The early 2000s marked a period in Disney cinema that some say struggled with charm and fresh-feeling narratives. Fans blamed Pixar’s early renaissance for the slump in Disney’s characteristic magic, and most of the films the production company released using classic animation were forgettable. However, there were a few gems — Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo & Stitch, and Treasure Planet — released during that lackluster period which shouldn’t be overlooked.
Due to Disney’s long history—an impressive 90 years of animation—the studio’s output has actually been divided up into seven different eras: the Golden Age, Wartime Era, Silver Age, Bronze Age, Renaissance Era, Post-Renaissance Era, and Revival Era. While there has been some debate regarding which films fall into which category, each era is marked by a larger event, internally or externally, which accounted for a change in Disney’s typical styles or themes.
The Golden Age through the Silver Age were notable because Walt Disney himself was still at the forefront of the animation studio. The final movie released before his death was The Jungle Book in 1967. Disney’s death led to the Bronze era, sometimes known by fans as the Dark Age, when the studio’s movies were characterized by their dark lines for xerography, a printing technique used for backgrounds, and for markedly secular storylines.
It wasn’t until 1989 that the Disney Renaissance saw the studio flourishing again, and every movie between 1989 and 1999 was a box office and critical success. This era is usually considered the pinnacle of Disney animation, including films like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.
At this point, as well, Pixar was partnered with Disney and began to create their line of CGI animated films, beginning with Toy Story in 1995. This was also the point at which Disney’s films began to decline in quality. While Disney still led the market in hand-drawn 2D animation, Pixar jumped into the field of computer graphics and with each success, Disney started to appear left behind. Both children and adult audiences alike wanted to see Pixar films, which were becoming famous for satisfying narratives and characters. Perhaps in the late 90s, Disney realized that Pixar’s signature bouncing desk lamp was beginning to overshadow its own sparkling Cinderella castle.
While the movies of this era weren’t outright bad, they certainly didn’t receive as much success as they were hoping – especially when compared to Pixar’s releases, including Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. Dreamworks, during this period, released Shrek, which, with its stellar voice acting and use of contemporary music, turned out to be a cultural phenomenon.
Disney, of course, wasn’t unattached to CGI tactics. The famous ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast was CGI, after all. However, the success of The Little Mermaid in 1989, a project that had been percolating in the studio since Walt Disney’s time, led the teams to delve back into their three time-tested storytelling methods from the Golden and Silver Age: fairytales, stories based on books, or stories told from the perspective of animals. The studio largely ignored CGI until the process began making money for Pixar, whose contract was expected to come to an end in 2004. The severance of this contract led to a two-year separation, caused by Pixar’s dissatisfaction with Disney’s management. Some fans may remember the film Ratatouille, which only had Pixar’s name attached at the time.
Michael Eisner, Disney’s president, switched Disney animation over to CGI. This shift gave us films like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, which were both received negatively by critics and audiences.
Disney’s Post-Renaissance Era was characterized by the studio’s internal strife as well. There were the disagreements with Pixar and the scramble to get them back after the contract’s end in 2004, of course, but Disney experienced contention within its walls.
During the early 2000s, Disney experienced quarrels between the aforementioned president and Walt Disney’s brother, Roy E. Disney, until Eisner’s resignation in 2005. Roy E. Disney dramatically left the company in 2003, even beginning a website and campaign that asked those on the board of directors to not vote in favor of reelecting Eisner.
Shortly after Eisner’s resignation, and Roy Disney’s return to the company, Disney bought Pixar in 2006. The now-huge conglomerate revved its engines began creating films now considered part of the Revival Era – movies like Frozen, Big Hero Six, and this year’s furry-friendly mega-hit, Zootopia.
Within all of that hubbub during the Post-Renaissance Era with squabbles and competition, the movies that were released in that time period didn’t really get the attention they deserved. Yes, some of the films were pretty mediocre, like Home on the Range, which proceeded Chicken Little, but some actually did do well at the time. Others premiered to lukewarm audiences, but gained attention in later years. Lilo & Stitch produced another two sequels and a TV series on the Disney Channel. Its central alien’s design was a high point in the film, and Chris Sanders, Stitch’s creator, went on to design Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon.
Treasure Planet was a box office flop, but its transcendent animation style suggests the film’s failure had more to do with ill-timed release than a lack of quality. The sci-fi remake of the classic novel Treasure Island was released at the same time as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings films, so it was shuffled into the wings, in favor of the more lucrative teen wizards and hobbits.
Each of Disney’s lesser films unfortunately came together during a turbulent time for the studio, and they are usually forgotten or overlooked. However, they feature the same sweeping emotional moments, charming casts of goofy characters, and illuminating soundtracks as other Disney projects. Some may not resonate as easily as the classics, but others, like Treasure Planet and Atlantis, deserve another watch, despite their initial and disappointing releases.