After the deaths of Walt and Roy O. Disney (in 1966 and 1971, respectively), The Walt Disney Studios were left in the hands of Donn Tatum, Card Walker, and Ron Miller. The films released over an eighteen-year period following this change of management did not perform as well commercially as their prior counterparts. An especially hard blow was dealt during production of The Fox and the Hound when long-time animator Don Bluth left Disney to start his own rival studio, Don Bluth Productions, taking eleven Disney animators with him. With 17% of the animators now gone, production on The Fox and the Hound was delayed. Don Bluth Productions produced The Secret of NIMH in 1982 (whose story idea Disney had originally rejected for being too dark), and the company eventually became Disney's main competitor in the animation industry during the 1980s and early 1990s.
Disney made major organizational changes in the 1980s after narrowly escaping a hostile takeover attempt from Saul Steinberg. Michael Eisner, formerly of Paramount Pictures, became CEO in 1984, and he was joined by his Paramount associate Jeffrey Katzenberg, while Frank Wells, formerly of Warner Bros., became president. In 1985, to make more room for live-action filmmaking, the animation department was moved from the main Disney lot in Burbank to a "temporary" location in various hangars, warehouses, and trailers about two miles (3.2 km) east in nearby Glendale, where it would remain for the next ten years. Thus, most of the Disney Renaissance (in terms of where the films were actually made) actually took place in a rather ordinary industrial park in Glendale, the Grand Central Business Centre.
After the box office failure of the 1985 PG-rated feature The Black Cauldron, the future of the animation department was in jeopardy. Going against a thirty-year studio policy, the company founded a television animation division (now Disney Television Animation) which was much cheaper than theatrical animation. In the interest of saving what he believed to be the studio's core business, Roy E. Disney persuaded Eisner to let him supervise the animation department in the hopes of improving its fortunes.
In 1986, Disney released The Great Mouse Detective, while Don Bluth released An American Tail. An American Tail outperformed Mouse Detective, and became the higher-grossing film on its first release. Despite An American Tail's greater level of success, The Great Mouse Detective was still successful enough (both critically and commercially) to instill executive confidence in Disney's animation department. Two years later, Oliver and Company successfully outgrossed The Land Before Time, launching an era of increased theatrical turnout for the studio.
In 1988, Disney collaborated with Steven Spielberg, a long-time animation fan and producer of An American Tail and The Land Before Time, to produce Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a live action/animation hybrid which featured animated characters from the 1930s and 1940s from many different studios together. The film was a critical and commercial success, winning three Academy Awards for technical achievements and renewing interest in theatrical animated cartoons. Other than the film itself, Spielberg also helped Disney produce three Roger Rabbit shorts.
Disney had been developing The Little Mermaid since the 1930s, and by 1988, after the success of Roger Rabbit, the studio had decided to make it into an animated musical, much like many of its previous animated movies, but with a more Broadway feel to it. Lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, who worked on Broadway years earlier on productions such as Little Shop of Horrors, became involved in the production, writing and composing the songs and score for the film. Released on November 14, 1989, The Little Mermaid was a critical and commercial success and garnered a higher weekend gross than Bluth's All Dogs Go to Heaven, which opened the same weekend, eventually breaking The Land Before Time's record of highest-grossing animated film. It won two Academy Awards for Best Original Song ("Under the Sea") and for Best Original Score, earning an additional nomination for Best Original Song for "Kiss the Girl."
The Rescuers Down Under was released one year later and was the first canon sequel produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios. The film garnered mainly positive reception, but was not as financially successful as The Little Mermaid.
Beauty and the Beast, often considered to be one of the greatest of all Disney animated features, followed in 1991. It was the first animated film nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, losing to The Silence of the Lambs, and remains the only animated film nominated for Best Picture when that category had only five entries. Beauty and the Beast did win the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture (Musical or Comedy) and two Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. Beauty and the Beast also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound, as well as two additional nominations for Best Original Song.
Aladdin and The Lion King followed in 1992 and 1994, respectively, with both films having the highest worldwide grosses of their respective release years. Aladdin was the highest-grossing animated film up until that time, but was later surpassed by The Lion King, which became the highest-grossing animated film ever at the time and remains the highest-grossing traditionally animated film in history (fifth overall in history after additional gross from a successful 2011 3D re-release, behind Toy Story 3, Frozen, Minions and Zootopia). Both films won Academy Awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Score. Aladdin also earned an additional Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song and nominations for Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing, for a total of five nominations. The Lion King earned two additional Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song, giving it a total of four Academy Award nominations. Howard Ashman wrote several songs for Aladdin before his death, but only three were ultimately used in the film. Tim Rice joined the project and completed the score and songs with Alan Menken. Tim Rice went on to collaborate with Elton John and Hans Zimmer in The Lion King. Between these in-house productions, Disney diversified in animation methods and produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) with former Disney animator Tim Burton.
Thanks to the success of the early films of the Renaissance era, Disney management was able to allocate sufficient money to bring Feature Animation back from its ten-year exile to Glendale. A 240,000-square-foot building designed by Robert A. M. Stern opened across the street from the main Disney lot in Burbank on December 16, 1994.
In 1995, Disney partnered with Pixar to create Toy Story, Disney's first fully computer-animated film.
The next Disney animated film, 1995's Pocahontas, opened to mixed reviews, though it still earned $346 million worldwide and garnered Academy Awards for Best Score and Best Original Song for "Colors of the Wind." The following year, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney's first animated film produced at a budget over $100 million, opened to better reviews than Pocahontas, but a lower total box office of $325 million. Both films feature composer (now serving only as lyricist to Menken's music) Stephen Schwartz. When Hercules, released in 1997, earned $252 million—$73 million less than Hunchback—at the box office, news media began to openly suggest that Disney animation was on a downward trend of their animated film releases. Although it gained more positive criticism than Pocahontas and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, it was still vulnerable to competition from companies such as DreamWorks and Pixar. All three films featured songs by Alan Menken.
Disney's next film, Mulan, with a score by Jerry Goldsmith and songs by Matthew Wilder and David Zippel, came out in 1998 and earned $304 million at the worldwide box office, raising the commercial and critical standing of Disney's output.
The release of Tarzan is retrospectively seen as the end of the Renaissance era. With songs by Phil Collins, Tarzan won an Academy Award for Best Original Song for "You'll Be in My Heart," became Disney's most commercially successful film since The Lion King, earning $448 million at the box office and widespread positive reviews. Tarzan was also Disney's most expensive animated feature to that date at $130 million, much of which went to developing new processes such as the computer-assisted background painting technique known as "Deep Canvas". It was also the first film since the start of the Renaissance era that was written, developed and produced at the studio's new home in Burbank; all the other films had either been made entirely in Glendale or had started development in Glendale and moved with the studio to Burbank.
While achieving success in animation motion pictures, Disney created huge strides in television as well during this time period. After 30 years of resisting offers to produce television animation, Disney finally relented once Michael Eisner, who had a background in TV, took over. The first TV cartoons to carry the Disney name, CBS' The Wuzzles and NBC's Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears, both premiered in the fall of 1985. Breaking from standard practice in the medium, the productions enjoyed substantially larger production budgets than average, allowing for higher-quality writing and animation, in anticipation of recouping profitably in rerun syndication. While The Wuzzles only lasted a season, The Gummi Bears was a sustained success with a six-season run.
In 1987, the TV animation division adapted Carl Barks' Scrooge McDuck comic books for the small screen with the syndicated hit DuckTales. Its success spawned a 1990 theatrical film entitled DuckTales the Movie: Treasure of the Lost Lamp and an increased investment in syndicated cartoons. The result of this investment was The Disney Afternoon in 1990, a two-hour syndicated television programming block of such animated shows as Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers (1989–91), TaleSpin (1990–91), Darkwing Duck (1991–93, also airing on ABC), Goof Troop (1992–94, also airing on ABC), Bonkers (1993–94), and Gargoyles (1994–97). TV animation also brought some animated feature film characters to Saturday morning, including The Little Mermaid and Aladdin both on CBS.
Most of the films Disney released in the Renaissance era were well-received, as in the film critic site Rotten Tomatoes, four out of the first five—The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King—have the best critical reception (with over 90% positive reviews), while Pocahontas has the lowest reception of Disney's "renaissance" films (with 56% of positive reviews).
List indicator(s)(A) indicates the adjusted totals based on current ticket prices (calculated by Box Office Mojo).
The success of the Disney Renaissance attracted the attention of many animation studios and film studios. Major film studios established new animation divisions such as Fox Animation Studios, Turner Feature Animation, and Warner Bros. Feature Animation to replicate Disney's success by turning their animated films into Disney-styled musicals. However, most attempts met with largely mixed to negative reviews from critics and poor box office results, with Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina, Quest for Camelot and The Swan Princess being major examples. However, Anastasia (produced by 20th Century Fox), The Prince of Egypt (produced by DreamWorks Pictures) and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (produced by Paramount Pictures) were the only films that achieved the same level of musical and filmmaking quality as the Disney films.
Nine of the ten films in the Disney Renaissance were nominated for Academy Awards, most notably Beauty and the Beast which became the first animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, six of which won at least one Academy Award; and nine of the films were nominated for Annie Awards, with six of them winning at least one: