When you think of Disney having a style, you probably think of big eyes, soft, round features, and general cuteness/prettiness. Films that come to mind include The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin, who are all almost universally beloved and are massive hits. Fast forward to the 2010s and you can see a similar style in their CGI hits; all the characters look cute and soft around the edges and the set pieces are pretty. There’s a distinct lack of sharp edges or angles. And they’re all also huge hits with big fan bases.
But what about the films that came between the Disney Renaissance and the Disney Revival? The films that were much less successful at the box office and don’t have as big a following? I’m talking about what is referred to as (depending on who you talk to) the Experimental Era or the Second Dark Age. Between Fantasia 2000 to Bolt, these are films that range from very mild hits to flat out bombs, with Lilo and Stitch being the only real hit.
A lot of people have cited a lot of the movies released during this time simply didn’t have good stories and/or good marketing to make the cut. Some people say that there was too much competition between Pixar and DreamWorks. I think this is all true, but I havean additional theory as to why some of the films didn’t do so well: their animation style.
Here’s a look at The Emperor’s New Groove, which has a bit of a following but wasn’t very successful when it came out initially:
Look at how…sharp and pointy everyone looks. Remember the cute and soft and round Disney style I mentioned earlier? It’s gone here. And I think the new style fits the tone of the movie better, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people looked at the posters and trailers and felt something was…off for a Disney film. It only ended up making just under $200 million worldwide, which is…not very good for Disney’s standards.
Now look at Atlantis: The Lost Empire:
This is a VERY distinct style for Disney, based on the art of Mike Mignola (of Hellboy) fame. And it did about as well as The Emperor’s New Groove, which is to say, not well at all.
Lilo and Stitch came after and was an actual success…and it had a style that was closer to what Disney is well known for, with cuter looking characters and a lack of pointy imagery. And it was a hit. Immediately after, there was Treasure Planet, which had a lot of weird imagery that wasn’t as cute as in Lilo and Stitch…and it bombed dramatically.
Then there are Disney’s two most reviled movies: Home on the Range and Chicken Little. You know what they have in common, besides questionable stories and characters? They both look like shit.
Look at how garish these movies look. They don’t look like Disney films. They look like films made by someone else entirely. HotR is victim to the angular/pointy/sharp style of other Disney misses, and CL is just…no.
While I don’t think this is the ONLY reason a lot of these films were received so poorly, I think there’s a major correspondence and didn’t help matters. Furthermore, I think this goes just beyond Disney’s weaker period during the early 2000s. You know how Pocahontas wasn’t very well received (and still isn’t)? I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that Pocahontas and John Smith look so radically different from Jasmine and Aladdin, Ariel and Eric, or Belle and the Beast. And you know how Hercules had an extremely unique style from all the other films during the Renaissance? It ended up being one of the lowest-grossing films of that period, doing better than The Rescuers Down Under but doing worse than all the rest.
So yeah. I think it’s safe to say that there are some things people are more willing to look at than others (or at least, take their kids to). I think when they expect a company to look a certain way, they don’t react well when it tries something new. And to be fair, I don’t think Disney is the only company hurt by this; you know The Good Dinosaur didn’t do so well? In addition to not being a very good movie (if you haven’t seen it, I don’t recommend it), it had really cartoony characters (the dinosaurs look a lot like plastic toys) clashing against ultra-realistic set pieces. And you know how Brave is kind of met with scorn? It has a way different look and feel from other Pixar movies.
It’s a little upsetting that, if a company or studio creates a style that is very well received, they’re never allowed to diverge from it without repercussions. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with their predominant style (in fact sometimes it looks absolutely beautiful), it’s just that I have to tell myself not to expect anything new and different. And it’s not that Disney doesn’t WANT to do it; it’s that it knows if it tries people will react negatively. (This is also another reason why Disney doesn’t also do anything thematically different anymore; The Hunchback of Notre Dame was pretty revolutionary and it still is, but because it’s not universally beloved, Disney’s probably not going to make a movie like it again.)
I am glad that some of the movies that didn’t do so well initially are slowly becoming appreciated for what they are, unique style and everything. And I think one day we can see animated films with various styles and designs becoming successful. I just feel that, for Disney and other family-friendly studios, they’re going to be stuck making soft, round, and cute designs for a long time; I don’t think parents are ready to take their kids to see anything otherwise.