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by Ken Pellman (archives)
January 8, 2001
This month Ken continues what he started in his first column, a recent history of Disney animation.

The Lion Roars
The New Golden Age of Animated Features

In my first issue of Kenverstations™, I talked about what an uncertain time 1994 was for most of The Walt Disney Company, but I finished by noting that animation was thriving. In Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters, Jack Kinney, a former Disney animation producer, lamented the demise of animation in the cinema. He did, however, end the book expressing hope that someday the "animation game" would return in full force. Kinney passed away before he could see that, although animated short subjects didn't quite make it back to the cinema as standard fare, animated features became all the rage again at the big studios.

Return of the Magic
In that first issue of Kenversations™, I started to talk about how "The Little Mermaid" signaled the “return of the magic” before I so rudely sidetracked myself with talk of what a big year for Disney 1989 was, and how just five years before, things were pretty grim, blah blah blah…

Okay. The big deal about "Mermaid" was that it ignited the new golden age of feature-length animation. Suddenly, the magic was back, which meant young minds were having their imaginations stimulated, the young-at-heart of all ages could enjoy a “cartoon” together, and Disney was making a heckuvalotta money on merchandise.

Just Remember - It All Started with a… Rabbit?
In retrospect, one could look back a year before Ariel swam into our hearts, to 1988, when "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" hit theaters. Though the film was a blend of live-action and cel animation, the saving and opening of Toontown was a metaphorical foreshadowing of the return of the animation game. A collaborative effort between Disney and Spielberg, the film featured not just Disney characters, but well-known classic animated characters from other companies.

With "Roger Rabbit" and then "Mermaid", animation was suddenly popular again. Of course, Disney and Spielberg went on to produce many animated features, working separately except for the few Roger Rabbit animated shorts that were made to capitalize on the film's success. Studios started getting interested in animation again, more jobs were being created in the field, and more creative types were looking into careers in animation.

After "Mermaid" came the 1990 release of "The Rescuers Down Under", which showcased coloring advancements but failed to garner much box office revenue. Right around the corner for 1991, however, was another film based on a classic tale, "Beauty and the Beast". Like "Mermaid", "Beauty" was a full-blown musical featuring the talents of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, had magical elements, and a prince. More notably, it has a bright female lead who took things into her own hands. The film was a big hit and became the first animated feature to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and was subsequently adapted as Disney's first Broadway production.

Where was there to go from there? Well, in 1992, Disney released "Aladdin", a film that broke the mold with deliberate anachronisms, self-parody, and the distinctive work of red-hot comedian / film star Robin Williams. Again, Disney topped itself at the box office. Unfortunately, "Aladdin" was the last animated feature that would showcase the talents of Howard Ashman, who passed away before he could complete work on the film, indeed, before he could accept his Oscar for "Beauty and the Beast".

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