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The 1980s were a turbulent decade for Disney; many of the older animators retired and the young artists took over; the studio was taken over by new management and the animators were moved from their beloved studio in Burbank to warehouses in Glendale; former Disney animator Don Bluth founded his own studio, and went head to head with his former employers – enjoying a respectable amount of success; and on several occasions there were very frightening possibilities of the animation department being shut down altogether. It is hardly surprising therefore, that during such a chaotic and unpredictable time, the animated films that were released were of varying quality.
The decade started promisingly enough: The Fox and the Hound felt like a real throwback to the Disney films of old, with a similar aesthetic and tone to Bambi as well as a willingness to go to darker places story-wise for strong dramatic effect. The film also proved that the young animators were more than capable of taking over the mantle from their predecessors. But it still revealed, due to its similarity in tone to Golden Age films, that they were still walking in the shadows of the older animators. They needed to find their own identity.
However, this was followed by The Black Cauldron, a cinematic disaster whose failings cannot be understated. The film was substantially over budget, spent more than a decade in production, was sliced to pieces in the editing room (losing entire scenes and most of the finale) and when it was released, the animation studio was on incredibly shaky territory. When we watched the film for the first time we were really hoping we would see an underrated classic, but instead what we got was a confused mess of a film. The most disappointing thing about The Black Cauldron is that during its production, artists and animators had hopes that this would be the studio’s crowning achievement – its own Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Things picked up shortly thereafter with Basil the Great Mouse Detective – one of the studio’s smartest, wittiest and most consistently entertaining films to date. Stellar voice acting, memorable characters, and a great story – all key components, combined by a team of artists whose love for the project shone through in the artwork (which was made on a greatly reduced budget). Basil the Great Mouse Detective showed that even though the studio were down, they were certainly not out.
Unfortunately, this was then followed with Oliver and Company a film that embodied the notion of the marketing department winning out over the artists and creatives. The film feels incredibly hollow, being largely comprised of songs that serve no purpose to the story, but were crammed into the film in the hope of producing a hit (off the back of which the album sales would skyrocket). There was not a great deal of substance to the film, and retrospectively it does not hold up too well, although at the time it was released the film was a financial success (proving that the marketing department can be right … sometimes).
This era has been a struggle to get through, and we’ve taken our time getting there. As we have arrived in a more recent time-period there are a lot more documentaries and interviews, there’s plenty of archival footage and there is also the fascinating Waking Sleeping Beauty film which chronicles the studio from 1984 (when the animation department was under threat of closure) to 1994 (when The Lion King was released). Our output has slowed down, but we have learned a great deal about the studio, particularly interesting are interviews and retrospectives about the creative process for The Black Cauldron as it is a film the studio don’t really like to talk about.
I have a lot of praise to give to The Fox and the Hound for its bleak tone, complex themes, dealing with social class systems and prejudice, and particularly for the ending which didn’t reunite the two leads at the end (a rarity for the studio). The Black Cauldron was terrible, a really disappointing film in so many ways (WatchMojo recently named it as the most underrated Disney film of all time, although they didn’t really pose much of an argument as to why, other than the fact that it has developed a fan-base over time). Basil the Great Mouse Detective however is a strong contender for my favourite Disney film (although I will have to wait until I’ve seen the rest before I can say that for certain). Then Oliver and Company is a film that I thought was okay when I first watched it, but I grew to like it less and less over the course of writing the blog entry.
This has been an era which has fluctuated in quality rather dramatically, from good to bad, back to good and then back to bad again. It seems as though the studio was struggling to gain some proper momentum. However, this would all change very soon
This era took us ages to get through, but I must say to its credit, no one can accuse it of not being an eclectic era at Disney, as the newer animators were clearly determined to find their niche, their identity and command of creative control at Disney. For me, Basil the Great Mouse Detective is the best film that Disney animation gave us during this era, and truly a candidate (at the moment) for one of the strongest films in the canon. Ron Clements and John Musker proved themselves as a strong partnership, and knowing that they would create more films together, with Basil being their debut as a team, is very exciting indeed. Basil has a fantastic protagonist and villain, with a witty script, and genuine threat in the final act – a stellar film. I would call The Fox and the Hound the second best of the Passing the Torch era quartet, as I enjoyed its melancholic, quiet nature, and the emotional levels that it goes to, particularly in its bittersweet ending. However, it is still a problematic film, with an unnecessary filler subplot and the mistake of not killing off a supporting role when they really should have done. Also The Fox and the Hound hasn’t quite got the stamp that I am starting to associate with the films of the new generation of animators, because it was the literal ‘passing the torch’ moment.
I had high(ish) hopes for The Black Cauldron, knowing that it was a cult film and perhaps was unfairly treated, but no … it was in fact a bad film. It was dull and irritating (with a horrible supporting character with the name of Gurgi), but had potential to have been much better, considering its source material. Oliver and Company is also a bad film, but a different kind of ‘bad’ to The Black Cauldron. While they were both messy films, Oliver and Company just has ‘marketing’ all over it, and feels embarrassing in how it tries so hard to be ‘cool’ – it also seemed to get worse the more we watched it.
So overall, it is a 50-50 era for me – I enjoyed two of the films, but disliked the other two. We could have called it the Coin Toss era! That’s hindsight for you. Or the Finding their Feet era? They really were finding their feet at Disney, and I must say, through the good and the bad, I have enjoyed seeing them find their way throughout this era – it was like watching them go through the misery of puberty – with moments of awfulness and embarrassment mixed with genuine wonder of they were capable of creating as they grew in confidence. As David said, watching the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty was a real eye-opener for me, as it revealed that yet again, Disney animation was on such rocky territory, and needed to stay on the creative tightrope or face falling for good. All of the Passing the Torch quartet of films had something great about them that I believe will stand them in good stead for the next era – The Fox and the Hound’s emotion, The Black Cauldron’s risk-taking, Basil the Great Mouse Detective’s strong script and characters, and Oliver and Company’s awareness that a hit song can go a long way. Put them together, and you may have a recipe for the film that marked the beginning of The Renaissance Era: The Little Mermaid.