The Current Successes of Disney’s Imperially Strategic IP Expansion Overshadows its Origins as ‘Walt Disney Animation Studios’
With Disney+, Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar movies dominating Disney’s current agenda, it can sometimes be hard to remember that Walt Disney Animation Studios still exists and produces its own titles. Not only that, but for several decades Walt Disney Animation was essentially what fueled the company. Since the days of Walt himself, Disney’s animation department is what made the company stand out, producing revolutionary cartoons from the groundbreaking Alice Comedies, to Mickey Mouse’s initial appearance in “Steamboat Willie,” to the first animated feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”
Over the years Disney Animation has had its peaks and valleys. From the 1930s through the 1960s, the department created countless classics, with titles such as “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Peter Pan,” “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and more. Following Walt’s death in 1966, the company faced some difficulties with corporate competition and creative transformations. 1989, however, kicked off what is known as the Disney Renaissance with “The Little Mermaid,” and across the 1990s, Disney Animation rose back to the top with stunning new cartoon movies from “Aladdin,” to “The Lion King,” to “Mulan,” to “Beauty and the Beast,” and so on.
After the Notorious Pixar Acquisition, Disney’s Original Animation Studio has Struggled to Compete with its Own Company
In the 2000s, Disney’s acquisition of Pixar pushed Walt Disney Animation Studios down to being a secondary cartoon juggernaut in its own company. 2D animated features fizzled out with the 1990s Renaissance, as Pixar’s 3D animation became mainstream with one successful project after another.
Disney Animation struggled to make its own transition to 3D animation throughout the decade. Early titles such as “Chicken Little,” “Meet The Robinsons,” and “Bolt” were fun, but far from the Disney standard, and they paled in comparison to Pixar’s releases. It wasn’t until 2010 that Disney Animation had its first glimmer of 3D style reformation with “Tangled.”
Disney’s live-action remakes of its 1990s classics may overshadow its Animation Studio’s place across the 2010s. Nevertheless, Walt Disney Animation Studios has quietly been making a comeback in our current decade, with creative, original stories that have done well on both critical and commercial fronts—and if “Frozen II” meets the success it anticipates, then it could solidify the fact that we are living in a second Disney Animated Renaissance.
Second Installment will Strive to Match the much loved Original
Although “Tangled” was a fair initial entry for Disney Animation in the 2010s, and they followed it up well with “Wreck-It-Ralph” in 2012, it was not until 2013 that the department struck gold with the empowering, fantastical, and sensational “Frozen.”
Revitalizing the Disney Princess genre with a few modern twists, “Frozen” was a bona fide hit. It was one of the most successful movies of the year and did wonderfully in ancillary markets, with characters that made for popular toys and musical numbers that made their way into everyone’s hearts. It’s song “Let It Go” won Best Original Song at the 86th Academy Awards, not to mention that the movie as a whole won Best Animated Feature.
Both children and adults appreciated “Frozen” and its bubbly aesthetic was reminiscent of Disney’s traditional animation style, only updated for the modern 3D appeal. The company carried this look into 2014’s “Big Hero 6.” Based on Marvel comics, but not being a part of Disney’s live-action Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Big Hero 6” may not have had the cultural impact that “Frozen” did, but fans and critics loved it. It earned Walt Disney Animation another Best Animated Feature Oscar, making the company back-to-back champions in the category and proving that “Frozen” was not a fluke.
The studio won again in 2016 with “Zootopia,” and received a nomination for “Moana” that same year. Like “Frozen,” “Moana” was a princess movie with an infectious soundtrack and received lots of attention for its celebration of Polynesian culture.
Last year, the company released its first sequel in this contemporary animation cycle: “Ralph Breaks The Internet.” This movie earned Disney Animation another Oscar nomination, showing that they could pull off sequels and giving us reason to believe that “Frozen II” can live up to its predecessor.
Will ‘Frozen II’ Launch Another Disney Animation Renaissance?
And thus, we come full circle. Under our very noses, Disney Animation has pieced together a library of contemporary classics and placed themselves back in the game of major animation studios. “Frozen II” comes out November 22. Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee return from the original as directors along with voice actors Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, and Josh Gad. Like the first film, “Frozen II” will focus on sisterhood and wintery magic, but will add more universe building and fantastical elements to the storyline.
So, are we in a second Disney Animation Renaissance? It seems too early to tell, really. Unlike the first Disney Renaissance, Disney Animation is not yet the number one studio in town; it is still behind Pixar and Illumination at the moment. Likewise, despite its recent successes, Disney Animation does not currently define Disney like it did in the past. At the moment, Disney is largely defined by its vast intellectual properties and acquisitions; its animation department is but a tertiary element. Still, Walt Disney Animation Studios is currently pointed in the right direction and has subtly been making progress over the decade. They also just recently signed directors for four additional upcoming film projects. 2019 has already been one of the most financially successful years for Disney, and “Frozen II” is likely to skyrocket them to astronomical heights. If the sequel is as commercially successful and culturally impactful as the first “Frozen,” then it could very well put Disney Animation back in the running for a self-revitalization.
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