The Best (and Worst) of the ‘Disney Renaissance’ Ranked
From the 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to this year’s Zootopia, Walt Disney Animation Studios has released 55 animated features, many of which have become beloved by generations for their imaginative stories, indelible characters and (in most cases) unforgettable music. We’ve already discussed why the current run of films like Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen is fast becoming a second incarnation of the “Disney Renaissance,” a term first used to describe the period from 1989 film The Little Mermaid to the 1999 release Tarzan.
10. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
Coming just a year after The Little Mermaid hit it big, this sequel to the 1977 film received decent enough reviews but failed to make much of an impact at the box office. Featuring the voices of Bob Newhart, Eva Gabor, and John Candy, the film follows Bernard and Bianca as they travel to Australia to save a young boy. One of the few sequels in Disney’s flagship animated canon, The Rescuers Down Under tends to get overlooked as part of the Disney Renaissance and never earned the classic status of its peers.
9. Pocahontas (1995)
This family-friendly take on the life of the Native American Pocahontas has one of the richest color palettes of any film in the Disney Renaissance. Moreover, its Alan Menken music earned two Academy Awards, including Best Original Song for the powerful “Colors of the Wind.” However, the story is less arresting than its visuals and score, and the mixed response to the film have led it to slip below many other films Disney released during that time.
8. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, the “Disney-fied” version often bears little resemblance to its source material, as it tells the story of misunderstood bell-ringer Quasimodo (Tom Hulce) and his desire to have a life of his own. The voice work is stellar throughout, and the villainous Judge Claude Frollo (Tony Jay) is perhaps one of the most underrated Disney villains of all time. Aside from its fair share of childish gags, the film is pretty dark throughout. It’s probably a good idea to keep this away from very small children until they’re ready to handle Frollo’s show-stopping “Hellfire.”
7. Hercules (1997)
After the raw intensity featured in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney made a smart decision to lighten things up with this bubbly, energetic take on Greek mythology. Tate Donovan, James Woods, Danny DeVito, and Susan Egan lead a star-studded voice cast, and the Alan Menken score is just as sing-along-friendly as fans would expect. Still, the film doesn’t have as much heart or laughs as its predecessors.
6. Tarzan (1999)
Edgar Rice Burroughs’s iconic character gets the Disney treatment here, and his film appearance closed out the Disney Renaissance on a high note. The film’s more modern animation and rich story earned critical praise upon its release, and its Phil Collins song “You’ll Be in My Heart” earned an Oscar that year. In the end, the film — which starred Tony Goldwyn and Minnie Driver as Tarzan and Jane, respectively — brought in nearly $450 million worldwide.
5. Mulan (1998)
A famous Chinese legend is at the center of this Disney musical. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star Ming-Na Wen stars as the titular war hero, who disguises herself as a man to fight for her country against the invading Huns. A pre-Shrek Eddie Murphy delivers a standout performance as the dragon named Mushu who aids Mulan on her quest. Despite its changes to the story it’s based on, Mulan has more than enough action, emotional depth, and catchy music to keep the story moving along at a steady pace. Unlike most of the late period Disney Renaissance films, this one has aged pretty well.
4. The Little Mermaid (1989)
The film that started off the Disney Renaissance is still one of the best. Loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, the story of Ariel’s (Jodi Benson) deal with the sea-witch Ursula (Pat Carroll) shaped what audiences would come to expect from Disney films. Every song is a stone-cold classic, and the story — although a bit sexist in hindsight — still holds up from a pure entertainment standpoint. Whether under the sea or on land, Disney classics don’t get much better than this.
3. Aladdin (1992)
The late great Robin Williams single-handedly created the trend of studios bringing in big-name stars to breathe life into larger-than-life characters. His performance as Genie may be the film’s trademark, but the flawless music, thrilling animation and pitch-perfect script — balancing a broad sense of humor with classic adventure story elements — have kept the film top-of-mind for Disney enthusiasts and casual moviegoers alike.
2. The Lion King (1994)
Back in the 1990s, Disney arguably released several films that could be considered phenomena that extended far past the big screen to become something much greater and more impactful. This one — largely inspired by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet — certainly qualifies, as the film was everywhere in the summer of 1994. The film introduced the world to unforgettable characters like Timon and Pumbaa as well as spawned sequels and television series as recent as 2015. Its Hans Zimmer score and Elton John/Tim Rice song “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” earned the film a pair of Oscars in 1995, and The Lion King stood as the highest-grossing animated film for a full decade following its release.
1. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
The first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Beauty and the Beast is that rare film that transcends its genre and the era of its release to become a timeless masterpiece. Sure, that designation could be applied to multiple films from the Disney Renaissance that received universal acclaim, but the love story between Belle (Paige O’Hara) and the Beast (Robby Benson) elevates the film to more than simply another pristine musical romance. The animation style, voice casting, intricate story, and (of course) Oscar-winning music all help Beauty and the Beast hold the status as Disney’s gold standard for excellence.
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