Disney, Pixar, And The Golden Age of Animation

Published in the North Central Chronicle in  September 2009.

Everyone has a favorite animated movie. I’m a Toy Story man myself. But no matter which film you prefer, it’s clear that our generation—the Millennials, born between 1983 and 2000—has been the most spoiled in history in terms of the animated films we’ve grown up watching.

The first phase of the most recent golden age of animation began unofficially in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. The film was Disney’s reentry into relevance after decades of forgettable material. It was a box-office smash, spawning merchandise like nobody’s business and charming young girls worldwide, making them Disney customers for life.

After The Little Mermaid came Beauty and the Beast in 1991 and Aladdin the next year—two more cash cows and critical darlings. Beauty and the Beast even earned a nomination for Best Picture, the only animated film to date to do so. From there we were awed by The Lion King and Pocahontas. The former remains the Lord of the Rings of kids’ movies with its epic scope and affecting story.

Perhaps the most appealing part of these movies is the music. The composer Alan Menken created the music for all of those films and all of it is fantastic. I marvel every time I listen to “A Whole New World” at how perfect a pop song it is. “Part of Your World” and “Kiss the Girl” and “I Just Can’t Wait to be King”—each song is so flawlessly constructed in melody and tone.

These songs compose the soundtrack of our lives, whether you admit it or not. The stories and characters are fun, sure, but when you’re driving with your friends, only a Disney song will get the whole car singing. In 40 years we’ll be singing these songs along with our kids as they discover these films for the first time, just as we watched Pinocchio and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs six decades after they were made and were nevertheless enchanted.

The release of The Lion King in 1995 was the apex of Disney domination. But that year also became the springboard for the second phase of the golden age of animation: the Pixar era.

I often think about how lucky I am to be growing up in the age of Pixar. Their films are renowned for their universal appeal, but there’s nothing like having watched Toy Story as an eight-year-old boy and being fascinated by the notion that all your toys could actually come alive. On the other hand, as an adult I’m equally entertained by the complexity of The Incredibles and the pure joy of WALL-E and the surprising tenderness of Up.

I’m also struck by how Pixar’s most recent projects—the triple whammy of RatatouilleWall-E and Up—showed something important. All three were predicted to fail to earn as much money as their most successful predecessors. Yet all three dominated the box office and won over audiences and critics with equal admiration. This proves the staying power of Pixar’s pictures lies not in the breadth of their merchandising but in their smart and sophisticated storytelling.

I’m not sure how long this gilded age will last. After all, not all the animated films of the last two decades were good (anyone remember The Road to El Dorado? Didn’t think so). But looking forward a few years may give us a few clues. Next summer Pixar will release Toy Story 3 and Disney will release The Princess and the Frog, which will be a return to the classic 2-D animation style and feature Disney’s first African-American princess. Those two films alone make me confident that this current age of awe-inspiring animation will take us to infinity and beyond.

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