Useful Notes: The Renaissance Age of Animation

A sampling of influential animation from this era.note 

The return of animation to a point of artistic respect. At the beginning of the 1980's, Western animation was still very much stuck in the Dark Age:

That was about to change, however.

Witnessing the success of first-run syndicated cartoons like He-Man 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 after they hired a bunch of Hanna-Barbera expats to bring Looney Tunes-style comedy into the 1990s – the Steven Spielberg-produced 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 aped them with a cult dark action series of their own, Gargoyles, created by Greg Weisman, although they eventually mishandled it badly. Cable networks such as Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network began their existence with reruns and repackagings of cartoons from earlier eras, as well as syndicated or foreign 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. Nickelodeon launched the "Nicktoons" brand in 1991 with Doug, Rugrats, and The Ren & Stimpy Show. Cartoon Network absorbed the remnants of Hanna-Barbera and labelled their post-HB original series "Cartoon Cartoons" – Johnny Bravo, Dexter's Laboratory, and Ed, Edd n Eddy were among the first to use the moniker; that name was eventually dropped, however, as 2002's Codename: Kids Next Door was the last show to be a "Cartoon Cartoon".

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 pushed 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-CGI 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 All Animation Is Disney in terms of traditional animation, so most of the attempts failed miserably or fell victim to Disney's aggressive marketing – such as rereleasing The Lion King late in 1994 so it could crush its rival, The Swan Princess. Even Bluth was forced to ape Disney with films like Anastasia, though his attempt to break out again 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 and Road To El Dorado, 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 this period. 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, is 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 North America during this period, with Robotech becoming a cult favorite due to 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. A decade later, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball and Pokémon began to make their presence on TV and home video across the world. In cinemas, anime made its own small splash with the harrowing cyberpunk ultraviolence of AKIRA and Ghost in the Shell; this is also the period when the Western world was finally introduced to the genius of Hayao Miyazaki (after an abortive attempt years earlier involving a Macekred version of Nausicaa that we have been asked to forget ever existed), with his classic films like the intelligently charming Kiki's Delivery Service and the ever-adorable My Neighbor Totoro – Disney would take interest in his films beginning with his grand, profound fantasy drama Princess Mononoke.

Indeed, anime must briefly be mentioned as a growing influence on Western animators themselves – they were absolutely aware of what was happening in Japan well ahead of the general public. Once fare like Akira and Ghost in the Shell began showing up, animators and directors in America 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 they 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 era contains a significant shift in technology: the switch from traditional cel & ink & paint animation to computers. Animation studios rode 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). Over the course of the 90's, digital compositing and coloring slowly replaced ink & paint. Later, computer programs like Flash and Maya made inroads as animation tools. In 1994, the first completely CGI TV series, ReBoot, came out of Canadian studio Mainframe Entertainment and premiered on ABC in the USA. 1995 saw the release of the first all-CGI feature film, which launched Pixar into the spotlight and into a position to drive the future of the animation industry: Toy Story.

This was also the era in which outsourcing truly took off. Doing the entire traditional animation process in America had long since become cost-prohibitive, especially for television, so most Renaissance-Era cartoons outsourced production to overseas studios – first Japan (most notably TMS), then Korea after Japan became too expensive (and too busy due to having their own animation glut to deal with). The switch to computers allowed cartoons keep more of their production domestic, but hand-drawn series in particular continued to outsource most of the actual animation to Korea… and still do to this day.

There is no consensus on when this era ended, only that it did. Television cartoons in particular often bridged eras, with Renaissance-era shows airing alongside post-Renaissance ones for many years.

Depending on who you ask, the deterioration of this era began somewhere around the end of the 1990s or the early 2000s. The seeds may have been sown in 1995, when Disney distributed Pixar's Toy Story. That film was a huge hit both critically and commercially… while Disney's traditionally animated entry for the year, Pocahontas, did well financially but disappointed many viewers, especially academics and critics. 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 strove to include more adult themes/stories yet couldn't lift themselves out of the worst aspects of the Ghetto when it came to content. Disneyfication became a dirty word as critics accused them of whitewashing or 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 PocahontasHunchback has since been Vindicated by History to the point that it's a dark-horse candidate for the Magnum Opus of the Disney Renaissancenote . 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.'s Quest for Camelot, which was plagued by Executive Meddling that turned a planned older-oriented film into a G-rated mess – sadly, this film outdid far superior works from WB like the Ghetto-busting The Iron Giantnote  and Cats Don't Dancenote  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 under Eisner 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 – The Rescuers Down Under was at the time one of the only exceptions. 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 success of animation and children's programming on cable helped to mortally wound animation on broadcast TV, killing the weekday animation block outright (except on Public Television) and beginning the slow death of the Saturday Morning Cartoon. The addition of three new cable channels (plus two new broadcast networks) for animated programming† , and the increased competition inherent in such a thing, naturally led to audience fragmentation, which led to declining ratings, which led to declining ad revenue, which led to decreased profits. Animation is an expensive medium – always was and always will be, at least to do it right – so cartoons were either axed by the broadcast networks or jumped to cable (where budgets were already much smaller). The other thing that killed animation on broadcast television was Government – the Moral Guardians who had slammed late-Dark-Age cartoons for being glorified toy commercials never went away. Indeed, they successfully convinced the FCC to impose even more restrictions on advertising content in children's programming, and to strictly enforce the "educational content" requirement on the networks (exemplified by the e/i logo). This basically resulted in The Ghetto becoming legally enforced on cartoons airing on the traditional networks, and the networks backing off as a result.note 

This era can be reasonably said to have lasted from 1986note  until around 1999note , 2000note  or perhaps even 2001note .

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

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    Films associated with this era 

    TV Series 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):

The Renaissance Age Of Animation