Thursday, April 14, 2016

Theory Thursday: The 90's was Disney's Best Decade for Film

Scene from The Jungle Book
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Jungle Book is released in theaters on Friday.
Theory: The 1990's is Disney's best run of animated movies.

Scene from The Beauty and the Beast
Next to life itself, it almost seems like nothing is more universal than at least knowing the name Disney. For most of the 20th century, it became a beacon of family entertainment, creating some of the most iconic animation in popular culture. Beyond Mickey Mouse, Disney and its founder Walt Disney advanced the art form well beyond its limited potential in the late 1930's with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, earning an Honorary Oscar and setting a precedent that hasn't been matched. It is likely that if you are reading this piece, you can recite the songs to the various movies that these images are connected to. Disney is ingrained in our souls, and there's no denying that it'll take a massive disaster to make it lose any cultural presence.

There is one question that tends to pop up: What is your favorite Disney Princess? In all honesty, it's a compliment of its own that this compensates the average studio's favorite movie debate. However, there's still a lot that is telling of yourself to suggest what your favorite movie is, if just because the genres and approaches have been vast and different. For the sake of argument, I am limiting this debate solely to the tent pole animated movies that they're best known for. While every studio has a few clunkers (and Disney isn't without them), there's something to be said for their ability to create quality and groundbreaking animation so regularly. Add in an impressive soundtrack, and you get the formula for what family entertainment has strove to be. 

With The Jungle Book coming out, I decided to think to myself not what the best Disney movie is. That is a futile debate and one that has at least a dozen logical replacements. However, I want to ask everyone what the best decade is. What is the best string of movies released by the studio that reflects them working at the height of their powers. Even if The Jungle Book is one of their greatest works, I am about to make an argument that isn't immediately obvious. While the key films in Disney's iconography came between the 1930's and 1960's, the best decade - pound for pound - actually is way after the fact. It is actually the 1990's.

At this point, someone has likely applied the brakes and is getting ready to write in the comments why this is egregious. After all, the 90's did little to cement the initial reputation of Disney. It doesn't have the innovation of Pinocchio, Bambi, or even One Hundred and One Dalmatians. It is true that if you apply significance to the debate on quality, the 90's doesn't have a lot of power. Yet if you were to remove the significance out of the debate and focus merely on quality - as subjective as it is - you'll find that the 90's are particularly ripe with a diverse cast of films that reflect what the studio does best. In fact, I'd say that in the number column alone, the 90's put the other decades to shame.

In general circles, it is easy to argue that Disney's post-60's work was possibly the least consistent out there. With limited exception, the studio was dormant with iconic films. This didn't start picking up again until the late 80's when The Fox and the Hound reflected the studio's ability to make bittersweet family entertainment. True, it's often considered secondary, but along with Oliver & Company (itself an update of "Oliver Twist"), it was predicting what was to come. In 1989, Disney came back with a vengeance with The Little Mermaid. With music penned by Alan Menken, it helped to solidify Disney's reputation after one that amounts to a shrugged shoulder and the belief that their best days were behind them. Even "Under the Sea" won Best Original Song at The Oscar that year:

Of course, The Little Mermaid is technically an 80's movie. So, why bring it up? It's because it has every component that reflects why the 90's movies worked so well. For starters, the choice to adapt old fairy tales (or in the case of The Lion King, Shakespeare) proved to be a winning formula. Add in the fact that Ariel is singlehandedly responsible for reviving the Disney Princess culture is another nice touch. Beyond the writing, I wish to make the argument that a large reason that the 90's worked best was because all of this culminated into exuberant packages. Add in that it was the dawn of traditional hand drawn animation as we know it, and it only adds a certain preciousness. Of course, it does help that the cast of songwriters were arguably more in tune with their work, specifically in the case of Menken - whose credits in the 90's is unmatched for a film songwriter.

The magic of Disney's best era didn't actually kick in until 1991 when The Beauty and the Beast was released. Along with being the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars (back when there were only five slots), it added one of the richest songbooks in Disney's history as well as introduced viewers to their "nerdy" princess Belle, who read books. While this wasn't the first iteration of the story, it was the one that most modern audiences would come to associate with it, thanks in part to standards like "The Beauty and the Beast" and the rapturous "Be Our Guest." If there's one thing that this film proved, it's that the music was just as integral to the plot as it was about being fun. It was still a dark era where the films could be complex in themes, but it was also capable of not isolating families of any age bracket. Where it didn't reinvent the wheel with animation, it improved the studio in the story field.

The subsequent years weren't too bad either. In order, the next five years produced: Aladdin, The Lion King, A Goofy Movie, Pocahontas, Toy Story, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. With exception to Toy Story (which with Pixar revolutionized animation again), these were all in the familiar mold of Disney's best work. They were creative, adventurous stories that may have followed a formula, but were rarely repetitive in structure. It is likely that anyone could merely read the names of these films and immediately have a song pop in their head. It also helps that The Lion King remains one of the highest grossing animated films in history. Of course, the music of Elton John and Tim Rice is unmatched, as even the opening note of the film is familiar. It is also likely the first exposure that most children had to Shakespeare's Othello, albeit with a lot more fun and bugs.

As much as one could argue that this merely me being biased, it is hard to look at everything released between 1991 and 1999 and not ask how it's the perfect decade for Disney. With Pixar, they became an unstoppable force in reinventing animation. Without it, they basically altered the traditional formula to modern audiences' tastes and made films that were more intricate in design and with songs almost too good to be real. It's why the 90's Best Original Song category is littered with nominated titles, often doubling up on individual films. It also helped that while the studio's work can be considered problematic for portraying minorities in odd ways, they were still trying to make films with deeper texts. Pocahontas' song "The Colors of the Wind" is about as political as these films got, choosing to suggest that we should respect nature and each other. The film itself had a certain interracial bonding that suggested that society should've treated Native Americans better. True, the films may be altering history, but if judged solely as stories - they're endearing lessons (save for The Beauty and the Beast's strange domestic abuse subtext).

Scene from Mulan
It is almost bizarre to think that most of the Disney Princess debate doesn't actually stem that far back. Whether or not it was established as a gimmick to sell dolls, it was an effective one and the perfect antidote for male-dominated cinema. It was seen as empowering. I know that the early era had its own princesses - Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, etc. - but there's something enduring about the post-The Little Mermaid run that is undeniable. Between 1991 and 1999, you had: Belle, Jasmine, Nala, Pocahontas, Esmeralda, Megera (Hercules), Mulan, and Jane (Tarzan). While one could nitpick those characters to death, there's no denying that to different extents, they all have an impact on how Disney has been perceived. Most of them hold their own in a debate as to which is the best Disney Princess. 

Of course, it helps that the music was phenomenal, even in the underrated titles that have unfortunately faded. The Hunchback of Notre Dame in particular is a fascinating look into religious guilt that manages to update Victor Hugo's novel without being seedy. Still, it is impossible to not listen to "God Help the Outcasts" and feel a certain emotional tinge. Disney has never written a song as powerful, especially with great vocal performances and passion to spare. The rest of the music may not be as memorable, but it's hard to admit that Disney doesn't try to swing for the fences now and again. In fact, even the secondary titles like Hercules have some enjoyment to retrieve from them.

Before I close out, I may as well admit the answer to that age old question. What is my favorite Disney movie? It seems a little unorthodox to say, but it is Mulan. Maybe it could be that I was the right age when I saw it, but there was an overwhelming joy I had in watching it in theaters. I loved the music, including "My Reflection" and (of course) "Make a Man Out of You." The story of a child wanting to honor their family and overcome expectations still feels prescient in my life. True, it is problematic from a cultural standpoint. However, it still is a great story within context and has an overwhelming impact on me every time I watch it. It's funny, catchy, and all of the things that make the 90's a particularly effective decade for me. I know that people who grew up in the 40's and 50's would likely argue against my logic, but I figured that I owed you the kernel of truth as to what separates 90's Disney from other decades for me - as well as what I hope is logical defense statements.

I don't care to answer the question as to who the Best Disney Princess is, nor do I intend to suggest that the 90's is the only good decade for the studio. What I want to suggest is that it was the decade when Disney did everything right and ended up making a phenomenal run of movies that are all worth checking out in some capacity. It is a decade that has enriched their iconography and solidified their brand in ways that make the pre-70's work seem anemic. The fact that anyone could come up with that many successful stories is absurd, especially since the last 16 years haven't held much weight against the 90's. True, you have the few hits like The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen. However, you don't have quite the same execution at play, and the artistic merits aren't as impressive. Still, Disney doesn't need my criticism to survive. However, I do think that they needed the 90's to be more than an outdated studio.

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