The 2000s: Disney’s Forgotten Decade

The Walt Disney company is known for many things, the biggest of which is probably its long and successful history of making animated movies. But there is a certain class of movies that don’t get talked about as much (except on highly specific Tumblr blogs and niche twitter accounts). So, I wanna talk about those movies. Let’s talk 2000s.

Picture this: It’s the year 2000. You’re coming off one of the most critically and commercially successful eras of your history. Where do you go from there? The answer the Disney execs came up with was “experiment”. And so, they did. They stepped away from the tried and tested love story method that had served them well in the years prior (only Atlantis and Princess and the Frog feature a significant love story) and sought to incorporate that newfangled “computer animation” that had seen success with movie studios like Pixar (and Dreamworks to a lesser degree). Four of the 11 movies released were computer animated, in part or whole, and beyond that, all of them (bar POTF) had animation styles that were markedly different from the “Disney style” that audiences had come to expect. No two movies looked alike, but they all felt, undoubtedly Disney in a way that is difficult to quantify. Each movie in turn feels like stepping into a unique world, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. From the Peruvian-inspired visuals of The Emperor’s New Groove to the quirky shapes and 3D bodies in Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, every single movie is a wholly unique experience. Experience that would prove invaluable and Disney fully stepped into computer animation in the 2010s (and dominated, naturally).

The second bit of experimentation was in the movies themselves. Only one movie released was a musical, marking a huge departure from the much fabled “Disney Renaissance” and much of their history. This doesn’t mean there was no music during these movies. Brother Bear included many sequenced underscored by Phil Collins’ masterful work (not unlike Tarzan in ‘99). The road trip sequence from Bolt might be my favorite in the entire movie. So, there was still music, just not in the way we’ve come to expect. Similarly, there was less focus on a “boy meets girl, boy falls in love” story. The filmmakers instead opted to focus on other aspects of the human (or animal) spirit. In movies like Bolt, Lilo and Stitch, and Brother Bear we get to see a different, familial love. Meet the Robinsons and Chicken Little contain moving tales of self-discovery and belief. Atlantis and Treasure Planet are beautiful adventure films. Disney made some of the most emotionally resonant movies in their history, all without having characters belt showtunes.

What did all this accomplish? Commercially, not a lot. Only 3 movies grossed more than $300 million at the box office, and the average box office was just over $230 million. Despite this, these movies are beloved by those who’ve seen them. There are fan-pages dedicated to these movies (mainly Atlantis). For some people, this was their intro to the wonderful world of Disney animation. And beyond the cult following that most of these movies garnered, there is the inspiration for years of Disney animation to come. While the 2010s saw the return of the musical (with Tangled and Frozen), there were also movies like Zootopia, Big Hero 6, and Wreck-it Ralph.

Success is measured in a great many ways. And in a transitional era for an iconic studio, success is measured in the impact the movies had on not just those who saw them, but on storytelling philosophies and techniques for years to come.

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