The animated Disney movie had become less ambitious ever since the release of the last film Walt worked on, The Jungle Book. Their surge in popularity in the nineties ran parallel to the improvement of their soundtracks. In 1988, Oliver & Company was the harbinger of the path Disney would take moving forward, but The Little Mermaid (1989) really took it to a new level, becoming Disney’s first award-winning smash hit in a while. It was also the start of Disney’s historic relationship with lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken.

Beauty and the Beast (1991) would be even more popular, proving further that animation had matured and become more than a kids’ medium. This film, the first animated Best Picture nominee, is widely considered Disney’s best movie. No relationship between a Disney princess and a Disney prince had ever been as believable and emotional as the relationship between Belle and Beast, and Ashman and Menken had once again elevated the story significantly with unforgettable music. The soundtracks were just as popular as the films themselves.

Aladdin (1992) was a significant achievement as well. More influential than Beauty and the Beast when it came to American animation. For one, it began a trend of using celebrity voices to sell the film (although the improvisational comedy of Robin Williams and the animation of the Genie by Eric Goldberg remain the standard for perfect animation casting), and it also broke the mold for animated films to go international in their settings when most fairy tale films still had a European sensibility.

These two things, plus the movie’s pop-culture references and modern sense of humor were a major influence on the animated films of Dreamworks, maybe more so than any other studio, including Disney.

The Lion King (1994), like Beauty and the Beast, is also widely considered Disney’s best movie, and is my personal favorite of all the Disney films. It deals with tragedy, responsibility and pure evil in ways rarely seen in family films, and really showed what the Disney studio was capable of in its artistic prime. The characters, the soundtrack and the story are all memorable.

This level of success allowed Disney to finally realize Walt’s dream of releasing at least one animated movie a year, most of which were musicals in this decade. The animated Disney films of the nineties following The Lion King include Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999).

This surge in popularity for Disney animation, famously referred to as the Disney Renaissance, could only have been brought about by the artists making the films. The directors, many of them CalArts grads who were taught the Disney method in school, had gained confidence and knew how to tell good stories the way Walt did. It is a testament to their skill, imagination, and dedication to quality that when you hear the name “Disney,” you are just as likely to picture Ariel and Simba as you are to picture Mickey Mouse and Snow White.

This decade saw success beyond Disney’s animated features. The Disney empire was in its prime. Other films that were successful include The Rocketeer (1991), The Mighty Ducks (1992), Pretty Woman (1992), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and The Santa Clause (1994).

The Disney VHS tapes were the most popular videos of their time, and as a result, The Return of Jafar (The 1994 sequel to Aladdin) started a trend of straight-to-video sequels that lasted well into the 2000s (This also may have been a result of Disney’s first sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, underperforming when it was released in theatres. However, the popularity of Fantasia on VHS Led to the ironic green-light of the theatrically released Fantasia 2000).

1990 was the year The Disney Afternoon programming block first premiered in syndication, extending Disney’s popularity to television with entertaining shows like Disneys Adventures of the Gummi Bears (1985-91), Ducktales (1987-90), The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1988-91), Chipn Dale: Rescue Rangers (1989-90), Talespin (1990-92), Darkwing Duck (1991-93), Goof Troop (1992-93), Bonkers (1993-95), and Gargoyles (1994-97), as well as shows based on their movies like The Little Mermaid (1992-94), Aladdin (1994-95), The Lion Kings Timon and Pumbaa (1995-99), and Hercules (1998-99).

Other big Disney moments of the nineties:

  • 1991 – Home Improvement starring comedian Tim Allen premieres on ABC.
  • 1992 – Disneyland Paris opens.
  • 1993 – Disney Theatrical Productions is founded.
  • 1995 – Disney Interactive is founded.
  • 1996 – Disney acquires ABC, is launched, and Radio Disney is introduced.

Another huge success was Disney’s partnership with another animation studio which specialized in CGI, Pixar. It was with Disney’s distribution that Pixar would release the first fully computer-animated feature film in history, Toy Story (1995), which outgrossed Disney’s own Pocahontas the same year (the first omen of a continuous trend in Pixar’s relationship to Disney).

A Bugs Life (1998) and Toy Story 2 (1999) would also be enormous hits for Pixar and Disney in the nineties, and in the new millennium, the relationship of these two studios would play an essential role in Disney’s growth as a company, and so would the director of Toy Story, John Lasseter.