Editor’s Note: Check out the previous installments in Chris’s series exploring Disney history: “10 Disney Cartoons from the 1930s that Reflect the Can-Do Spirit That Survived the Great Depression,” “10 Ways World War II Affected Disney’s Filmmaking,” “10 Examples Of How Disney’s Productions Reflected The Changing America Of The 1950s,” “Walt Disney’s 7 Most Radical Ideas From His Last Decade on Earth,” “Disney’s Wilderness Years, Part 1: How The Studio Reflected The Chaos Of The 1970s” and “Disney’s Wilderness Years, Part 2: How The Studio Navigated The Hit-Or-Miss 1980s.”
A few years after Walt Disney’s death, the studio he founded entered a creative drought of nearly 15 years. The projects Walt had his hands on had dried up, and the most creative minds in the company were working directly on the theme parks. Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law, oversaw the company during most of this era, and, though the studio managed to produce some underrated cartoons and live-action films during this time period, nothing matched the artistry and innovation of the years when Walt was still alive.
When Roy E. Disney and Sid Bass brought Michael Eisner over from Paramount to head Disney — along with Frank Wells — the company experienced an almost immediate injection of creativity. In the realm of animation, most everyone dubs the period beginning with 1989’s The Little Mermaid the Disney Renaissance. (Some people end the Renaissance with the execrable Tarzan from 1999, but for me, this period ends with 1995’s Pocahontas.)
A lot of exciting things took place at Disney during the first few years of the Eisner-Wells tenure, and here are the ten best of them.
10. Pocahontas (1995)
Pocahontas marked the end of the Disney Animation Renaissance of the late-’80s and early-’90s, as far as I’m concerned. And it’s nowhere near as good as the films that preceded it, largely due to its over-earnestness, Judy Kuhn’s vocal melisma, and the screenplay’s loose play with history.
However, Pocahontas deserves mention because of its firsts. It was the first Disney animated feature based on a historical person, and it also brought the Disney Princess banner to an American character (something the studio did much better in 2009 with The Princess and the Frog). Disney also deserves some credit for turning the dramatic “Colors of the Wind” into a smooth pop hit.
Even though Pocahontas isn’t the greatest of the Disney classics, it does belong among the highlights of the early Eisner-Wells era.
9. Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort (1988)
For the first nearly 17 years of Walt Disney World’s existence, the only lodging options guests had on property were two higher priced resorts, camping, and a handful of hotels Disney allowed other companies to manage. Under Michael Eisner’s watch, the company added 13 resorts to the Florida property, along with the Disney Vacation Club timeshare program. The second resort of the Eisner era was possibly the most revolutionary.
After the summer 1988 opening of the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, the most opulent and expensive of the Disney hotel properties, the company opened the first “moderate” resort, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, which debuted on Walt Disney World’s 17th birthday. This resort featured the same intricate theming of the deluxe resorts, though the accommodations were much less lavish and more affordably priced. Guests could immerse themselves in the Disney version of a Caribbean paradise on more of a budget.
Rooms were less like ornate hotel rooms and more like casual motel digs. A food court – albeit one with a unique Caribbean flair – replaced the finer dining of the deluxe properties. The Caribbean Beach Resort shook up Disney’s hotel offerings because it allowed guests to experience Disney at a lower price point, and it paved the way for the value resorts, opening the full-blown Disney magic to even more guests.
8. Dead Poets Society (1989)
Shortly before his ousting, Ron Miller established Touchstone Pictures as a sub-studio for more “grown up” fare. Touchstone’s first release was Splash, and though the studio won Paul Newman a long overdue Oscar for The Color of Money, most of its early output consisted of light comedies.
Once Eisner and Wells took over, Touchstone Pictures got a little more serious (think: more dramas, less Bette Midler). One of the earliest Touchstone features greenlit under Eisner was a drama about a boys’ prep school starring Robin Williams as an unconventional yet inspirational teacher.
Dead Poets Society won Touchstone its first Oscar under Eisner and Wells’ watch – for Best Original Screenplay — and solidified the dramatic acting chops that Williams had shown in flashes beforehand. Touchstone would go on to make more substantive pictures, and Eisner would oversee Disney’s acquisition of Miramax Pictures to generate more Oscar bait.
7. Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (1994)
Even as Disney added more affordable lodging choices throughout the ’90s, the company also raised the bar on its deluxe resort options. The majestic Yacht and Beach Clubs added a rich, Eastern Seaboard air to Central Florida, while the opulent Grand Floridian cast a dramatic backdrop for weddings and other high-end affairs. But the most striking and unique deluxe resort brought the stunning classic national park lodges to Disney property.
Disney’s Wilderness Lodge opened in 1994, and it strikes a dramatic profile along the shores of Bay Lake. The cavernous atrium is breathtaking and conjures up the old lodges of the Northwest, contrasting with the intimate nooks. A bubbling spring in the lobby opens to a waterfall, which leads to the pool. Fire Rock Geyser by the lake erupts regularly.
All of the splendor of Wilderness Lodge feels like a remote getaway, but the resort is a short boat ride from the Magic Kingdom and the monorail hotels, and a short stroll away from Fort Wilderness Campground as well. The Wilderness Lodge is the crown jewel of Disney’s ’90s hotel boom.
6. Aladdin (1992)
After a couple of big animated hits about princesses, Disney’s animation studios went the opposite direction with a timeless tale about a young man who would be a prince. Disney went with many of the same elements that they had used for years to create Aladdin – a hero who defies the odds, a compelling villain who tries to make the hero’s life miserable, an irresistible love interest.
But the aces in the hole for Aladdin included the music of Alan Menken, the lyrics of Howard Ashman and Tim Rice — who took over after Ashman’s death — and Robin Williams as the Genie. Williams gave a bravura performance for the ages, as the animators simply let him do his thing and drew the Genie around his voice work.
Aladdin proved to be another hit cartoon for Disney, as well as a nice respite for the boys who had likely tired of princess stories (though Jasmine proved to be a fine princess herself).
5. Star Tours (1987)
Throughout the 1980s Disney learned the value of collaboration with great creative minds outside the Disney fold. The company worked with Steven Spielberg to develop two separate Indiana Jones attractions at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, and, of course, the third theme park initially bore the name of MGM Studios thanks to its cooperation with Disney.
By far the most exciting collaborative work for Disney during this time frame was their partnership with George Lucas to develop the simulator-based Star Tours attraction. This thrilling, clever attraction brought the world of Star Wars first to Disneyland in 1987, to Tokyo Disneyland in July 1989, and to Disney-MGM Studios by the end of that year. Star Tours proved such a success that Lucasfilm and Disney co-branded merchandise for the parks and even “plussed” the attraction for a relaunch in 2011.
The Disney-Lucasfilm partnership became fruitful enough for Disney to buy Lucasfilm in 2012, placing the Star Wars world squarely under the Disney umbrella and leading to new films and animated series, as well as rumors of a greater Star Wars presence in the theme parks.
4. The Lion King (1994)
After resurrecting Disney’s feature animation department with The Little Mermaid (and stumbling a bit with The Rescuers Down Under), the hits kept coming with Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Disney hadn’t really ever had a string of so many hits, so critics and moviegoers alike wondered what Disney would do next.
The studio pulled out all the stops with the ambitious feature The Lion King. The cast featured heavyweights like James Earl Jones and Jeremy Irons. The music – composed by Elton John with lyrics by Tim Rice – featured Andrae Crouch’s choir. The big names and big gamble paid off.
The Lion King was a true feast for the eyes and ears – the “Circle of Life” sequence still bowls me over two decades later. The sumptuous depiction of vast African vistas, unforgettable songs, and powerful storyline still pack thrills. And Disney proved their animation studio could still conjure up plenty of magic.
3. The Little Mermaid (1989)
Of course, we can’t talk about the Disney Renaissance of the early Eisner-Wells years without delving into the feature film that brought Disney’s animation department back from the doldrums. The Little Mermaid was one of the first cartoons on Eisner’s production slate, and its success upon its release in 1989 paved the way for more great animation to come.
Hans Christian Andersen’s tale came to life in Disney’s hands in a way that would have made Walt proud. More than just a Disneyfied take on the story – Andersen’s original carries a darker tone and ending – The Little Mermaid combined an increased emphasis on quality animation with irresistible songs courtesy of composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman with pitch-perfect casting.
Jodi Benson’s performance as Ariel opened the door for the Disney Princess craze, while veteran character actress Pat Carroll gave us a villain for the ages with her astonishing Ursula. The efforts of everyone involved helped make The Little Mermaid the success that saved Disney Animation and opened the door for more great things to come.
2. Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park (1989)
The idea began as a new pavilion for EPCOT Center celebrating the entertainment industry, but in the hands of Michael Eisner the concept led to something greater and more ambitious – a third gate for Walt Disney World. In its initial form, Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) peeled back the curtain on the film and television industries in an unprecedented way.
Initially, Eisner and the Imagineers came up with plans for a pavilion at EPCOT Center celebrating entertainment. The showpiece of the pavilion would be a dark ride looking at the history of the movies – which would become The Great Movie Ride at Disney-MGM Studios – while ancillary activities would give guests behind-the-scenes glimpses into the industry.
Eisner raised the stakes and elevated the idea to an entire theme park and even commissioned a fully functioning studio on the property. Guests could take a backlot tour, see animators at work, catch a glimpse of productions underway onsite, and even travel back in time to an idealized Hollywood heyday.
With the advent of home video and its backstage documentaries, guests no longer had the need to see what goes on behind their favorite productions, so Disney’s Hollywood Studios has drifted from its original mission. Disney doesn’t really utilize Orlando for new productions, either. But the theme park still celebrates the industry in exhilarating ways and provides some of Walt Disney World’s biggest thrills.
1. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
While The Little Mermaid resurrected Disney Animation from certain death, Beauty and the Beast raised animation as an art form in a way moviegoers really hadn’t seen since the days of Walt Disney. And the studio received an unprecedented honor as a result.
After completing The Little Mermaid, Disney turned to the classic French story of a young woman who falls prey to, then falls in love with, a misunderstood beastly creature. Others had told the story time and time again, but Disney of course put their own spin on it, with a bookish yet headstrong heroine in Belle and a Beast who truly wanted to be a better creature.
Beauty and the Beast boasted an expert voice cast, including legends like Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach, and delightful music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (his last full-length work before passing away). The film’s beautiful animation, powerful story, and spellbinding music garnered a surprising Best Picture nomination, a first for an animated feature and a feat that would not repeat until Up received the honor 18 years later. Surely Walt would have been proud.