, and why are they so popular?
The Renaissance era of Disney animation is one held dearly in the hearts of Gen X, Millennials, and even Gen Z. These films, from The Little Mermaid to Tarzan, marked new animation techniques, a decade of musical hits (thanks, Elton John and Phil Collins), and heartwarming stories ranging from Greek gods to the Hamlet-based animals of the Pride Lands.
In fact, a Disney Renaissance movie (Beauty and the Beast) was the very first animated film to get a Best Picture nod from the Academy. But when was the Disney Renaissance, why was it so successful, and can Disney reach that level of magical filmmaking again?
Welcome to the Disney Renaissance
After decades of experiencing box office flops from Disney, most fans probably entered theaters in 1989 expecting a mediocre film about a fish woman who wanted to be, well, a woman woman.
What they got was something so beautiful, so moving, so musically enthralling that it changed Disney animation forever. It was The Little Mermaid, the movie that started the Disney Renaissance.
What Is the Disney Renaissance?
The Disney Renaissance is an important era in Disney animation history, beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and ending with Tarzan in 1999. It marks the decade when Disney returned to its roots, drawing on familiar fairy tales (or adapting well-known stories, like Hamlet) and relying on memorable music and a stunning mixture of hand-drawn animation and CGI. Many consider the Disney Renaissance to be the decade that saved Walt Disney Studios.
What Are the Eras of Disney?
Disney animated movies are commonly categorized into eras, and while some resources might categorize them a little differently, most fans generally agree on the following eras:
- The Golden Age (1937 – 1942)
- The Package Era (1942 – 1949)
- The Silver Age (1950 – 1959)
- The Transition Era (1960 – 1969)
- The Bronze Age (1970 – 1988)
- The Disney Renaissance (1989 – 1999)
- The Post-Renaissance Era (1999 – 2008)
- The Revival Era (2009 – 2019)
- The Streaming Era (2020 – Present)
Some Disney historians have not yet recognized The Streaming Era as our current format, but with Raya and the Last Dragon and Encanto both enjoying wild success with their straight-to-Disney+ formats, we feel it’s safe to say we’ve entered this new era.
Why Is It Called the Disney Renaissance?
The Renaissance was a period in European history that took the continent out of (bleak) medieval times into (relatively) modern times. The Renaissance started in 14th century Italy and continued into the 17th century. During this time, the world experienced an important revival in the arts and literature — and got its first taste of modern science.
Today, the term “renaissance” has been adopted to mean “rebirth,” especially as it relates to artistic and intellectual growth. But what does that have to do with Disney? Believe it or not, before 1989’s The Little Mermaid, The Walt Disney Company was struggling at the box office with films that seemed to have lost their way from Disney’s Golden and Silver Ages.
Thus, the term “renaissance” captures the renewed vigor of Disney movies in the 1990s that recaptured the studio’s former glory.
What Film Started the Disney Renaissance?
The Little Mermaid started the Disney Renaissance, but first, some context. The 1970s and 1980s were not kind to Walt Disney Studios. After the deaths of Walt and his brother Roy, box office numbers began a downward slope. While there were some great films buried in here (The Fox and the Hound, anyone?), these were largely considered commercial flops.
By the time 1989 rolled around, it had been two full decades since the studio had animated a classic fairy tale (Sleeping Beauty had been the last in 1959), which used to be Disney’s bread and butter. Many of the films in the ’70s and ’80s also lacked memorable songs. In short, some of Disney’s least memorable films happened during this time period. We don’t talk about
Bruno The Black Cauldron.
To make matters worse, tenured animator Don Bluth left the company in 1979—and he brought 16 animators along with him. As Walt Disney Studios struggled with The Black Cauldron, The Great Mouse Detective, and Oliver & Company, Bluth found great success with films like The Land Before Time, which (spoiler alert) was the highest-grossing animated movie until The Little Mermaid.
The animators who remained loyal to Disney were already demoralized watching Bluth and Co. find success elsewhere, but it didn’t help that Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was running the motion picture division at Disney during this time, relocated the animators off studio grounds because he needed their area for more office space. (Katzenberg was also confident he had a winner with The Black Cauldron if that tells you anything about his judgment.)
Along with Katzenberg, Michael Eisner entered the scene as CEO in the mid-1980s. Though it took a few years for him to right the ship, he is often credited for getting the company back on track. (He also transformed Disney Parks, overseeing the opening of multiple new locations and Disney Cruise Line.)
And so miraculously, as the animators returned to the studio’s roots with a musical adaptation of a fairy tale, they stumbled upon something truly special. With the premiere of The Little Mermaid, we had entered the Disney Renaissance.
Why Did the Disney Renaissance End?
So why did the Disney Renaissance end? The decade was filled with musical hits, famous voice talents (James Earl Jones and Robin Williams in one decade!), and magical storytelling. Elsewhere in the realm of Disney movies, Pixar was debuting to massive success. If all was going well, why did the party stop?
Disney entered its Post-Renaissance Era (how creatively named!) with Fantasia 2000. By this point, Disney had perfected a formula for its animated movies, perhaps to a fault. Fans weren’t shocked by anything they saw in the later Disney Renaissance movies. They were predictable and used the same formula over and over again.
And then, during the Post-Renaissance Era, Disney tried to emulate what Pixar was doing with CGI. Home on the Range, Chicken Little, Meet the Robinsons, and Bolt marked the transition away from hand-drawn animation (though earlier Post-Renaissance Era Disney films did still use hand-drawn animation, like The Emperor’s New Groove and Lilo and Stitch).
But once again, after a decade of soul-searching, Disney returned to its roots with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, which marks the start of the Revival Era of Disney. And during that era, Disney did find out how to be successful with CGI films like Zootopia, Tangled, Moana, and Frozen (maybe you’ve heard of it?).
What Movies Are Part of the Disney Renaissance?
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about what led to Disney’s Renaissance and how it ultimately ended, but what Disney movies are actually a part of this era? In total, 10 movies belong to the Disney Renaissance:
- The Little Mermaid
- The Rescuers Down Under
- Beauty and the Beast
- The Lion King
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Little Mermaid (1989)
- Release date: November 17, 1989
- Revolutionary element: The Little Mermaid was the last Disney film to utilize the Xerox process and the first to use the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), which allowed animators to fuse computer-generated scenery in the background with hand-drawn elements, like characters, in the foreground. The system was used in a single scene.
The Little Mermaid was revolutionary for so many reasons. Though now considered a little behind the times, when it debuted, it was the first Disney Princess film to feature a rebellious and defiant princess. Rather than waiting to be saved for the whole film, Ariel takes action. In fact, she first meets Prince Eric by saving him from drowning.
Fans were also enthralled by the music, which harmoniously mixed Broadway-esque musical numbers with calypso bops sung by a Jamaican crab.
The Little Mermaid was the commercial success that Disney needed, grossing $84 million at the domestic box office during its initial release.
The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
- Release date: November 16, 1990
- Revolutionary element: The Rescuers Down Under was another proving ground for the mixture of hand-drawn animation and computer-generated imagery. It also, notably, is the only sequel on the list of Disney Renaissance movies.
The Rescuers Down Under is certainly not the hallmark Renaissance film, but it still did a lot of things right. As such, it garnered mostly positive reviews after its box office premiere.
Though it did not pull in the same kind of numbers as The Little Mermaid during its release, The Rescuers Down Under was still considered a commercial success for Disney, domestically bringing in nearly $28 million.
Beauty and the Beast
- Release date: November 22, 1991
- Revolutionary element: Easily one of the most iconic moments of the film—nay, of the evolution of animation—is the ballroom sequence that shows off how CGI could add true beauty to a film.
Often regarded as the best Disney Renaissance movie, Beauty and the Beast does so much right. Its amazing songs (“Belle,” “Be Our Guest,” and “Beauty and the Beast” chief among them), its stunning animation, and its wonderfully developed characters are all hallmarks of the film.
In particular, Belle represents a new kind of Disney Princess, a bookworm who is strong and independent. Like Ariel, she takes control of her situation, rather than let her situation control her. But Beast is also wonderfully developed whereas in prior Disney Princess films, the prince felt like an afterthought. Beast is flawed, Beast is emotional, and Beast is scary at times.
This and so much more earned Beauty and the Beast a nod for Best Picture from the Academy; this was the first time in Oscars history that an animated film received such a high honor. Over the years, Beauty and the Beast has grossed more than $424 million at the box office globally.
- Release date: November 25, 1992
- Revolutionary element: Aladdin was unique among the early Disney Renaissance movies as it was the first to feature a major celebrity as a voice actor: Robin Williams.
Aladdin was one of the first Disney animated movies to really immerse viewers in another culture. The film was a departure from Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, which, though they had moments of humor, weren’t as off-the-wall hilarious. And we have Robin Williams to thank for that.
Williams was not the only major celebrity to lend a voice to a Disney character during the Renaissance, but he was certainly one of the first and most renowned. It’s his performance—and, of course, iconic Disney songs—that created such great success for this film.
Domestically, Aladdin earned $217 million at the box office. Worldwide, more than $500 million.
The Lion King
- Release date: June 24, 1994
- Revolutionary element: Stunning animation, the musical genius of Elton John and Hans Zimmer, and a story—though based on Hamlet and biblical allegories—that was fresh and unexpected for audiences: All of these pieces fused together to make The Lion King into something truly special.
With an all-star cast, memorable songs, a tear-jerking story, plenty of crude comic relief, and something totally different from the typical Disney Princess story, The Lion King earned critical praise and enjoyed amazing success at the box office. Over time, it nearly amassed $1 billion at the box office altogether.
The film led to multiple sequels, a TV series, a Broadway show, and a live-action remake. In many ways, The Lion King is the defining movie of the Disney Renaissance.
- Release date: June 16, 1995
- Revolutionary element: “Colors of the Wind” is one of the most popular Disney songs to this day.
Though Pocahontas was popular with critics and fans when it debuted, the film admittedly hasn’t aged well. Its historical inaccuracy works against it, and the love story begins to follow the same formula as the films before it, making it at times predictable.
However, adorable animal sidekicks, beautiful animation, and the forever poignant “Colors of the Wind” assured this film’s success and re-watchability. Though it did not deliver the same success as The Lion King, the film did amass nearly $350 million at the box office.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- Release date: June 21, 1996
- Revolutionary element: Starting the film off with an amazing song (a la “Circle of Life” in The Lion King) set the tone quite well for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which contains several other popular songs, including Quasimodo’s “Out There.”
Many critics have (perhaps rightly) argued that Victor Hugo’s dense novel does not lend itself to Disney-ification. Giving Quasimodo a happy ending is very Disney but ultimately defeats the purpose of the whole story. (Hugo is known for having rather miserable characters; after all, he wrote Les Miserables.)
That said, The Hunchback of Notre Dame has charm. The gargoyles make us laugh, Quasimodo’s kind soul warms our hearts, and the romance between Esmerelda and Phoebus breaks from the predictable love story.
Not to mention, Frollo is one of the most deliciously evil Disney Villains of all time, and Demi Moore’s performance as Esmerelda is fantastic.
Though not as successful as some of its Disney Renaissance predecessors, Hunchback still brought in more than $100 million at the box office.
- Release date: June 13, 1997
- Revolutionary element: Forget fairy tales and folklore; Hercules proved that Disney could venture into myths successfully. In fact, though not very accurate to Greek and Roman myths, the film’s inspiration lent to a generous helping of subtle jokes that make it more enjoyable for those who have studied mythology.
James Woods steals the show as Hades, but the film would be successful even without this Disney baddie. Why? It packs in plenty of adventure, lots of romance, and amazing songs.
Meg is a true departure from Disney’s other leading ladies, as she is willing to lie and manipulate to get what she wants. Of course, Meg has a change of heart and delivers one of the film’s best songs, “I Won’t Say (I’m in Love).” (Other film favorites include Hercules’ own “Go the Distance” and pretty much anything sung by the Muses.) Oh, and did I mention Danny DeVito plays a half-human, half-goat?
- Release date: June 5, 1998
- Revolutionary element: Not only did Mulan help launch Christina Aguilera into superstardom, but it also served as an important transition for Disney’s leading women. Mulan showed us a heroine who can do anything a man can do (and better).
Mulan was groundbreaking. Like Aladdin, it immersed viewers in a culture far outside of a European fairy tale princess, and it contained strong feminist messaging. And it worked.
Though Mulan does have a romantic storyline, it’s secondary to the film’s true story, wherein Mulan risks her own life to save her father by pretending to be a man and serving in the army to defeat the Hun. And, of course, the movie is full of fantastic songs (“Reflection” by Aguilera and Donny Osmond’s “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”).
Mulan made $120 million at the box office domestically and $304 globally.
- Release date: June 12, 1999
- Revolutionary element: By the time Disney’s Tarzan came out, 47 other adaptations of Tarzan of the Apes had come before it. But this marked the first time the story was animated—which is what the novel’s author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, had always wanted.
While there’s no denying the emotional brilliance of Tarzan, it’s Phil Collin’s music that truly defines this final Disney Renaissance movie. “You’ll Be in My Heart” earned the Academy Award for Best Song, and the entire soundtrack earned a Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album.
The animation of Tarzan is also noteworthy as it showcases a new technique called Deep Canvas, which enabled animators to digitally create a background that looked like a painting. The creators of the technology earned an Academy Award for Technical Achievement. All told, Tarzan brought it nearly $450 million at the box office.
After Tarzan, Disney ventured more deeply into CGI (first with Dinosaur), films more focused on action and adventure (Atlantis and Treasure Planet), and away from the successful—albeit predictable—formula in favor of something notably different (think Lilo and Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove). As such, Tarzan marks the end of the Disney Renaissance movies.
What Was the Best Disney Renaissance Movie?
As one of the most popular eras of Disney animation, fans have strong opinions about the best Disney Renaissance movie. Some argue that The Little Mermaid deserves recognition as the film that started the decade of bangers; others will talk endlessly about the breathtaking animation and pure emotion of The Lion King. And still more will say Beauty and the Beast and use its Best Picture nomination as evidence.
For what it’s worth, Time magazine agrees with the final point, officially ranking Beauty and the Beast as the number one movie of the Disney Renaissance (with The Lion King) at a close second. Specifically, Time commends Beauty and the Beast for its character development, suspenseful storytelling, and iconic songs (“Be Our Guest” chief among them).
I personally give the nod to Hercules; it’s action-packed, it has one of Disney’s funniest villains, and it has some of the most underrated Disney songs ever recorded. (If you don’t always have Danny DeVito’s “One Last Hope” in your Spotify’s Recently Played, you’re doing it wrong.)