Editor’s Note: This feature has been re-published for the 25th anniversary of Beauty and the Beast.
On November 17, 1989, Walt Disney Pictures’ The Little Mermaid premiered in movie theatres across America, swimming into our hearts and kicking off what is now known as the Disney Renaissance.
After the colossal disappointment of the 1985 feature The Black Cauldron and slightly more profitable efforts like 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective and 1988’s Oliver & Company still getting pummeled at the box office by former Disney animator Don Bluth’s An American Tail and The Land Before Time, respectively, the House of Mouse was in dire need of a transformation. Pivoting back to the music-driven, ornately drawn fairy tales of the studio’s heyday, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, then-CEO Michael Eisner hired lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, known for working together on the successful Off-Broadway production Little Shop of Horrors, to write the songs for an ambitious new film: an animated adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid.
Thankfully, the result was a critical and commercial success, garnering a higher weekend gross than Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven, which opened the same weekend, and eventually breaking The Land Before Time’s record of highest-grossing animated film. The Little Mermaid also won two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and for Best Original Song (“Under the Sea”), and breathed new life into what had hitherto been a fading empire. After struggling through a string of commercial flops from the early-’70s to the mid-’80s, the Walt Disney Company was finally back on top, with 1989 marking the dawn of the studio’s new golden era.
Disney would go on to release one animated musical a year for the next decade, resulting in 10 motion pictures that are widely recognized as the Disney Renaissance oeuvre. So, get ready for some prime millennial nostalgia as we rank each of the outings from meh to magnificent, and let us know in the comments section which films you still love, which ones you can’t stand, and which VHS tapes you broke from rewinding and playing over and over.
10. Pocahontas (1995)
If you prefer your history whitewashed, then you probably won’t be too offended by Pocahontas, the weakest and most vapid entry in the Renaissance Ten. As the first animated Disney film to be based on a historical figure, one would expect our main character, even with the rest of her story bastardized and kid-proofed to death with cuddly animal sidekicks (Meeko the Raccoon and Percy the Pug) and a talking willow tree (Linda Hunt), to be at least somewhat interesting. But no, she and her equally boring lover, John Smith, voiced by famed anti-Semite Mel Gibson, are the Barbie and Ken of the New World, with not much to offer besides dramatic poses and platitudes.
Iconic Disney Moment: Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue-corn moon, or asked the grinning bobcat why he grins? Perhaps you should try jumping off a cliff and letting the colors of the wind carry you down; that looks fun.
09. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Taking a nearly 500-page novel by Victor Hugo and turning it into a 91-minute, animated extravaganza suitable for children is risky, to be sure. But the main problem with Disney’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not in its reach for the dramatic — on the contrary, the grand leaps into gothic spectacle and pathos are the films high points — but in its yielding to the requisite tomfoolery, like the gargoyles dancing and singing (for the kids!), that creates several jarring shifts in tone. Perhaps the studio was reticent to go too dark, considering how The Black Cauldron turned out. But when the villain, Claude Frollo (Tony Jay), is the most electrifying screen presence, and Esmeralda (Demi Moore) and Captain Phoebus (Kevin Kline) barely register, well, that presents quite a conundrum. Perhaps if the sidekicks had been less hackneyed and if Quasimodo had been performed with more gusto (Tom Hulce’s voiceover is adequate, but ultimately forgettable), then Hunchback, which isn’t all that bad in retrospect, might have left a more lasting impression.
Iconic Disney Moment: That’s easy: Frollo singing to the shadow of Esmeralda’s naked, dancing body as it erupts into flames. “Destroy Esmeralda, and let her taste the fires of hell, or else let her be mine and mine alone!” he wails, torn apart by the horror of his forbidden lust. Um, holy shit.
08. The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
And so it began. Thirteen years after the release of The Rescuers, Disney dipped its toes into the sequel pool for the first time with The Rescuers Down Under, another of the earliest entries in the Renaissance era. As a film, it’s an exciting enough adventure flick and one which offers Disney’s characteristic sense of genuine danger, even in a film about cute, anthropological animals who govern their own animal rescue squadron (the Rescue Aid Society). Like The Rescuers, which was primarily built around an anonymous plea for help by a kidnapped orphan, Down Under sees Bernard (Bob Newhart) and Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor, in her final film role) attempting to save Cody, a young boy unwittingly captured and very nearly fed to crocodiles by a maniacal big-game hunter in search of a golden eagle. Down Under is far from the most memorable Disney movie, but it’s absolutely noteworthy for one reason: not only was it Disney’s first sequel but also its first foray into the hybridized hand-drawn/computer-generated animation that would characterize the studio’s next and best phase.
Iconic Disney Moment: The point at which Bernard saves Cody from the aforementioned crocodile trap by furiously riding in on a razorback pig he tamed with an animal-whispering technique. It’s quintessential Disney: beautifully animated, exciting, and with just a dash of reckless child endangerment.
07. Tarzan (1999)
For a time, Tarzan was Disney’s most expensive animated production ever. And despite its budget being trumped within a few years by the underrated but still notorious flop Treasure Planet, Tarzan still stands as one of Disney’s most lushly animated, visually memorable films. It’s also a moving one, as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters are brought to life in a film that at once pays homage to Burroughs and stages its own powerful arguments about the modern world, about man’s violation of nature and its propensity to act in ways more savage than the animals it forever hopes to tame. It’s the chronicle of Tarzan (Tony Goldwyn), who’s torn between his loyalty to his given family of apes and Jane (Minnie Driver), the gentle scientist who offers Tarzan the opportunity to live among his own kind. While it’s an often simplistic film, and hardly strays from the long-established Tarzan stories of yore, it occasionally offers some surprisingly complex lessons about loyalty and what it is that defines a family, and even briefly returned Phil Collins to top 40 prominence. The renaissance more or less ended here, but it’s an impressive way to go out.
Iconic Disney Moment: Tarzan’s introductory journey, as he pursues game through a thicket of trees by flying effortlessly between them. It’s a truly breathtaking sequence that stands among Disney’s best individual scenes.
06. Hercules (1997)
Greek mythology seems like a perfect springboard for a Disney movie, given the amount of them that trade on the basic iconographies of the mythic. But what’s most pleasantly surprising about Hercules isn’t necessary its retelling of Herc’s trials, an aspect of Greek lore that had been done to death for years before Disney ever took aim at it, or even the music, which doesn’t linger well after viewing in the same way as some of the soundtrack cuts from other films on our list. (Well, the refrain of “Herc-u-les” notwithstanding.) It’s how surprisingly quick and fun the film is. Bolstered by a score of studio-best voice performances, from James Woods’ perfectly jaded and sarcastic Hades to Susan Egan’s seen-it-all Megara, Hercules makes up for whatever it may be lacking in the iconic, universal appeal of Disney’s best films of this period with sheer entertainment value. Whether it’s Danny DeVito cracking wise as Hercules’ trainer Phil or Hades callously informing Hercules of Meg’s mortality with a smirk and a couple one-liners, Hercules is Disney animation at its fleet-footed, oddly comical, darkly tinged best.
Iconic Disney Moment: Hercules conquering the Hydra, only after removing several of its heads and trapping it in a landslide. Woods’ running commentary and DeVito’s screaming panic give the scene a perfectly pitched, off-kilter tone.
05. The Little Mermaid (1989)
If you’re wondering why The Little Mermaid is placed in the middle of our list, and not closer to the top, the truth is that the story doesn’t hold up as well as it should. Sure, the very best elements retain their magic: the striking animation, the infectious songs, the fabulous villain (“And don’t underestimate the importance of body language!”), the memorable side characters, and the tenacious, likable lead still shine. But the whole girl meets boy, girl gives up her voice to be with boy scenario is harder to swallow as an adult than, say, as an impressionable child dreaming of true love’s first kiss. The biggest problem is that, after literally giving up her voice to be with Prince Eric, Ariel doesn’t change. She gets what she wants in the end and all for a guy she’s known for a grand total of three days. King Triton is the only character with a real arc, and, to the movie’s credit, he is the most impressive Disney dad. Also, if you reframe The Little Mermaid as being Triton’s story, of how he learns to love his daughter by letting her go, that makes the film even better in hindsight. Granted, that could just be my inner old person talking.
Iconic Disney Moment: “Part of Your World”. If you are a female-identified child of the ‘90s, chances are good that you have belted this song into your hairbrush or showerhead on more than one occasion.
04. Aladdin (1992)
As animation goes, you can’t get much more fluid or imaginative, at least within the boundaries of the early ‘90s, than what Aladdin had to offer. John Musker and Ron Clements, who already had The Little Mermaid under their belts and would go on to helm Hercules, Treasure Planet, and The Princess and the Frog as well, made use of Disney’s continually growing interest in the potential of computer animation. But never before (and rarely since) had it been used to such stunning effect. From Aladdin’s initial footrace through the streets of Agrabah to the magic carpet ride to the Genie’s cave and right through Jafar reaching his final form late in the film, Aladdin offers one jaw-dropping step forward for animation as a medium after another. That sense of endeavor into the unknown and unconquered, combined with Alan Menken’s bouncing, infectious music, makes for one of Disney’s most lovable and enduring films.
And while it’s easy to come down on the film with respect to most modern metrics (the racially problematic villainy, Jasmine’s relative ineffectuality when compared to most other Disney princesses), Aladdin is still a visual and aural pleasure of substantial caliber. It’s also among Disney’s warmest films, a tale of love and friendship and how one or both of those things can only be truly achieved when you set selfishness aside and look out for those who’ve been good to you. Given the events of the past few months, viewings will never quite be the same again, but in the Genie, Robin Williams left one of his most indelible and timeless characters, and one of the very best in the Disney canon.
Iconic Disney Moment: That flying carpet ride. The maudlin nature of “A Whole New World” has been parodied to death over the years, but it’s still one of the most unabashedly breathtaking and romantic sequences Disney’s ever put together.
03. Mulan (1998)
Before Disney’s more recent girl-power epics Brave and Frozen came along, there was Mulan, the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man to defeat the Huns (hwah!). Yes, Mulan is a badass, but she also has nobler aims: to protect her family by taking her elderly father’s place on the battlefield and to prove that she has value above and beyond being married off to the highest bidder. And while the movie gets off to a slow start, the training camp montage is a Renaissance high point, with the budding, gender-bending magnetism between Mulan and her commander, Li Shang, providing some compelling sparks alongside her main focus, which is to find the strength within herself to be brave, follow her heart, and save China.
Plus, most of the main characters, with the obvious exception of Eddie Murphy as the dragon Mushu, are voiced by Asian-American actors. Ming Na-Wen is Mulan’s speaking voice, and Lea Salonga is her singing voice; BD Wong voices Li Shang; Pat Morita is the Emperor of China; George Takei cameos as one of Mulan’s ancestors; and Soon Tek-Oh plays Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou. Okay, Harvey Fierstein also pops up as one of the army dunces, but with such an impressive female lead, enticing story, moving message, and in my opinion, the catchiest song in the Renaissance catalog, “Be a Man”, this one bizarre admission is easily forgivable.
Iconic Disney Moment: “Let’s get down to business / to defeat the Huns!” This song is everything.
02. The Lion King (1994)
Yeah, it’s basically Hamlet with lions. But let’s move on from the obvious note, because The Lion King is so much more than a kid-friendly (well, friendly-ish) rendition of Shakespeare. While our top film edges it out by just a hair, The Lion King is the sort of generation-defining masterpiece that Disney does with the best when it’s at its best. Particularly for those who grew up during the film’s salad years, this writer included, it’s hard to start talking about The Lion King without highlighting the power of that stampede sequence and Mufasa’s subsequent death. “Get up, Dad” is not only one of Disney’s most instantly recognizable bits of dialogue, but it was also a bold maneuver. Through that impeccably animated moment, Disney taught a generation of kids about death and mortality and the responsibilities that the living have to the dead they once loved. It’s affecting, troubling stuff even by Disney’s standards.
But this, and the surprisingly bracing showdown that eventually transpires between an adult Simba (Matthew Broderick) and his uncle Scar (a deliciously vampy Jeremy Irons), take The Lion King from a story of a young cub coming of age in a starving kingdom to a transcendent piece of filmmaking, one that treats its ostensibly young audience with a respect and esteem that few family-centric filmmakers typically do. It’s a crash course in moral relativism for kids, offering lessons in forgiveness, redemption, the virtues of Hakuna Matata juxtaposed with the importance of being willing to grow up and take responsibility for the people who depend on you when the time comes. And when Simba tugs on his father’s cheek, begging him to get up, it’s not only heartbreaking, but a reminder that those we love will eventually leave us. Where another film might simply let that tragic life lesson sit on its own, The Lion King is about where Simba goes from there, how it shapes the course of the rest of his life, and how there is indeed life after death, even if it’s not the one you plan on.
That’s to say nothing of the soundtrack, which is one of Disney’s most iconic in a walk. Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” is as touching an approximation of a sex scene as Disney’s ever done, via John’s powerful delivery and no shortage of meaningful glances and feline necking. “Hakuna Matata” taught countless kids the value of taking it easy at a time when the world was becoming more worrisome and high-strung than ever before. And then there’s “Circle of Life”, the background to the film’s classic opening shots of the African savannah and an easy way to teach kids (and their parents) that if death is one of the most inevitable and life-changing parts of the human comedy, the coming of a new life into the world is perhaps the one that most powerfully surpasses it.
Iconic Disney Moment: The entire film is like a gauntlet of one after another, really, but it has to be Mufasa’s death. Not since Bambi’s mother was gunned down had a Disney movie so starkly stared mortality in the face.