Among the significant things Ron Miller has done at Disney is create the Touchstone Pictures label so that Disney could release films aimed towards adults (the first of which was Ron Howard’s Splash in 1984, which was a hit), create The Disney Channel, fund Tim Burton’s short films Vincent (1982) and Frankenweenie (1984), acquire the film rights to Roger Rabbit, and initiate Disney’s relationship with CGI when he greenlit Tron (1982).
In 1983, Miller became the CEO of Disney but the company was still not doing great financially.
The darkest day came in 1984 when Saul Steinberg’s Reliance Group Holdings launched a hostile takeover bid for Walt Disney Productions, intending to sell off its operations. It’s hard to believe but there was a time when another company could have bought Disney out and sold its film division, but that was the shape Disney was in.
If there is a single hero in this story, it would be Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney. Along with Stanley Gold, Roy O. Disney’s ally on the Disney board of directors, and shareholder Sid Bass, Roy E. Disney would fight to preserve Walt’s legacy by rebuilding the company’s structure from scratch, but not with Ron Miller, who Roy ousted in favor of new leadership.
In 1984, that new leadership came from Paramount (who Disney had teamed up with earlier that decade to release Popeye and Dragonslayer). Paramount CEO Michael Eisner became the CEO of The Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros. Vice Chairman Frank Wells became the new Disney president.
It was clear why Disney wanted Eisner, since under his tenure at Paramount some of the most successful and Disney-like movies of the ’70s and ’80s were made (Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Beverly Hills Cop, Flashdance, Footloose).
The only downside was that none of these men had experience in animation, which is a division of the company that was in real danger of being abandoned. It may have actually happened if Roy didn’t fight to keep it. Eisner ended up hiring old Paramount colleague Jeffrey Katzenberg to head the feature animation division. Katzenberg became Paramount’s president of production under President Eisner after having success reviving Star Trek in the seventies, resulting in the 1979 film Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Many of Disney’s key animators would wind down their careers after the seventies. The Fox and the Hound (1981) would be among the last features they would work on. One of the last of the old guard to be credited was Eric Larson, who trained many of the new animators fresh out of art school like Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, John Musker, Ron Clements, Mark Henn and Randy Cartwright.
The animated Disney film released after The Fox and the Hound four years later, The Black Cauldron (1985), was seen by the new Disney executives as too dark (a sure sign of trouble for the once great Disney was the fact that The Care Bears Movie beat The Black Cauldron at the box office) and after Cauldron got grinded out, work was immediately started on a lighter follow-up which would turn out to be The Great Mouse Detective (1986).
Perhaps the stars were finally aligning but that movie seemed to signal a turning point. It was one of Disney’s most entertaining films so far that decade and it had significantly more life and humor than Cauldron. Mouse Detective felt like a movie made by confident and talented storytellers.
However, Mouse Detective would soon be forgotten, because it was nothing compared to what was to come. The Disney movie that really made an impact and helped shed the image of animation as juvenile entertainment was Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the most creative and entertaining Disney film since the days when Walt was still around.
Producer Steven Spielberg and director Robert Zemeckis had helped renew interest in classic cartoons (Spielberg continued down that path on television with Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs) but the classic Disney feature, in the tradition of Snow White and Cinderella, would also be revived this decade and be taken to new heights in the 1990s.