Where Did All the Singing Go? The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Disney’s Animated Musicals
Disney created the template for successful animated musicals in the 1990s, then lost its way during the 2000s only to find astounding success during the 2010s. Here’s what happened!
There’s a surprisingly long list of iconic animated films from the 2000s – Shrek, Ice Age, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., Madagascar, Cars, Ratatouille, Bee Movie, Kung Fu Panda, WALL-E, and Up. All of these films share two things in common: they aren’t musicals, and they weren’t animated by Disney Animation.
This is pretty shocking, because Disney is animated films, and in particular animated musicals. Disney recently made Encanto – a culturally and critically acclaimed phenomenon. The 2010s saw mega-hits from Disney such as Frozen, Frozen II, and Moana. And of course so many of us nostalgically remember Disney’s classics from the 1990s: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.
Disney during the 2000s? Mostly bland and forgettable. Its best animated musicals from that decade were Enchanted and The Princess and the Frog. And Disney’s non-musical output wasn’t much better – Bolt, Chicken Little, and Dinosaur – certainly not timeless treasures.
So I started exploring what happened during the 2000s, and set out to answer (1) where did all the singing go, and (2) why did Disney drop the ball?
The 2000s dip
I collected data on the number of animated films per decade using IMDB, parsed which ones were musicals, and created the following bar chart of the number of animated musicals per decade. Sure enough, there really is a noticeable drop in the number of animated musicals during the 2000s decade!
Animated films are more popular than ever
With a noticeable drop in the number of animated musicals during the 2000s, I wanted to see if there was a corresponding drop in the overall number of animated films during the 2000s. If animation studios as a whole had less output during the 2000s, then it makes sense that there would similarly be fewer animated musicals.
So I made the following bar chart comparing the number of animated films per decade (musicals only vs. all genres). While the 2000s saw a clear dip in the number of animated musicals, the overall number of animated films has steadily increased each decade.
This bar chart clearly shows something consequential and meaningful happened specifically to the genre of animated musicals during the 2000s!
Content is king
As far as animated musicals go, Disney churns them out better than any other animation studio. In fact, Disney has made almost 40% of all animated musicals over the past 40 years – averaging a little over one animated musical every two years…for 40 years! That is an incredibly consistent production timeline!
Furthermore, Disney is also leagues ahead of its rivals in terms of content creation. From 1980 to 2020, Disney made 3x as many animated musicals as its closest competitor, Fox Animation. As the following bar chart shows, no one comes anywhere near Disney when it comes to creating animated musicals:
While it is over 25 years old now, Bill Gates wrote a groundbreaking essay titled Content is King in January 1996. In that essay, he argued that most of the money generated on the internet would come from content, much like broadcasting. It seems that Disney took this message to heart!
Disney is king of the hill…except during the 2000s
Lastly, I looked at the top grossing (worldwide gross) animated musicals from each decade – and this is where things get really interesting!
As the following table shows, Disney not only cranks out animated musicals, but they tend to be incredibly successful at the box office. The top 4 grossing animated musicals from the 1990s and 2010s were all created by Disney, and the 1980s had 3 out of the top 4 coming from Disney. The only decade where Disney didn’t even crack the top 3 was the decade in question: the 2000s!
|1||The Little Mermaid||The Lion King||Alvin and the Chipmunks:|
|The Lion King|
|2||An American Tail||Aladdin||Happy Feet||Frozen 2|
|3||Oliver & Company||Tarzan||Alvin and the Chipmunks||Frozen|
|4||The Great Mouse Detective||Beauty and the Beast||Enchanted||Moana|
For musicals, the best that the 2000s had to offer was Fox’s widely panned Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. Disney’s animated musicals from the 2000s are largely forgotten titles: Enchanted, The Princess and the Frog, The Jungle Book 2, and Home on the Range.
A combination of factors occurred simultaneously during the 2000s, and these led to Disney’s animation slump and lackluster musicals. Here’s what happened:
1. Competition heats up
Disney’s critical – and financial – success in animated films during the 1990s caught the attention of other production companies, which responded by trying their hand at animation. And it turns out that Disney wasn’t the only studio who could craft endearing and relevant narratives in animation form.
DreamWorks was founded in 1994, and hit the ground running. Its second animated film – The Prince of Egypt (1998) – grossed $218 million worldwide, making it the most successful non-Disney animated feature at the time. With several more animated films under its belt, DreamWorks entered the 2000s as seasoned pros. 2001 saw the release of Shrek, which would go on to become the 2nd highest-grossing animated franchise of all time. Shrek‘s parody of the traditional fairytale story, its star-studded voice cast, and its use of pop music (like Smash Mouth‘s All Star) were a much-welcome break from the cookie-cutter Disney mold.
Pixar also jumped onto the scene in the 1990s with Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999). Given the widespread appeal and commercial success of its first two animated films, Pixar would evolve its creative development process during the 2000s, becoming known as the Pixar Braintrust. Superb animation and visual imagery, combined with captivating storylines and sophisticated wit, were on full display with Finding Nemo (2003), and would become hallmark traits of Pixar films.
Even Blue Sky Studios – primarily a visual effects company, moved into computer-animated films during the 2000s decade with Ice Age (2002). Audiences were certainly eager for something other than Disney’s Cinderella Castle!
2. Internal strife
As if stiff competition from other animation studios wasn’t bad enough for Disney, internal quarrels threatened to derail the company during the early 2000s. Specifically, Disney CEO Michael Eisner and chairman of the animation department, Roy E. Disney, were publicly vociferous. Roy Disney accused Eisner of turning Disney into a “rapacious, soul-less” company and quit in 2003. Disney’s board of directors, unhappy with this turn of events, put pressure on Eisner to resign – which he did not do until 2005.
Roy Disney was also upset about Disney’s ongoing feud with Pixar (and Eisner’s disagreements with Pixar owner Steve Jobs). In the late 1990s, Disney and Pixar entered into an agreement to collaborate on three films. Despite being profitable for both companies, Pixar constantly complained that the arrangement was not equitable (Disney exclusively owned all story, character, and sequel rights). The two companies attempted to reach a new agreement in 2001 but failed, and subsequent attempts also failed until negotiations broke down completely in 2004. It wasn’t until 2006 when new Disney CEO Bob Iger was successful in acquiring Pixar.
3. The rise of CGI
Other animation studios, like DreamWorks and Pixar, were quick to fully embrace CGI and computer animation. Disney, however, staunchly stuck with traditional animation: its productions well into the 2000s – such as Home on the Range (2004) and The Princess and the Frog (2009) – still employed hand-drawn animation. And Disney’s attempts at computer animation, such as Chicken Little (2005) and Meet the Robinsons (2007), were harshly criticized for putting technical innovation ahead of storyline, making for lackluster characters and forgettable narratives. During its move to computer animation, Disney downsized its animation department and cut the salaries of its animator – which predictably sent morale in its animation studio to an all-time low. The 2000s were not very favorable to Disney animators!
4. Using music differently
Disney’s animated films found great success in the 1990s with full Broadway-style musical productions. By the 2000s, however, the musical formula had gone stale and other studios proved you could use music differently and still achieve success. Shrek (2001), for instance, pioneered the incorporation of pop music hits into animated films. Disney would try to replicate Shrek‘s soundtrack success during the 2000s – moving the company away from traditional musicals.
Disney’s Treasure Planet (2002) uses I’m Still Here and Always Know Where You Are from The Goo Goo Dolls frontman John Rzeznik and British pop-rock group, BBMak. Lilo & Stitch (2002) mixes in a handful of Elvis hits. Chicken Little (2005) uses the fan-favorites We Are the Champions by Queen and Wannabe by the Spice Girls. Meet the Robinsons (2007) follows a similar pattern with Another Believer by Rufus Wainwright and Little Wonders by Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas.
It wasn’t until Tangled (2010) when Disney returned to its animated musical formula, which once again resonated with audiences. The scene was now set for Disney’s Frozen (2013) to lead the rebirth of Disney animated musicals, which we are still riding to this very day!
References and Further Reading
Still interested and want to read more? Here are some additional resources that I was able to find!
Did you notice a drop in animated musicals in the 2000s? What other factors do you think caused the slump in quality animated musicals during the 2000s? Let me know in the comments below!
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