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From 1989 to 1999, Disney would release a string of critically and commercially successful films that helped Walt Disney Animation Studio reclaim its crown following a period of stagnation. This era would come to be known as the Disney Renaissance. Today, we’re taking a look at the top three movies from the Disney Renaissance.

The Little Mermaid (1989)

It all started here. Based on the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, what makes The Little Mermaid so special is its empathy – the filmmakers had a clear understanding of each character’s motivations and explored them without critique. Sure, Princess Ariel is naive, but that is not presented as a flaw. It is her wanderlust and undying passion that make her who she is, best captured in the classic “Part of Your World” musical number.

Props must also be given to the love story itself. Prince Eric doesn’t fall for Ariel simply because of her beauty. Rather, it is the magnetic singing voice of the girl who saved him that captures his imagination. After all, it isn’t a coincidence Ariel must trade her voice to become human. And who could forget Ursula the sea witch? Based on drag performer Divine, Ursula steals every scene she appears in thanks to her inspired design, saucy personality, and eerie pet moray eels. The Little Mermaid launched what would become a hugely successful period for Disney, but it also stands on its own right as a film that celebrates youth, love, and embracing your truth.

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

As the first animated film to ever receive an Academy Award for Best Picture nomination, Beauty and the Beast’s legacy speaks for itself. The film takes inspiration from the classic fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont as well as French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film. Walt Disney himself, in fact, was interested in adapting the fairy tale to animation, but felt he couldn’t do better than Cocteau’s film.

Thankfully, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a tour de force. Sublime animation and art direction. Unforgettable songs that get stuck in your head for days, weeks, years. A fantastic cast. And a love story for the ages. The narrative also explores darker themes such as mob mentality – led by Belle’s narcissistic suitor Gaston, a group of villagers storm Beast’s castle, labeling him a monster who must be killed. Haunting, romantic, and full of life and color, Beauty and the Beast remains a landmark in animation.

Aladdin (1992)

Based on the folk tale of the same name, Aladdin follows a homeless youth who discovers a magical lamp and meets a Genie inside it who grants him three wishes. Played by Robin Williams, the Genie is far and away the highlight of the movie – his antics and zany transformations truly stand out in the Disney filmography. Indeed, Williams once referred to Aladdin as a “Warner Brothers cartoon in Disney drag.

Williams’ role in the film’s success cannot be overstated. His energy, his humor, his improvisations, his endless talent brings so much warmth, charm, and fun to the Genie character. Once more, the film also features a number of witty, catchy songs that are truly magical.

Key Takeaways

The success of the Disney Renaissance is, in many ways, the success of playwright and lyricist Howard Ashman. Released on Disney+ in August of this year, the 2018 documentary Howard chronicles how the late songwriter spearheaded Disney Animation’s new direction in collaboration with composer Alan Menken. Unfortunately, Ashman’s run would be short lived, as Ashman would die of complications from AIDS in 1991. Perhaps it is due to the loss of his imagination that Disney would, as some critics view it, come to rely on a formula established by Aladdin for many of the films that followed his passing. Whatever the case, these three films represent the best of what would become one of the most successful arcs in the long and storied history of Disney Animation.

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