Movie making is a tough business! You’ve got to keep up with the latest trends, and constantly have your eye pointed firmly towards the future, even if you’re one of the biggest production companies in the world!
By the time Disney reached the 80s, the studio had already been in the movie business for six decades, reaching its pinnacle ‘Golden Age’ with movies like Pinnochio (1940), Snow White (1937), and Bambi (1937). Then, came the ‘Silver Age’ after the wartime period, and people were looking to spend their disposable incomes when, consequently, Disneyland opened in 1955. Tragedy soon struck as founder Walt Disney passed away in 1966. The 70s produced a new form of animation called xerography which was used in Robin Hood (1973) and The Aristocats (1970), which audiences described as ‘scratchy’ and ‘muted’. So, without their mogul, Disney productions had become lost, and struggled to figure out what their audiences wanted.
On the more successful side of Hollywood, Steven Spielberg was riding the success of the Jaws franchise (1975, 1978), whilst George Lucas was debuting the phenomenon of Star Wars in 1977, which Disney turned down!
Both series grossed over $400 million on their initial releases!
The 80’s was a decade where Disney was looking for fresh new things. Star Wars and Jaws were attracting older audiences, so Disney tried the same formula. The studio delved into the horror genre, releasing The Watcher in the Woods in 1980. This was an anti-fairy ghost tale, specifically marketed as “not for kids”! The movie had many horror genre ties, such as starring creepy actress, Bette Davis, and using the house from The Haunting (1963). The film received bad reviews and grossed only $5 million. It was clear that the ‘older-audience-targeted horror genre’ wasn’t working. The film was initially pulled from screenings, and is now kept firmly in the vault with the film inaccessible on streaming services, so it’s difficult what to say what was so wrong with it, because it sounds like a great film.
Perhaps, people just weren’t used to the spooky new Disney.
In 1981, Disney released The Fox and the Hound, a well-loved film nowadays, but a box-office bomb at the time. Viewers called the film ‘boring’ and too ‘whimsical’. The Fox and the Hound, arguably, signifies the last of the ‘classic’ Disney films. In 1983, Disney went back down the creepy route, adapting Ray Bradbury’s novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes. Visually, this film is brilliant, and is one of my favourite adaptation films ever! Jonathan Pryce plays a sinister carnival owner, and brilliantly captures the tone of the film, but, again, audiences just didn’t like it! Now the mid-80s were approaching, and Disney had created the first half of a forgettable era. The Black Cauldron had been in production for over a decade, so hopes were quite high, or perhaps panicked! The film had the biggest budget of any Disney film of the time, costing a huge $44 million. The Black Cauldron was another dark fantasy, and the first Disney animation to receive a PG rating. The movie received average reviews, leaving nobody as being particularly impressed. The plot, following a pig farmer and his gang who seek to destroy the cauldron, was deemed too long and messy. Although the film can be appreciated for the risks it took in animation, most people aren’t animation experts, and the film grossed only $21 million.
Still not getting the message, Disney produced one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen in 1985. Return to Oz is the follow-up to the widely successful, The Wizard of Oz. The film starts in an incredibly sinister way, as Aunt Em takes Dorothy to a sanatorium for electrotherapy due to her obsessions with Oz. Dorothy then returns to Oz after floating down a river, and encounters a headless princess who wears other people’s heads, and now wants seeks Dorothy’s for her collection. It is now a cult classic, but at that time, it only grossed $11 million.
It’s hard to say what was so wrong with the early 80’s Disney films when they were making such huge leaps with their animation techniques and writing. Not only were these films visually stunning, but they were also very distinct. The 1980s Disney president, Roy Miller, had said “The last thing I want to do is go back to the formula Disney Picture. I want them to say, ‘Hey, look, Disney isn’t that predictable…’”, which is exactly what he had achieved, but I guess the audience just didn’t appreciate the change.
The late 80’s was a resurrection for Disney with animated musical, Oliver and Company (1988) and live-action family film, Honey I Shrunk The Kids (1989). This gave Disney a clear idea of what people wanted: just simple, family-friendly fun! The biggest hit came in 1989 with The Little Mermaid. The film grossed $84 million and even won two Oscars. It’s often marked as the beginning of Disney’s renaissance period in the 90s, and the production company really milked the formula of animated musicals (Beauty and The Beast, Aladdin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, etc.), but it really worked for the studio, and brought Disney back to life!