As the line of the famous Sam Cooke song says, “a change gonna come”, and that is exactly where Disney finds itself at the beginning of the 1970s. After Walt’s death in December 1966, the studio was without its figurehead, and was left grieving and somewhat directionless.
1967’s The Jungle Book, proved to be a major hit for the studio, and with that one safely under their belts, the studio was now looking to the future, and what that might look like without Walt.
The period from 1970 to 1988 is most commonly referred to as the “Bronze Age”, which makes sense given that it follows the Gold and Silver. It has also been known as either the “Dark Age” or “The Early Renaissance”, perhaps entirely depending on whether you view this to be the weakest time for the studio, or an underrated and underappreciated era.
The Passing of the Baton…
At this point, many of Disney’s “Nine Old Men” were still with the studio, however there was very much the sense that they were ready to retire, and this aging bunch of legendary animators were now tasked with passing the torch over to some younger animators.
As you start to go down the list of films, you start to notice the familiar names of the Nine Old Men start to drop off, with five of them being involved in some capacity in The Aristocats (1970), and then by the time you get to The Great Mouse Detective (1988), only Eric Larson remains, credited as an ‘Animation Consultant’.
This was a huge time of transition for the studio, and now the names starting to rise up through the ranks were the likes of Glen Keane, Ron Clements, John Lassiter, John Musker, and Don Bluth to name but a few. With the changing of the guard, new and emerging talent began to make their mark, indeed the crew list of The Fox and The Hound (1981) reads like a “who’s who” of animation, with names such as Tim Burton, Brad Bird, and Henry Selick credited.
If a lot of the names mentioned here seem familiar, that’s probably because a number of them went on to have a huge part to play in the Disney Renaissance of the 90s, but we’ll get to that…
The Great Divide
Prior to this point, Disney hadn’t really faced a great deal of competition in terms of other animation studios, and you could argue that for some 30 uninterrupted years, no one else was doing what Disney were doing. But that was all about to change, and in fact it was one of Disney’s own animators who provided the studio with their first real competitor.
Don Bluth was first involved with Disney as assistant animator for Sleeping Beauty (1959) and had been particularly prolific in the animation department from 1973 through to 1981. In the early 1980s however, Bluth and eleven animators who were close friends of his, left Disney to establish their own company, Don Bluth Productions. His first feature as director, The Secret of NIMH was released in 1982, however it wasn’t until 1986 with the release of An American Tail that he really proved he was to be taken seriously. Released in the same year as Disney’s own mouse adventure, The Great Mouse Detective, Bluth beat Disney at the Box Office, and just to prove it wasn’t a fluke, he did it again in 1988 when The Land Before Time beat Oliver & Company.
Swings and Roundabouts
Whilst it may be underappreciated as a whole, the Bronze Age was actually a pretty interesting period of creativity for the studio. At the beginning, the studio was fully utilising xerography, a much cheaper way of animating backgrounds first seen in 101 Dalmatians, and then towards the latter end of the 1980s, they were also dabbling in basic computer technology and blending this with the traditional hand-drawn style.
As well as the animation, the stories and themes were changing as well, introducing more risque jokes and references, and darker themes. Disney were still very much “fun for all the family”, but this period that was immediately post-Walt wasn’t necessarily as meandering and directionless as some historians would have you believe.
This period of experimentation and trying new things would inevitably lead to some hits and misses. The Rescuers (1977) for example, proved to be a big success, setting box office records upon its release, and notably being the first Disney film to spawn a sequel with The Rescuers Down Under in 1990. However on the flipside, there was The Black Cauldron, a huge miss for Disney which proved to not only be a critical failure, but a huge commercial flop, costing $44 million, and earning only $21.3 million domestically.
The film was trying to reach a previously untapped audience, targeting teenage boys as opposed to children and families. Whilst it is always admirable when a studio tries to do something new, it turned out to be an incredibly costly misstep which almost sent Disney under for good.
Fortunately for Disney, their fortunes did turn, and with considerably smaller budgets and much-improved box office takings The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company managed to keep them afloat.
Much better things were on the horizon however, and a certain “little mermaid” was waiting in the wings to become part of our world…
Look out for the next Disney Decades piece as I’ll be diving straight into the 1990s, and the Disney Renaissance!