The Renaissance Age of Animation

A sampling of influential animation from this era.note 

The return of animation to a point of artistic respect. The 1980s showed many remnants of the Dark Age:

That was about to change, however.

Witnessing the success of first-run syndicated animation shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983) and Care Bears, Disney tried its luck with two original series of its own in 1985: The Wuzzles, which was soon forgotten, and Adventures of the Gummi Bears, whose production values were significantly higher than its contemporaries. Disney's investment would prove successful, which led to the creation of other original series by Disney that aired in Disney Afternoon that lasted until the late 1990s with successful shows like DuckTales and Goof Troop, among many others.

Other broadcasting companies took notice, and developed their own original series. By 1987, Ralph Bakshi produced Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures with John Kricfalusi, a show that helped bring back old school, insane "cartoony cartoons". Warner Bros. had its own revival with several Spielberg produced efforts that brought Looney Tunes-style comedy into the 1990s; Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs were the most successful. Much of the crew from these shows went on to launch the DC Animated Universe with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. This time, Disney eventually aped them with a cult dark action series of their own, Gargoyles, created by Greg Weisman, even though they eventually mishandled it badly. Cable networks such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network started with reruns and repackagings of cartoons from earlier eras, as well as syndicated fare (as did the USA Network's Cartoon Express block; this was also the modus operandi of the emerging home video market) but moved on to create their own shows during the '90s. The former launched the "Nicktoons" brand with Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show, while the latter made shows like Dexter's Laboratory and Ed Eddn Eddy that went by the moniker "Cartoon Cartoons". The latter's name was eventually dropped, however, as 2002's Codename: Kids Next Door was the last show to use the Cartoon Cartoon label.

On the silver screen, it wasn't until the late 1980s that the industry rose to new heights. After the box office failures of animated movies in the 1970s, Disney defector Don Bluth pushing for a return to the rich classical style of the Golden Age, beginning with 1982's The Secret Of NIMH; while it was not a blockbuster, it quickly became a Cult Classic. It attracted the attention of no less than Steven Spielberg, which led to Bluth's directing the successful An American Tail and The Land Before Time for Amblin Entertainment. Bluth would both rise to prominence and fall during this period, but his collaboration with Spielberg proved to be the first real challenge Disney had ever faced in the animated film department, at least since the Fleischers were in business. The failure of Disney's The Black Cauldron in 1985 seemed to spell the end of Disney's animation unit, but fortunately it persevered, mainly due to the modest success of The Great Mouse Detective. After the threat from Bluth and Amblin though, Disney frantically stepped up its game and rallied with Oliver & Company, which was another modest success. Their newly-established, adult-oriented Touchstone Pictures label co-produced — with Amblin Entertainment, as it happened — Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a live-action/animated fantasy that also served as a Massive Multiplayer Crossover of Golden Age characters and was the box office sensation of 1988.

It was followed by The Little Mermaid in 1989, a musical that refreshed the old formulas of yore, was a surprise sensation at the box office — at last, they were well and truly back in the game. While the following year's The Rescuers Down Under was a financial disappointment, Beauty and the Beast raised Disney's bar even higher, a financial and critical success (in fact, the first animated film ever to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination). Aladdin itself proved a smash with the stellar performance of Robin Williams cementing the Celebrity Voice Actor as the "star" of an animated film. Finally The Lion King surpassed all expectations to become a cultural landmark and the peak of Disney's success. In fact, some people argue that this era should have been called the Disney Renaissance, since they were the most successful animation studio during this era and had the most consistent track record in terms of hits. This new era in hand-drawn animation lasted until the rise to prominence of 3D computer animated films.

By the end of The Nineties, rival studios had launched their own feature animation units, most notably DreamWorks. However, most of them found that the market was still largely trapped in the All Animation Is Disney in terms of traditional animation and most of the attempts failed miserably, or fell victim to Disney's aggressive marketing such as rereleasing The Lion King so it could crush the rival, The Swan Princess, in 1994. Even Bluth was forced to ape Disney with films like Anastasia, though his attempt to break out with Titan A.E. failed and sunk his career. However, DreamWorks Animation, after enduring the underperformance of their traditionally animated films like The Prince of Egypt, noticed that their small computer animated film, Antz, did fairly well and suggested that other animation techniques could be the answer. So, they made a deal with the hailed British Stop Motion company, Aardman Animations, who helped show DA that the way forward is to find their own voice and style in the next age.

Adult aimed animation finally came back to television during the renaissance age. The Simpsons became a full-fledged series in 1989 and went on to become probably the most critically acclaimed television cartoon series of all time, and MTV caused a stir with Mike Judge's Beavis and Butt-head. MTV, of course, was cable — and from here came the last great progress that cemented the renaissance: the rise of cable television.

All in all, this era did a good job of at least brushing away the worst aspects of the dark age. Parental Bonus was back, quality had soared, and profits were high. Anime also found headway in the U.S. in this period with Robotech becoming a cult favorite with its audacious flouting of contemporary North American TV animation conventions to present a sweeping military SF saga that felt very different from homegrown fare like G.I. Joe. After that Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball and Pokémon began to make their presence on TV and home video across the world. In theatres, anime made its own splash with the harrowing cyberpunk ultraviolence of AKIRA and while the Western world finally was presented with the genius of Hayao Miyazaki with his classic films like the intelligently charming Kikis Delivery Service and the grand, profound fantasy drama Princess Mononoke.

(And indeed, anime must briefly be mentioned as a growing influence on western animators themselves, here - they were absolutely aware of what was happening in Japan well ahead of the general public, and once things like Akira and Ghost in the Shell began showing up, animators and directors across the pond began straining at the bit to have their artistic restrictions loosened for fear of a consistent flood of high-quality anime pounding the western studios flat. It was a flood which never quite materialized as people feared, but it still lit fires under a lot of people and led directly to many of the products of The Millennium Age of Animation.)

This is also the era that began the rise of computers in animation, riding the wave of the digital revolution that brought affordable PCs to the masses in the 1980s. Disney employed CG for major parts of their films starting with The Rescuers Down Under, and by Beauty and the Beast had refined it considerably (the backdrop of the ballroom scene was very much Conspicuous CGI, as are the stampede from The Lion King and the crowd scenes in The Hunchback of Notre Dame). In 1994, the first completely 3D TV series, ReBoot, came out of Canadian studio Mainframe Entertainment and premiered on ABC in the USA. And 1995 brought the first all 3D movie and the one that launched Pixar into the spotlight and a position to drive the future of the animation industry: Toy Story.

Depending on who you ask, the deterioration of this era began somewhere towards the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s. The seeds may have been sown in 1995, when Disney distributed Pixar's Toy Story. It was a huge hit both critically and commercially...but Disney's traditionally animated entry for the year, Pocahontas, did well enough financially but also disappointed many viewers. Disney's increasingly formulaic approach to feature storytelling — "I want" songs, wacky sidekicks, pop culture jokes, etc. — in the wake of its early-'90s hits, resulted in films that strived to include more adult themes/stories yet couldn't lift themselves out of the worst aspects of the Animation Age Ghetto when it came to content. Disneyfication became a dirty word as critics accused them of whitewashing/dumbing down history and classic literature/mythology (the increasing amounts of merchandise tied into these films didn't help matters). That said, while these films were considered inferior to their predecessors, only one, the aforementioned Pocahontas, was a critical failure - at a mediocre 56% on Rotten Tomatoes, it's the only real critical failure of the Disney Renaissance. Meanwhile, the entries that were relative box office failures - The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Hercules - were modestly well-received by said critics (at a decent 73% and a good 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively), who considered them improvements over the preachy and pretentious Pocahontas - Hunchback has even been Vindicated by History recently to the point that it's a darkhorse candidate for the Magnum Opus of the Disney Renaissance. Mulan and Tarzan were even viewed as coming close to the earlier works (at 86% and 88%, respectively). Rival studios' Disney-esque efforts were usually pale imitations at best — consider Don Bluth's work post-All Dogs Go to Heaven, The Swan Princess, etc. — and often even worse when it came to Disneyfication, culminating in two Italian animated features that turned the Titanic disaster into Happily Ever After musicals. The absolute nadir of the trend, at least as far as wide release animated films go, was Warner Bros. Quest for Camelot - sadly, this film outdid far superior works by Warner Bros. such as the Ghetto-busting The Iron Giant and Cats Don't Dance financially, even as critics savaged it. One could even pin Quest For Camelot as being one of the films that led to the eventual downfall of the Renaissance Age.

In addition, Disney and other animation companys started producing direct-to-video sequels, prequels, and interquels to most of their Modern Age films via their television animation units, which sold well but are considered inferior to the quality of the originals. The sales were so good that even Golden Age and Dark Age efforts were given this treatment, to the increasing horror of adult Disney fans. It can be argued that the "cheapquels" led to a fatal dilution of the Disney brand name, causing audiences to take less interest in their newer animated canon efforts. And when rival studios (particularly MGM and Universal Studios) started doing the same thing with films they owned the rights to, video stores were glutted with unwanted, unworthy sequels to everything from The Secret of NIMH to The Swan Princess. Before this era sequels were rare if not non-existent. It's one reason the Renaissance, like every other period in animation history, is a bit of a mixed bag.

Also, in an ironic twist, the successes of animation and children's programming on cable helped to wound animation on broadcast TV, killing the weekday animation block outright. As animation was an expensive medium at the time, increasing competition led to a greater fragmenting of the audience. With smaller audiences for each network, plus increasing restrictions on advertising content in children's programming (daytime animation still got redlined into the ghetto), animation blocks became increasingly less profitable. The twin developments of a fracturing audience and animation's move to cable (and needing to make do with cable's smaller budgets), led to declines in animation quality. Work was outsourced to overseas studios. computer coloring eventually replaced ink and paint, and soon Flash made inroads as an animation tool.

For this era's successor, see The Millennium Age of Animation.

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    Films that are associated with this era 

    Series that are associated with this era 

    Real Life People Directly Involved With This Era 

    Real life people who are directly influenced by this era 
  • Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi. Animation historians, writers on Art of and other animation novelty books, and bloggers of the industry-popular Cartoon Brew.
  • Doug Walker, a.k.a. The Nostalgia Critic. Much of what he reviews exposes the somewhat worse aspects of some of the animation to come out of this era, and frequently includes gags referencing such cartoons.
  • The Cartoon Man saga is a mostly live action homage to animation from this era, and by extension, the previous eras by which it was influenced. One character is specifically said to have made cartoons in the 80s and 90s in universe.

Tropes associated with this era include:

Alternative Title(s):

Disney Renaissance