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A Bill Kuchman Pop-Ed: Are We Living in the Second Disney Animation Renaissance?

When the 86th Academy Awards are held in March 2014, Walt Disney Animation Studios is going to make history — it's likely going to win its first Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

For a studio that has been making animated films since 1937 when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted, this factoid seems pretty ridiculous. From that movie up to this winter's Frozen, Disney has released 53 animated feature films, a number that blows aways the resumes of Pixar or DreamWorks Animation.

OK, so there's a trick to all of this. The Academy has only been giving out an Oscar for Best Animated Feature since 2001. Still though, over those dozen years, how could Disney, the studio that made the animated feature a reality, have never won a single Oscar?

Walt Disney Animation Studios was lost. They were lost for a long time.

If you're a kid of the 1980s or 1990s, you were lucky. You grew up during the Disney Renaissance, a time period that ran from 1989 to 1999. During those ten years, Disney released ten films, with almost all of them being critical or box office hits. In most cases those movies were both. The Little Mermaid kicked the Disney Renaissance off in 1989, pulling the studio out of the animation wildness and reestablished the House of Mouse as the premiere animation studio once again. Besides a handful of titles (The Land Before Time, An American Tail and The Prince of Egypt), Walt Disney Animation Studios was the only name that mattered when it came to animation during that ten-year period.

Then things fell apart.

Disney stumbled into the new millennium, releasing the computer-animated Dinosaur in 2000 and following that up with an unremarkable stretch of movies that included Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range and Meet the Robinsons. The studio's feature films darted back and forth between traditional hand-drawn animation and computer animation. At one point, Walt Disney Animation Studios even considered shutting the 2D animation department down completely. Could you imagine that? The studio that gave us Mickey Mouse and decades of hand-drawn animation abandoning the art form?

While Disney sputtered, its rivals in animation were catching up. Pixar Studios was riding an unprecedented streak of critical and box office hits. DreamWorks animation discovered it could spin pop culture references, celebrity voices and fart jokes into big dollars. Things looked bleak for Disney.

Everything changed when Disney bought Pixar in 2006. Not only did the studio get Pixar's box office might, but they also got John Lasseter, the brain behind Pixar's series of hits. Lasseter was quickly made chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios with the hope that he could use his Pixar magic to rescue the studio. Lasseter wasted little time getting to work, jumping in on production of Bolt, a Disney project that was stuck. Thanks to Lasseter's influence, Bolt was reworked and went on to gross over $100 million domestically. Bolt also nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.

With Lasseter at the helm, things started looking up for the Walt Disney Animation Studios. With each passing year, Disney has released stronger movies like Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, drawing consistent critical praise and slowly gaining strength at the box office.

If you doubted that Disney was in the midst of a second renaissance, this past weekend should have washed away those doubts. Frozen, the studio's latest, brought in $93.93 million over the Thanksgiving weekend, setting a record for biggest opening over that holiday weekend in the process. Taking cues from the previous Disney Renaissance, the studio employed the team who wrote songs for The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q to do the same for Frozen, bringing a full-fledged Disney movie with a Broadway musical edge to theaters for the first time in roughly a decade. With some critics calling Frozen the best Disney animated movie since The Lion King, it looks like Disney is back.

Of course, there are two ways to tell if that's true: The box office and the critics. Frozen had a great opening weekend, but is it really enough to declare that we're living in the Second Disney Renaissance?

The box office records for Walt Disney Animation Studios are a funny thing. Going back to 1989 when The Little Mermaid launched the Disney Renaissance, the studio has really only had one mega hit, 1994's The Lion King, which grossed $422.78 million at the domestic box office. From then on, the rest of that era of Disney animation stayed around the $100 million to $170 million range. No giant hits there, but no flops either.

Then came the dark ages. While only two films during the Renaissance failed to cross the $100 million domestic mark (and 1997's Hercules was less than $1 million short), seven of the ten films during the pre-Lasseter era failed to accomplish that feat.

During the Second Renaissance, things are looking a lot better at the box office. With the exception of 2011's Winnie the Pooh and Frozen (which hasn't even hit its second weekend in release yet), Disney's animated movies are crossing the $100 million mark. In fact, 2010's Tangled even grossed more than $200 million, becoming the first offering from Walt Disney Animation Studios to do so since The Lion King. Yes, you read that right. Between 1994 and 2010, no Disney animated movie grossed more than $200 million. On top of that, last year's Wreck-It Ralphed outgrossed every single movie that the studio released during its dark ages.

Then you have the critics. Looking at this chart, it couldn't be any more obvious that Disney has turn things around. While Disney's animated features regularly received high marks during the Renaissance, there were still a few blemishes on the studio's record. Critics didn't care for The Rescuers Down Under and they disliked Pocahontas.

That's nothing when you look at the dark ages, though. With the exception of a few standouts like The Emperor's New Grove and Lilo and Stitch, critics didn't look on Walt Disney Animation Studios' offerings very highly. Don't even ask about Brother Bear and Chicken Little, two movies that scores in the 30s on Rotten Tomatoes.

When it comes to the critics (at least on Rotten Tomatoes), we're living in an unparalleled era of Disney animation. From Bolt through Frozen, all six films released since Lasseter took over have received rave reviews.

Between box office numbers that are looking stronger than Disney's animation box office numbers have looked in a decade and the warm glow of critical praise, it's safe to say that, yes, we're living in the Second Disney Renaissance.

Can the studio continue this streak with next November's Big Hero 6?
A Bill Kuchman Pop-Ed: Are We Living in the Second Disney Animation Renaissance? Reviewed by Bill Kuchman on 12/05/2013 Rating: 5

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