Saturday Morning Cartoons: Disney Renaissance Smackdown!

(Disney, Part 4)

There are several reasons I’ve focused on the period known as the Disney Renaissance for my series of articles on Disney (it probably won’t be the last, since they’re such a huge driving force behind Western animation.) The most practical reason is because I know them the best: as someone who grew up throughout most of the 1990s, I saw many of these movies in theaters, or else owned them on VHS and watched them to pieces (I mean that literally: we’re talking about VHS here, after all). All nostalgia aside, I think this is the most fascinating period of Disney’s history, and one of the most important periods in the history of Western animation in general.

After writing my previous articles, it occurred to me that there may be some of you who aren’t sure exactly what I mean when I talk about the Disney Renaissance. Basically, it was a resurgence of critical interest and popularity for Disney, who had struggled in the 1970s and 1980s, when they began dabbling unsuccessfully in live-action features. The renaissance began with The Little Mermaid in 1989, and is generally considered to have ended with Tarzan in 1999. Disney animated features that fall into this range include The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994),Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999).

I’ve written a few reviews, told you what I generally like and dislike about the Disney Renaissance format, but I don’t think I’ve given a good overall look at this groundbreaking period. So I’d like to take a look at some of the best moments from the Disney Renaissance.

Best Musical Numbers (Overall):

If you’re not convinced that Mulan has the best musical numbers, I want you to try not to complete these lyrics in your head:

Let’s get down to business
To defeat the Huns…

Look at me
I will never pass for a perfect bride…

Yup, have fun listening to Donny Osmond singing about how he’ll “make a man out of you” in your head for the rest of the week. You’re welcome.   

Best Score (non-musical)

I don’t know what your feelings on Phil Collins are — assuming you have any at all. Personally I think Genesis was better off during the Peter Gabriel years (look it up, kids) and Collins’s music will never be any more than an occasional guilty pleasure for me.

But none of that matters when it comes to Tarzan. I will openly admit that this is one of my favorite film soundtracks of all time. Collins’s cheesy eighties voice-echo sensibilities work perfectly for Disney in the 90s: well-produced, over-the-top, probably taking itself too seriously, but unavoidably fun anyway. Not such a bad metaphor for the Disney Renaissance overall, actually.

Best Musical Number (stand-alone)
“Colors of the Wind” – Pocahontas

I should probably just disclaim this entire category right now by saying that this was shoehorned in because I wanted to recognize every Disney Renaissance movie in some respect, but I absolutely hate Pocahontas. It contains not a single interesting character, and is so blatantly historically inaccurate that you begin to wonder why Disney decided to make the story about Pocahontas at all. The film resembles the actual story of Pocahontas so little that Disney’s executives and PR staff could have avoided countless headaches just by asking that all the names be made fictional.

If I had to choose one thing about the film that I like, though, it’s this musical number. The song itself is beautiful and well-deserving of the Oscar it won; the soft, pastel visuals that accompany it make this scene almost worth the 78 minutes of bland surrounding it. But not quite, of course. I recommend watching the scene on Youtube. It’s great, but can’t carry the movie on its own.

Best Singing Performance
Tony Jay as Claude Frollo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I reviewed The Huncback of Notre Dame a few weeks ago, so you probably already know that I love this ambitious, but essentially flawed movie. Claude Frollo is a huge part of that. His inclusion as a villain an incredibly risky character for such a “family-friendly” company, but the creative team managed to masterfully handle the film’s darker themes in a way that wouldn’t be too upsetting for small children.

Tony Jay’s performance as Frollo is impressive, especially considering the fact that he is the only voice actor in Hunchback who did his own singing. This isn’t something that happens often in animated musicals, but it makes a huge difference. Unlike many of the other singers in Hunchback, Tony Jay acts through the music. This is part of what makes the amazing “Hellfire” so compelling: you don’t just hear a song, you hear all of the emotions Frollo feels at that moment.

Best Celebrity Voice Actor
Robin Williams as Genie, Aladdin

It seems like Disney just couldn’t make a movie in the 1990s that didn’t feature a comedian who was popular at the time, (no matter how inappropriate  for the film as a whole- I’m looking at you, Jason Alexander). These celebrity guest stars varied quite a bit, but there’s only one Disney Renaissance film that comes to mind when I think of a movie that actually needed that celebrity power.

Oh, Aladdin. How I wanted to like this movie when I reviewed it a month ago. I don’t want to repeat myself, (I know for a fact that I pretty much shot down a fellow Moar Powah! staffer’s childhood with my review, and I’d rather not do that too often), so I’ll just say that I was disappointed with it. It was silly and lacked substance; however, it would have been completely unwatchable without Robin Williams. Gratuitous 90s pop culture references aside, his performance is so full of energy that it becomes infectious after a while. I’d even say that Aladdin wouldn’t be half as beloved if it weren’t for this iconic performance.

Best Protagonist
Belle, Beauty and the Beast

I think the important thing to note here is that Belle is an unusually well-written character: for Disney, for a cartoon, and as a female protagonist. Her character arc is natural, believable, and well-motivated. She is likable, yet shows clear and relatable flaws. Basically, she has everything that writers should know to include when writing a main character, but often don’t.

Best Villain
Ursula, The Little Mermaid

She is fabulous, and her design is brilliant. This scene should be all the proof you need:

Hades from Hercules is a close runner-up. Like Ursula, he’s very fun. I mean, it’s James Woods, people. That movie doesn’t have much going for it, when you don’t consider Hades. Although if there was a “best inspirational song” category, “Go the Distance” would definitely win. That song still makes me feel like I can go out and win an Olympic gold medal, and I’ve heard it at least a hundred times.

Most Iconic Scene
Mufasa’s death, The Lion King

I can guarantee that not a single person who saw The Lion King in theaters during its original run expected this to happen. Mufasa’s death broke new ground for Western, family-targeted animation. The murder of the child protagonist’s parent at the hands of his own brother is pretty dark for a kid’s movie, even now. And even though you might claim that this scene fucked you up for life, my fellow 90s kids, it is very tastefully done when you look it again, after you’ve worked through the PTSD.

And now I have said something nice about every Disney Renaissance movie. It was rough. I hate to break it to those of you who are still wearing the nostalgia goggles, but some of these movies aren’t very good, guys.

I hope you’ve all enjoyed my series on Disney! It certainly won’t be the last. I’m extremely excited about a series of specials that I have planned for this week to celebrate the holidays, so stay tuned!


  1. What about balto? That was in 1995 and what I thought to be was the best disney movie. Actually, now that I think about it, all of my favorite disney movies were from before the entire musical fiasco (The Great Mouse Detective, The Rescuers…)

  2. I can get behind just about all of your selections. The only one I really disagree with is your pick for the first category. Mulan had some excellent, underrated musical numbers (I definitely AM singing "I'll Make a Man Out of You" in my head right now!), but The Lion King reigns. "Circle of Life," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight, "Be Prepared," Hakuna Matata" and "I Just Can't Wait to Be King" – just awesome.

  3. I believe Balto isn't a Disney film though; although it is one of my favorites from the 90s

  4. I think you forgot one movie that was both Disney Rennesance and first to use CGI…It is a Great mouse detective…
    While I believe that most of these movies are not for kids under 12, since I never liked one of them as small kid, while I liked 101 Dalmatian and Robin Hood, and that Donald Duck is my favorite since his story is funny and don’t put burden on kids mind like murder, death etc, I find Basil Great mouse detective best Disney movie…
    First of all unlike all other movies where cast is a girl, a guy(prince, beast, teaf),and bunch of magical animals-genie-things, Basil unlike all mentioned films has a cast that resemble more of human society…Even if they are not humans they are closest that Disney got from films of this period…
    Second unlike all these stories where villains have weak excuses like Gaston wants to marry Bell, Frollo wants Esmeralda, Ursuala wants kingdom, Ratigan is only one who acts as real life criminal…
    He got plan, which is shrouded in mystery almost entire movie, he got gang of crooks, he made an ingenious plan that Disney cast made looks so good…
    Also every character in Great mouse detective is great…Basil a great detective, Dawson great sidekick, Olivia daughter who wants to save her father, Hiram father who sacrificed himself for sake of his daughter, Ratigan egoistical charming maniac voiced by Vicent Price,Fidget the crippled bat who is scary but lovelable, etc etc…
    Even the plot is brilliant in every detail, and Ratigan’s plan and reason is better than every other reason villains in other movies had…He is doing a c’oup d’état…
    So this movie should be mentioned…

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