The Disney Bronze Age (also known as Disney Dark Age or The Early Renaissance by the They Drew As They Pleased artbook series) refers to an era of the Disney Animated Canon that lasted from 1970 to 1988, beginning soon after the death of Walt Disney. The films of this era where notable for their distinctive art style, a byproduct of a cheaper xerography process invented by Ub Iwerks, but were also notable for having a generally mixed critical reception and financial performance compared to films Walt Disney himself produced and directed while he was still alive. While most these films are considered successful, they are often criticized for failing to meet the standards of previous films made by the studio. Production problems were also prevalent during the Bronze Age, as animated films took longer and longer to make due to budget cuts and the phasing out of veteran animators with newer, less experienced animators. For these reasons, the era is often referred to as the Disney Dark Age, though the term is disputed by some critics who find the movies of the era to be some of Disney's best. For this reason, the more neutral term of Bronze Age is preferred.
It is predicted that the era started after the death of Walt Disney in December of 1966, beginning with The Aristocats in 1970 and ending in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, which is also said to be the start of another era known as the Disney Renaissance, or "Disney's Second Golden Age". (On a similar note, The Great Mouse Detectiveis sometimes considered to be a part of the Disney Renaissance. ) Despite the era's reputation among critics and fans, most Bronze Age films were financially successful at the box office, with some films being nominated for film awards, winning a few of them. One film in particular, The Rescuers, set box office records upon release and eventually spawned a theatrical sequel in 1990. The only film to be considered a true failure during this time period was 1985's The Black Cauldron, which was both a critical and financial disaster. Following the failure of The Black Cauldron, Disney Animation Studios underwent major policy changes that saw animated films being released at least every single year, as opposed to one film every 2-4 years. This business tactic is still in effect to this day.
After the 1959 feature Sleeping Beauty failed at the box office due to be produced in Super Technirama 70 mm film, there was some talk about shuttering the animation division at the Disney studio. Ub Iwerks however, invented the xerox process which was cheaper than hand ink and paint. The company was having heavy competition with television, theme parks, & live action.
Walt Disney's first xeroxed film was One Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961. This film generated hefty revenue for the studio. However, it was criticized for scratchy lines along w/ reused animation which they would till the end of the 1980s.
Two years later, The Sword in the Stone however while successful still didn't match the quality of that of One Hundred and One Dalmatians critically or commercially. This prompted Walt to be more involved with story meetings.
In 1967, The Jungle Book the last feature Walt Disney supervised, was a huge success. This led to more films being greenlighted.
During the previous year, the studio brought A.A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh characters to the screen for the first time in two of four animated featurettes (the second of which, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, won an Oscar, the last Walt Disney received).
The Bronze era
With the deaths of Walt and Roy O. Disney, Walt Disney Productions was left in the hands of Donn Tatum, Card Walker and Ron W. Miller. At this time, Disney's Nine Old Men, aging animators of the company, began training new animators in prospect of retiring. In the 1980s, Don Bluth and eleven animators, who were friends of Don, left Disney to establish their own company, Don Bluth Productions, which proved to be a great rival towards Disney in the 1980s, with their own feature films such as The Secret of NIMH (a film that Don originally pitched to Disney, but was scrapped due to its overly mature and dark tone; thus being one of the reasons why Bluth and his friends left the studio to begin with), An American Tail, The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven.
Along with The Jungle Book, The Aristocats was one of the last animated films Walt Disney had approved, although he did not live to see either one completed. Taking four years to finish, The Aristocats was released to theaters on December 24, 1970. Despite favorable reviews and solid box office performance, the film did not match the successes of past Disney films such as One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Because of this, the film is seen as a modest success in the Disney Animated Canon, although the film is still considered to be very iconic.
Beginning production before Walt's death, Robin Hood began as an adaptation of Reynard the Fox. This idea was scrapped after Disney deemed Reynard a non-suitable hero. After Walt's death, the film was updated to be an adaptation of the Robin Hood stories. The film was released on November 8, 1973 to mixed reviews. While it was a commercial success and was popular with audiences, including a sizable fanbase, the film was criticized for its heavy use of recycled animation from films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Jungle Book and The Aristocats. The recycled animation was justified due to the fact that the company was undergoing a financial slump after Phase One construction of Walt Disney World went over-budget. Despite its mixed critical reception, the film did receive a nomination for an Oscar award at the time.
Taking four years to complete, The Rescuers was a great critical and commercial success, even breaking the record for largest financial amount made for an animated film on opening weekend, a record it held until 1986 by Don Bluth's An American Tail. The film was Disney's most successful film at the time, regaining people's faith towards the studio's future. The film was a critical success, making it one of the most popular films of the Dark Age which allowed the film to spawn a sequel, The Rescuers Down Under in 1990. It was also Disney's biggest critical and commercial success until the release of The Great Mouse Detective in 1986.
Although beginning production in 1977, The Fox and the Hound wasn't released until July 10, 1981, due to a delay in production after 17% of Disney's animators left the studio. Although the film was a moderate financial success, it was met with mixed reviews from fans of the original story and critics, who were disappointed with the story changes. However, the film has managed to earn its own fanbase as time would move on from its original release.
Released on July 26, 1985, The Black Cauldron was both a critical and commercial failure, and considered by many to be the lowest point in Disney history. To add insult to injury, it lost to The Care Bears Movie. Despite this, Lloyd Alexander, the author of the books in which the film was based on, recognized no similarity between the books and film, but has still stated that he actually enjoyed the film.
Released on July 2, 1986, The Great Mouse Detective was met with critical and financial success. Disney gained their confidence back due to the success of this film, allowing them to pursue their concepts for future projects like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid (ironically, producers John Musker and Ron Clements had worked on all of these three films). It should be noted that this film's success literally saved the animation studio from going bankrupt, which is why this movie is sometimes considered to be the unofficial start of the Disney Renaissance. Despite not making as much cash as its rival film, Don Bluth's An American Tail, it still garnered more favorable reviews from movie critics, most notably Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.
Often regarded as the final film of the Dark Age, Oliver & Company was a commercial success, but was met with mixed reviews from various movie critics. Despite that, the film was able to earn a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award. This movie also brought back the musical format to Disney's animated films, which formed the bedrock of the films released in the Disney Renaissance. Oliver & Company is the highest grossing film from Disney's Dark Age.