The Making of The Big 4 of The Disney Renaissance

This article is about all the hard work Disney has put through between 1989 to 1994.
January 08, 2018
1989 to 1994 was an important era for Disney Animation, beginning with The Little Mermaid and ending with The Lion King. Critics, families, ordinary moviegoers, and animation/movie buffs praised these movies for their animation, characters, Broadway-style musical numbers, stories and themes and they sold a lot of box office tickets, home video copies, toys, and video games. Unfortunately, these movies were not always easy to make. This article deals with the nightmares the animators and writing staff went through, dealing with such topics such as studio interference, long work hours, Then-chairman Jeffery Katzenberg's impatience with animation, and writers and directors struggling with what the story should be. I'm excluding The Rescuers Down Under (1990) because there wasn't much production conflicts i can find and despite positive reviews from critics and animation fans, not that many people remember it thanks to Katzenberg pulling off TV ads after the opening weekend didn't meet expectations.

THE LITTLE MERMAID (1989) Walt Disney attempted to adapt Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale as a short subject for a package feature back in the late 1930s but the film never came into fruition. During the production of The Great Mouse Detective (1986), co-director Ron Clements was doing research at a bookstore and came across Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale. Jeffery Katzenberg, who was promoted as Chairman of Disney in 1984, was reluctant to green light the film because the studio was working on a sequel to the 1984 hit comedy Splash, with Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah. But later changed his mind after he read Clements's treatment of the film and the Splash sequel was cancelled and turned into a made for TV movie in 1988. Nobody knew that Walt planned to adapt The Little Mermaid until work from Dutch illustrator Kay Nielsen was discovered at the Disney archives. The iconic song "Part of Your World", about Ariel's desire to go to the human world, was nearly cut from the film because it reportedly bored children at a test screening and Katzenberg thought of doing it but Ariel's animator Glen Keane and songwriter Howard Ashman demanded the song to be kept in the film, which happened after a successful test screening with a different audience. The Little Mermaid was the last Disney animated feature to use cels, sheets of plastic used for tracing the front of the animation drawings and color them on the back. The labor was intense so some of the animation was done at a Chinese art facility near Beijing. Unfortunately, this was taking place during protest at Tienanmen Square. Due to the intense labor, Disney decided to use Pixar's CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) to finish the film. It was used in only one shot in the film when the mermaids waving goodbye to Prince Eric and Ariel while King Triton casts a rainbow on top of the ship. Despite these difficulties, production was smooth compared to the next 3 films.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991) Like The Little Mermaid, Walt Disney attempted to adapt the Beauty and the Beast legend but never paid off due to difficulties of adapting the story and French filmmaker Jean Cocteau already made his version in 1946. During the production of Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), the project was resurrected. Roger Rabbit's director of animation, Richard Williams. was approached to direct the film but he was focusing on finishing his pet project called The Thief and the Cobbler (1993) but he recommended his friend Richard Purdum to do the job. Purdum's version was very different than the finished film. It was close to the original tale and was not a musical. When Purdum pitched his idea in 1989, Jeffery Katzenberg was dissatisfied and turned the film into a musical. Purdum quit the project. Following Little Mermaid's success, songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were hired to do the songs. Unfortunately, Ashman was HIV positive since 1988 and was slowly dying so he had to do work at the Residence Inn in Fishkill, New York. He sadly died in his hospital bed in March 14, 1991 at age 40. As bad as things have been with Ashman's health and death, the situation with the animation department was even worse. The animators were given no vacation time in order for the the film to look perfect. Several marriages were broken, there was little time for them to raise kids, hands would shake while holding drinks, and they developed Carpal tunnel syndrome. This happened when Aladdin was in production too. Katzenberg had made a meeting with the animators to ask them what it's like working with him and when they told their stories, he was in tears.

ALADDIN (1992) Unlike the last 2 films, Walt never made plans to adapt the story of Aladdin. It was a pet project Howard Ashman developed in 1988. His vision of the film was closer to the plot and characters of the original story, but envisioned as a campy 1930s Hollywood style musical. Sadly, the studio dismissed Ashman's treatment and he and Alan Menken were removed from Aladdin to save Beauty and the Beast. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who wrote Beauty and the Beast, took on Ashman's treatment and included elements from The Thief of Baghdad (1940). In April 1991, a month after Ashman's death, Jeffery Katzenberg hated the story ideas that was given him and encouraged the writers and directors John Musker and Ron Clements to start all over. Several characters were deleted, including Aladdin's mother, Princess Jasmine was changed from spoiled brat to a rebellious princess who is forced to marry a prince, and changed Aladdin's personality into a Harrison Ford type. Worst of all, Katzenberg refused to change the November 1992 release date. The story and characters were re written in 8 days and Katzenberg finally green lit the project. Robin Williams chose to do the voice of The Genie on the condition that the studio should not overexpose him because he was working on Toys, a movie which director Barry Levinson was working on for 10 years and Williams was underpaid by Disney. When The Genie spread massive publicity, Williams refused to work for Disney ever again until Jeffery Katzenberg's departure in 1994.

THE LION KING (1994) The Lion King was an idea developed by Disney executives Jeffery Katzenberg, Roy E. Disney, and Peter Schneider in 1988 during a plane trip to Europe while promoting Oliver and Company. Katzenberg has said that the film was a little bit about himself, referring his to his early life into politics when he was a teenager. Scripts flew around over the years from several writers, from Thomas Disch, to Linda Woolverton. Early drafts were far different than the final film, one focused on a war between lions and baboons. It was not intended to be a musical and was more like a National Geographic type film. After a 1991 research trip to Africa, the film changed into a musical, causing co director George Scribner to quit the project and be replaced by Rob Minkoff. In early 1992, producer Don Hahn felt that the script was lacking a clear theme and he established the theme of accepting responsibility. He teamed up with directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, Beauty and the Beast directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, and head of story Brenda Chapman to rework the story in 2 days and changed the title from King of the Jungle to The Lion King because lions don't live in the jungle. Screenwriters Johnathon Roberts and Irene Mecchi wrote the screenplay the following months and rewrites were frequent, with scenes being reanimated due to dialogue changes. The release date changed from Thanksgiving 1993 to Summer 1994. Disney had little to no faith in the project, as the studio expected Pocahontas (1995) to be the hit instead of The Lion King. Katzenberg views Pocahontas as "West Side Story with Dances with Wolves" while he views The Lion King as a weird experiment (ironic as the film was partially his idea). Disney's top animators chose to do Pocahontas while the animators on The Lion King were either first timers or animal lovers. The animators also had a rough time finishing the film. In January 1994, The Northridge earthquake caused Disney to close down, so the animators had to finish the movie at their homes.

In-spite of their production difficulties, these movies were eventually made and were big successes. Years later, these films have still held up to us. Even if we have our opinions on the films and the making of these films were difficult, these movies still have a place in our hearts, with dazzling animation, interesting stories, characters we cared about, and entertaining songs.
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