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“The Disney Renaissance” is the era from the late 1980s to the late 1990s when Walt Disney Animation Studios returned to making successful animated films, restoring public and critical interest in Disney. The animated films released during this period include The Little Mermaid (1989), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999).
The period between Walt and Roy O. Disney’s deaths and the release of The Little Mermaid was a somewhat dark time for the Walt Disney Animation Studios. Although most of the movies produced during this period are considered classics today, they weren’t getting the same reception from the public or critics that the earlier ones had, and the Animation Department was in real jeopardy. It also didn’t help that during production of The Fox and the Hound, long-time Disney animator Don Bluth left the company, taking 11 other Disney animators with him, to start his own rival studio and began cranking out movies like The Secret of Nihm, An American Tail, and The Land Before Time.
Disney had been developing The Little Mermaid since the 1930s, and by 1988, the studio had decided to make it into an animated musical. Lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken were hired to write and compose the songs and score for the film. The Broadway style that the team brought to the film would set the standard for most of the musicals to follow.
The Little Mermaid was released on November 14, 1989 and garnered a higher weekend gross than Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven, which opened the same weekend. It went on to break The Land Before Time’s record of highest-grossing animated film. The Little Mermaid was a critical and commercial success and won two Academy Awards, Best Original Score and Best Original Song (“Under the Sea”).
Thus was the beginning of The Disney Renaissance.
In March 2011, Gordon Cox of Variety officially announced that Disney will produce Dumbo which “will see Michael Chabon penning the book for the “Billy Elliot” duo of director Stephen Daldry and choreographer Peter Darling. Bob Crowley (“Aida,” “Mary Poppins”) designs.”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
In 2008, Stephen Schwartz said, “I think we’re starting up Hunchback of Notre Dame, hopefully, next year (2009). Rumor has reached my ear that it’s happening.” Thomas Schumacher, head of Disney Theatrical, discussed current and future stage productions in an article published by the Columbus Dispatch on September 21, 2008. In the article, a US-version of Hunchback is listed among others as being in development, “Disney’s first original foreign-language production, which ran from 1999 to 2002 in Berlin, is being revamped for its U.S. premiere.” In a recent interview, Alan Menken confirmed an American revival coming soon to New York. No casting has been announced.
The Jungle Book
Variety stated that there is an “Early-stages project [of] “Jungle Book,” a tuner version (with songs from the movie) to be written and directed by Mary Zimmerman (“Metamorphases”).”
The Rescuers Down Under
Rumors have been spreading for a stage adaptation of the 1990 animated film “The Rescuers Down Under,” was in the works. The music would feature the songs from the movie as well as new original songs by Elton Johnand Tim Rice, the composers of The Lion King. It’s still unofficial if the project will happen.
Rumors have been spreading for a stage adaptation of the 1995 animated film “Pocahontas,” was in the works. The music would feature the songs from the movie as well as new original songs by Alan Menkin and Stephen Schwartz. It’s still unofficial if the project will happen.
Alice in Wonderland
Disney Theatrical is already in early talks with Tim Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton to develop the hit 2010 film of the same nameinto a Broadway musical. Woolverton authored the screenplay for Disney’s The Lion King and is also the Tony Award-nominated book writer of Beauty and the Beast, Aida, and Lestat. Burton will also render the overall designs for the stage musical. Woolverton will adapt her screenplay for the stage production. Neither a composer nor songwriting team has been chosen yet. Robert Jess Roth is set to helm the stage musical that will have choreography by Matt West. The duo also collaborated on Disney’s first Broadway outing: Beauty and the Beast. No casting has been announced.
A musical version of the film, with a book by Bridget Carpenter and a score by Ryan Scott Oliver, is expected to have a “developmental production” at the La Jolla Playhouse next season. Christopher Ashley is named as “likely” to be the director.
So, which show would you like to see next?
Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World is loosely based on the real Pocahontas’ trip to England in 1616. In actuality, at the time of her journey, Pocahontas had already converted to Christianity, been baptized, taken the name Rebecca, married John Rolfe, and bore him a son named Thomas.
She traveled to England accompanied by Rolfe, Thomas, Uttamatomakin, and a retinue of Native American women. While in the film she appears to have stayed in England for about a week or two, she actually remained in England until her death in March 1617.
In Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, Donald Gibson takes over the role of John Smith, whom his older brother Mel Gibson voiced in the first movie. Mel Gibson was the only original Pocahontas cast member not to return for the sequel.
Despite all of the negative criticism for Pocahontas’ historical inacuracies and insensitivities, actor and Native American activist Russell Means (who voices Powhatan in the film) has referred to the film, in particular the opening, as being the “single best representation of American Indians that Hollywood has ever done”.
At the time of Pocahontas’ production, Disney animated films traditionally featured a show-stopping musical number, like ”Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid, “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast, and “Friend Like Me” from Aladdin. This proved to be problematic with Pocahontas as the story didn’t really lend itself to such an ornate production number.
Stephen Schwartz and Alan Menken penned several songs, of which the leading contender was a song called “In the Middle of the River”, where Pocahontas and John Smith meet each other in secret. When it was decided that the song simply didn’t fit within the dramatic context of the story, this song was replaced with “If I Never Knew You” (which itself was later cut from the original theatrical release) .
Animators working on Pocahontas regarded it as being one of the hardest films ever produced by the studio. The complex color schemes, angular shapes, and facial expressions meant that the film was in production for 5 years. The hard work paid off, however, as Pocahontas herself is now frequently cited as being one of the most beautifully and realistically animated characters in the Disney canon.