Friday, August 4, 2017

Rewatching the Disney Renaissance

The biggest cultural touchstones of my childhood were the Disney Renaissance movies, everything released from "The Little Mermaid" to roughly "The Emperor's New Groove."  When I was young, these were the only movies that I was guaranteed to see in theaters, and the only movies my parents would buy on home video.  Because my music teacher mother would also used the songs in her classes, we'd also buy the soundtracks, which were played over and over again in our house and on long car trips.  I remember my mother remarking darkly at one point that my brother and I were being brainwashed by Disney, but whose fault was that?

Now, there were some of the Disney movies we liked better than others, but the big three were always "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "The Lion King."  These were the ones that everybody liked and got the most play.  "Pocahontas" and "Hunchback" weren't nearly much fun, and by the time "Hercules" and "Mulan" came around, us kids were quickly aging out of the intended audience.  The music was getting progressively worse too, so we stopped buying the soundtracks and videos.  We still saw all the movies - I distinctly remember going to "Tarzan" multiple times, and we treated "Fantasia 2000" as a major event - but there was a clear sense of diminishing engagement as we got older.

The last time I saw "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "The Lion King" on my own was well over a decade ago, when they were released on DVD with tons of bonus features.  Cinephile that I was, I rented them specifically to listen to the commentary tracks and watch the making-of featurettes.  I had watched these movies so many times as a kid via VHS tapes that I knew every  shot, every frame, every line of dialogue, and every note of music.  I knew so much trivia, and even had the supervising animators for most the characters still memorized.  Disney Feature Animation was going through a rough spot around then, however, and I'd mostly stopped following the new films.  

And now in 2017 I'm a mom with young children, and Disney is hellbent on remaking the majority of these movies as live-action features to capitalize on my nostalgia.  The "Beauty and the Beast" remake made oodles of money, and "Aladdin," and "The Lion King" are on their way soon.  There are a lot of animated Disney films in my life again, especially "Tangled" and "Frozen."  However, we have revisited the older Disney classics, including the Renaissance films.  "The Lion King" went over especially well.  And the experience of watching these films again, for the first time in ages, has been a real eye-opener.

Yes, they still hold up beautifully.  I still like the parts that I liked when I was younger, and get bored at the parts I don't.  Some characters are more grating, and some less so.  What really surprised me, however, is how emotionally fraught the stories are.  The death of Mufasa is far more traumatic than the offscreen loss of Bambi's mother.  The Beast is legitimately frightening, and I kept eyeing my toddler, wondering if the kiddo needed some reassurance that it would all turn out okay.  I know parenthood has the effect of making  everything seem scarier, but Disney's recent output is rarely so intense.

I think back to the media hubbub around these films during the '90s, the endless spinoffs and reimaginings and adaptations into different formats, and it's comforting to realize that the Disney Renaissance movies really were something special.  I didn't like them just because I was a kid being bombarded with Disney commercials.  I liked them and continue to like them because they're legitimately fantastic pieces of cinema.  And watching them with my rugrats gave me a renewed appreciation for them.  

Somewhere along the way I stopped being a Disney obsessive while I was being an anime obsessive and then a general media obsessive.  I still enjoy animated films very much, and rarely miss a Disney or PIXAR feature, but it's been a long time since I bought one on home media for myself or bothered to listen to a full soundtrack.  My kiddos aren't quite big enough to have developed any long-lasting attachments to any media yet, but they're getting there.  And I'm enjoying getting reacquainted with the Mouse.


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