Riding high after their most successful decade, Disney entered the new millennium with more movies, shows, and videos than ever before. This was the decade I became old enough to consciously self-identify as a Disney fan, and I started researching the company’s history and learning about all their movies from the past, all while reading Disney Magazine and watching Disney Channel.
Unfortunately, my awakening as a Disney geek came at a time when the company was having a bit of an oddball period.
The animated Disney films of the 2000s include Dinosaur (2000), The Emperor‘s New Groove (2000), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), Lilo & Stitch (2002), Treasure Planet (2002), Brother Bear (2003), and Home on the Range (2004). Most of these were not bad films, but they were a huge departure from the Disney films of the previous decade, which may have been why many of them failed at the box office. Clearly princesses and musicals were out and science fiction and buddy comedies were in. This was an experimental phase that didn’t pay off.
The 2000s would have been a very mediocre decade for Disney if it were not for the extraordinary global popularity and meteoric rise of Pixar.
Pixar’s movies in this decade, which included Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), WALL–E (2008), and Up (2009), were consistently dominating the box office more than Disney’s other films. Critically, commercially, and artistically, Pixar was the superior studio, and their rise in popularity was steadfast, to the point where Pixar characters were seen at Disney theme parks more than characters from Brother Bear or Treasure Planet. This did not go unnoticed by Disney executives, and it’s eventually what led to Disney acquiring Pixar. Which leads us to the era of Bob Iger.
Throughout the nineties, Michael Eisner had become the face of Disney when he began appearing as the presenter for The Wonderful World of Disney, making him a well-recognized celebrity, even among kids.
Disney president Frank Wells died in a helicopter crash in 1994, and Jeffrey Katzenberg left the company when Eisner did not appoint him as Eisner’s second-in-command. This might seem like a questionable move by Eisner, but he may have simply been respecting the wishes of Roy E. Disney, who disliked Katzenberg and was against him becoming president.
Roy E. Disney didn’t last much longer at the company either. In 2003, he resigned due to what he deemed poor management. Fortunately for Roy, many shareholders rallied by him and withheld re-electing Eisner to the board at the end of his term, which led to Eisner stepping down as CEO in 2005 and handing off his responsibilities to Bob Iger, a former ABC executive who became president of Disney in 2000.
Roy E. Disney agreed to return to the company after Iger became the CEO, and was named a director emeritus and consultant. A position he would hold only for a few years. Roy E. Disney would later die of stomach cancer in December of 2009 at the age of 79.
When Bob Iger was put in charge, one of the first things he did was acquire Pixar, although it felt more like a merger.
John Lasseter, who proved himself a good judge of entertainment and who some consider the modern-day Walt Disney, became the chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation, reporting directly to Bob Iger and given green-light power on the development of both Disney and Pixar films.
Everyone at the Disney animation studio welcomed Lasseter with warm applause in the hopes that he could save the studio from its streak of flops.
After the releases of Chicken Little (2005) and Meet the Robinsons (2007), Lasseter would assert his authority for the first time by replacing Chris Sanders as the director of the studio’s next project, called American Dog at the time, with Byron Howard. The movie was renamed Bolt and released in 2008.
Lasseter also vowed to return Disney to handdrawn animation with The Princess and the Frog in 2009, after Eisner abandoned the style in favor of going exclusively CGI. It was good to see this style of animation return, but CGI films were still outgrossing it, which led to the indefinite abandonment of the style again. I don’t know if Disney will make another attempt any time soon, but the art style is so closely associated with their legacy that it would be hard to believe “Never again.”
Bolt and The Princess and the Frog, the first Disney films with CCO Lasseter’s input, were both well-recieved Oscar contenders, and it seemed that Lasseter had brought the magic back to Disney, not to mention DisneyToon Studios, the makers of the video franchises Tinker Bell and Planes.
Officially, Disney had absorbed Pixar, but the promotions of Pixar chief technical officer Ed Catmull as the president of Disney animation, Pixar director John Lasseter as CCO of Disney animation, and Pixar founder Steve Jobs as the highest-paid member of the Disney board felt more like the fall of Disney and the rise of Pixar, to be honest.