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5. Pocahontas (1995)

Pocahontas poster
Image: Disney

Box office: $346 million

First anchor attraction: N/A

The Lion King had been Disney’s biggest hit yet. But no one had been more surprised by its success than Disney executives. As a matter of fact, The Lion King was practically a side project compared to the real golden goose: Pocahontas. Having seen the Academy Award slip through their fingers with Beauty, CEO Michael Eisner and studio head Jeffrey Katzenburg famously funneled all of their best animators into Pocahontas. Both were determined to produce an epic, romantic film that would be taken seriously – older protagonists, no talking animals, and no fairy tale endings.

As it happens, Pocahontas wasn’t the hit Disney had hoped. Critics picked up on the film’s “lack of fun,” and film critic Roger Ebert famously said "on a list including Mermaid, Beauty, Aladdin and Lion King, I'd rank it fifth. It has a lot of good intentions, but a severe scoundrel shortage." In other words, Disney’s blatant attempt to prove their own artistry ended up creating a film that – for most people – doesn’t really resonate until adulthood.

Like the rest of the Renaissance films, Pocahontas is more frequently featured in song than in person or ride, but even “Colors of the Wind” is used much more sparingly than “Under the Sea,” “Be Our Guest,” “Friend Like Me,” or “Circle of Life.” Pocahontas makes appearances in a handful of “montage” shows like Mickey and the Magical Map and Disney World’s Fantasmic, but rarely as a standalone starring film. 

Image: Werner Weiss, Yesterland.com

When Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, Pocahontas starred in a “temporary” show: Pocahontas And Her Forest Friends – a thinly veiled “animal encounter” show typical of most zoos. It was a quick and inexpensive project meant to only briefly occupy the land that would eventually become the Possibilityland: Beastly Kingdom. Ultimately, it lasted almost two decades before the land was used for Pandora: The World of Avatar.

Pocahontas might’ve been a perfect Blue Sky story for a Disneyland Paris reimagining of Splash Mountain. But y’know how that went. Instead, Disneyland Paris’ Frontierland includes the Pocahontas Indian Village – a small playground of climbing nets, tepees, and canoe-shaped slides (which, curiously, was renamed “Frontierland Playground” on signage in 2020 so… maybe never mind).

With its self-serious, heavy subject matter, Pocahontas hasn’t permeated pop culture or Disney Parks quite like the four films that came before. In truth, the movie would probably never get made today to begin with given the weight of depicting native peoples and the story of British colonials alone. So even if “Colors of the Wind” is a tear-jerker in nighttime spectaculars, maybe it’s understandable that Pocahontas hasn’t found its way to a permanent Parks attraction.

6. Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)

Hunchback poster
Image: Disney

Box office: $325 million

First anchor attraction: N/A

As you might imagine from Disney's adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1831 novel about a disfigured baby abandoned by his family and raised as the reclusive bell ringer of Paris' Notre Damn cathedral in the 1400s, Hunchback is... heavy. Moreso than ever before, executives seemed intent on showing that animation is a style of filmmaking, not a genre that’s inextricably tied to kids. The dark film infamously examines topics like damnation, lust, disfiguration, bigotry, genocide, and sin. Meaning, frankly, it’s a stretch to imagine kids even enjoying it! The concept of Hunchback is such a hard sell, it’s sometimes difficult to believe Disney ever greenlit the movie to begin with.

In some ways, of course, the experiment worked. Hunchback was well received critically and commercially. Some critics called it the best Disney film since Beauty and the Beast, and it certainly doubled down on the Renaissance’s insistence that Disney films aren’t just for kids, but true, meaningful, emotional entertainment for the whole family.

Image: Disney

At the Disney-MGM Studios, The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Musical Adventure played in the park’s Backlot Theater from 1996 to 2002. Disneyland offered The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Festival of Fools, which played in the outdoor stage of the park’s Big Thunder Ranch from 1996 to 1998 (replacing “The Spirit of Pocahontas” at both parks). Otherwise, Hunchback never made much of a permanent impact on Disney Parks…

7. Hercules (1997)

Hercules poster
Image: Disney

Box office: $250 million

First anchor attraction: N/A

More a cousin to Aladdin than Hunchback (and not coincidentally, reuniting Directors John Clements and Ron Musker for a third go after Mermaid and Aladdin), Hercules once more returned Disney to its more fairy tale adaptation roots, albeit by way of the Greek myth of Hercules. With a soundtrack comprised of gospel, R&B, and Broadway, Hercules was decidedly more modern (and perhaps the closest the Disney Renaissance got to the fourth-wall-breaking films of Dreamworks that would follow). Hercules received mostly positive reviews for its spiritual similarities to the duo’s earlier hit, Aladdin, and particularly James Woods’ role as Hades (which Roger Ebert compared positively to Robin Williams’ Genie). 

But analysts at the time noted that Hercules’ push to emphasize that it wasn’t a downer like the two most recent Disney films had accidentally over-emphasized the film’s lack of depth. In short, it failed to make a case for itself to teens and adults – perhaps the first film of the Renaissance to not overtly appeal to both kids and their parents. Hercules underperformed at the box office, earning just $250 million worldwide – the lowest gross of the Disney Renaissance. It signaled that the studios' Second Golden Age may be coming to an end, and with Pixar on the rise and competitors in computer animation coming up to bat, Hercules also seemed to hint that traditional animation may not be the end-all-be-all of the industry. When Disney executive Dick Cook admitted that “more competition” might’ve been a reason for the disappointing return, the entire company’s stock slipped 9.7%.

Like the rest of the Renaissance films, Hercules had its own, dedicated parade. But otherwise, nada. Hercules is probably more highly regarded today than it was at the time of its release, but did it reach the heights of Mermaid, Beauty, Aladdin, or Lion King? For most Disney fans, probably not. And given the financial state of Disney Parks at the time, it’s not surprising that there are no permanent Hercules attractions to speak of. 

8. Mulan (1998)

Mulan poster
Image: Disney

Box office: $304 million

First anchor attraction: N/A

Like Hercules, Mulan continued the clever ‘90s conceit of expanding Disney’s “fairy tale” retellings by looking outside of traditional European princesses. In this case, the film is a loose adaptation of The Ballad of Hua Mulan – a legendary figure first recorded in folk songs over two thousand years old. (It was also, by the way, the first Walt Disney Animation feature to be produced primarily at the Disney-MGM Studios – a sight seen by guests along the Declassified Disaster: The Backstage Studio Tour). 

Mulan was another sizable success for Disney, bringing in over $300 million worldwide – which means it outperformed Hunchback and Hercules, but failed to reach the heights of the first half of the Renaissance. (Despite Disney’s hopes, it had only a limited release in China.) 

Image: Dan Brace, twolostboys.com

It’s easy to describe Mulan’s noteworthy, permanent presence in Disney Parks: none. The character does receive a vignette along Shanghai Disneyland’s Voyage to the Crystal Grotto, but that’s like saying zebras are well-represented in Disney Parks because they can be seen along the Jungle Cruise. 2020’s live-action remake of the film might’ve presented an opportunity to inject more of Mulan – particularly in Shanghai Disneyland or Epcot’s China – but the film’s unusual release amid COVID-19 and the ensuing shut-down of park projects makes that incredibly unlikely.

9. Tarzan (1999)

Tarzan poster
Image: Disney

Box office: $450 million

First anchor attraction: N/A

It's probably fairest to consider Tarzan a transitionary film. Eschewing with fairy tale adaptations, the film was instead based on the 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. And unlike its Renaissance predecessors, Tarzan mostly did away with Broadway-style song-and-dance and romance, instead featuring a rock-influenced score and soundtrack by noted musician Phil Collins. About the only thing Tarzan really has in common with the other films of the Disney Renaissance was its success – the film earned an impressive $450 million at the box office, performing better than any Renaissance film since The Lion KingStill, a Washington Post reporter famously quipped, "[Tarzan] isn't up there with Aladdin, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, but it's easily above the riffraff ranks of Hercules and Pocahontas".

Beginning in 1999, Disney’s Animal Kingdom offered Tarzan Rocks! in its open air Theater in the Wild. The high energy show featured the film’s Phil Collins soundtrack and acrobatics, roller skating, and swinging stunt work. The show closed in 2006 so that the theater could be enclosed and redesigned for its current inhabitant, “Finding Nemo – The Musical.”

Image: Disney

Across Disney Parks, there’s only one attraction dedicated to the film. In 1999, a wrecking ball was practically en route to Disneyland’s Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse until Imagineers convinced the park’s leadership that a synergistic tie in could save the opening day classic. Tarzan’s Treehouse was born. When Hong Kong Disneyland opened in 2005, it had a ready-made Tarzan’s Treehouse of its own. Otherwise, Disney’s swinging 1999 film didn’t leave too much of a footprint in pop culture or in Disney Parks.

If you would count Tarzan as part of the Disney Renaissance, you'd certainly recognize it as the end.

End of an era

Image: Disney

For a full decade, no one could beat Disney Animation. But beginning after Tarzan, there was no question that the Disney Renaissance had run its course. While Tarzan might've snuck in under the wire, no one would confuse Dinosaur (2000), The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Treasure Planet (2002), Home on the Range (2004), or Chicken Little (2005) of being spun from the same yarn as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, or The Lion King.

Times had officially changed. Computer animation was eclipsing Disney's hand-drawn classics as Pixar became an unlikely frontfronner at the box office. Many of Disney's tried-and-true Renaissance leaders (including executive Jeffrey Katzenburg) left the company through the late '90s to pursue passion projects... or establish competing studios. Facing the likes of Shrek, Disney arguably ended its reign in the worst of all positions: imitating the competition. An era of direct-to-video sequels and low-brow humor with top-40 soundtracks became the norm.

Images: Disney

It wasn't until another revolutionary period – "The Disney Revival" – that the company got its groove back by way of Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Big Hero 6, Frozen, and Moana. The modern Revival period (which, with any luck, we haven't even reached the middle of) has ushered in a whole new era of steady and spectacular adaptations of fairytales, legends, and myths. And at least so far, Disney's been just as patient in including those new-age favorites into its parks... In another two decades, will we look back in surprise at just how long it took to turn those 21st century hits into E-Tickets? Maybe we'll see you back here in twenty years to find out...

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Comments

I have a nit-pick about The Lion King entry:
You put 1993 in parenthesis, but the movie was released in 1994... 25 years before the 2019 CGI movie.
And The Lion King had a presence at Epcot back in 90's: the "environmental fable" Circle of Life at The Land pavilion at Epcot. Plus, this was a completely original movie with no references or rehashing of the movie.

Great catch! I made that change. Thanks for reading!

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