From “The Little Mermaid” to “Tarzan,” these 10 films, all on Disney+, are worth a trip down memory lane.
The Disney we know today wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the period we now know as the Disney Renaissance, a decade-long comeback for a studio that once seemed on the brink of collapse but found its mojo thanks to the success of the live-action/animation hybrid “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” in 1988. Now on Disney+, you can take a tour through the entire cycle in any order you please to see how the Mouse House became a multimedia empire.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Alan Menken and Howard Ashman brought Broadway-level chops to one of the greatest animated fairy tales ever made. Disney had been trying to adapt Hans Christian Andersen’s classic and incredibly tragic tale for decades. And this film finally cracked the puzzle with the timeless story of mermaid Ariel and her desire to become human even if it means a Faustian pact with a very sassy sea witch.
The Rescuers Down Under (1990)
The Oscar-winning success of “The Little Mermaid” set a high bar for its immediate successor, which is often overlooked but features several technological breakthroughs (that opening shot!) as well as a much wider and broader canvas than usual. A sequel to Disney’s 1977 film, “The Rescuers,” this is still a solid adventure film as well as cinema’s first entirely digitally-shot feature.
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Lightning struck twice with Disney’s next musical fairy tale, this time adapted from the classic French story of a young woman who unlocks the mystery of the sentient beast holding her captive in his castle. Menken and Ashman deliver the goods again with another award-winning songbook, and the computer-assisted ballroom sequence is still capable of eliciting gasps. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the 2017 live-ish action remake.)
Ashman’s death made this his final Disney contribution, with Menken finishing the project with Tim Rice. The popular Arabian tale of a street thief whose destiny changes with the discovery of an enchanted lamp changed the course of celebrity voice acting thanks to Robin Williams, who earned an unprecedented amount of awards chatter even though he never physically appears onscreen.
The Lion King (1994)
The biggest box-office hit of the Disney Renaissance — and the highest-grossing hand-drawn animated film of all time — is a dynamic depiction of the “Circle of Life” unfolding in the wilds of Africa as lion cub Simba discovers the high price of his royal lineage. Endlessly quotable and filled with some of the studio’s most indelible supporting characters, especially Timon and Pumba, this film remains a high watermark of the animated feature form.
Developed at the same time as “The Lion King,” this highly fictionalized account of Pocahontas and English settler John Smith marked an unusual foray into early American history for the first time in the studio’s animated history. Audiences’ reaction to “Pocahontas” was more muted compared to preceding films, but its vibrant color palette and striking, angular animation give it a unique look that still holds up well today. If possible, watch the extended version, as it contains a crucial song omitted from the theatrical cut.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
Disney went very dark with this sumptuous Gothic feast adapted from the classic Victor Hugo novel. Though the film significantly alters the original tragic ending — which, to be fair, was also done to the earlier classic Hollywood version with Charles Laughton — it’s still edgy stuff by Disney standards, including a “Hellfire” number that raised some eyebrows at the time.
Greek mythology springs to life in this sassy, stylish interpretation of the story of strongman Hercules and his journey to the underworld. Largely overlooked now, it’s a light and breezy treat with a catchy batch of songs often laced with nods to classic doo-wop and R&B.
Disney’s first Asian heroine had a visually spectacular showcase in this musical action epic about a young woman who takes her father’s place in combat by posing as a young man. The fight scenes are still something to behold, and Eddie Murphy was getting warmed up for his classic “Shrek” role with his hilarious turn here as the little dragon Mushu.
The last official Disney Renaissance film is a bit divisive due to its heavy reliance on songs by Phil Collins (judge accordingly), and the hand-drawn classical approach was looking a little passé considering “Toy Story 2” opened just a few months after. The film was still successful though and features some innovative vine-swinging visual flourishes, with a Broadway version and TV series to come in its wake.