In the early 2000s, often regarded as "Disney's Second Dark Age", Disney released very few successful animated movies, though some did better than others, most notably Lilo & Stitch which became their most successful from the early to mid 2000s, for almost an entire decade, mainly because of weak box office results due to the rising popularity of computer-animated movies as well as poor critical and audience reactions. In 2005, the company decided to make their first CGI animated movie Chicken Little, which, despite being financially successful, was jeered by critics and audiences. With John Lasseter renaming the animation division as Walt Disney Animation Studios, the following release, Meet the Robinsons, received better critical reception than Chicken Little, though it made less money. However, Bolt did financially well at the box office and received positive reviews. The success of Bolt was the sign that Walt Disney Animation Studios was on a road to recovery.
Revival Successes (2009-2014)
John Lasseter took over the animation division with Disney's purchase of Pixar in 2006, after which Disney announced that they would return to traditional animation with the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog. Praised for being a "rebirth" and "return to form" for the studio, the film was largely well received by critics and audiences alike, grossing nearly $270 million. However, because the film didn't do as well as Disney had hoped (grossing less than Bolt, which grossed $310 million), Disney changed their marketing drastically for the movies that followed (Rapunzel was re-titled Tangled and The Snow Queen was re-titled Frozen effort to make it more gender-neutral). Tom Sito (a film professor at the University of Southern California) stated that the film's success was equivalent to the success of The Great Mouse Detective as a step up improvement from Disney's major downfall (in Mouse Detective's case, The Black Cauldron). The modest success of The Princess and the Frog, Disney Animation reestablished the successful animated musical fairy tales, introduced a popular and ground-breaking Disney princess (being the first African-American Disney Princess), and reestablished the classic storytelling formula the studio is famous for, as well as setting the stage for films to follow. Additionally, several renowned film critic associations such as TIME, Forbes, and Screen Rant, mark Frog as the beginning of Disney's new age renaissance.The Princess and the Frog was also nominated for several awards and honors, including three Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature, and Best Original Song ("Down in New Orleans" and "Almost There"), three Critics Choice Awards, a Grammy Award nomination for Best Song Written for a Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media ("Down in New Orleans"), and won three Annie Awards.
After The Princess and the Frog, Disney released the 2010 film Tangled, Disney's 50th Animated Feature, marking a new direction for the studio, blending 3D CGI animation with traditional techniques. Following the tradition of the 1990s animated films, Tangled was a musical fairy tale loosely based on the story of Rapunzel. The film became a huge critical and commercial success, earning $591 million worldwide, and eventually becoming one of the most successful Disney animated features of all time, both critically and financially; proving the studio retained the ability to do so. Tangled also received various award nominations, including an Academy Award for Best Original Song ("I See the Light"), as well as a Grammy Award for Best Song Written for Visual Media ("I See the Light").Tangled's financial success established a new marketing and aesthetic formula that would have an effect on the films to follow.
In 2012, after the releases of Tangled and the 2011 film Winnie the Pooh (which was a financial disappointment, mostly due to the fact that the film was in competition from the final entry in the Harry Potter film series, despite being the best-reviewed animated film of 2011), Disney released Wreck-It Ralph, which garnered huge critical and commercial success similar to that of Tangled. Most notably, for a non-musical, Ralph was their most acclaimed since 1961's One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Ralph also proved to be a successful contender during award season. It was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars and the Golden Globes, but lost to Disney/Pixar's Brave. Even so, Wreck-It Ralph won the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Animated Motion Picture, as well as the Critics Choice Movie Awards for Best Animated Feature, and five Annie Awards, including that of Best Animated Feature.
With the release of Ralph also came the studio's groundbreaking animated short, Paperman, which won the Academy Award for Best Short, among other critical acclaim.
The Revival Era reached new heights in 2013 with the release of Frozen, which won Best Animated Feature at the Golden Globes, Annies and Critics' Choice Movie Awards, as well as Best Song for "Let It Go". The film also became the first in the canon series to earn $1 billion and only the second animated feature to do so (the other being Disney/Pixar's Toy Story 3). The film also won two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song. It was the first Disney film to win the Best Animated Feature Award and the first film to win Best Original Song since Tarzan. Other awards and honors include two Critics Choice Awards, two Grammy Awards, and two Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, among many others. Some have even praised it as the best Disney musical since The Lion King.
Before Frozen, the studio's third short film in the era was released as a hand-drawn/computer animated hybrid short entitled Get a Horse!; starring Mickey Mouse. The short received an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short.
Later Successes (2014-present)
The first Disney Animation film that was inspired by a Marvel comic series and characters of the same name, Big Hero 6, premiered in theaters on November 7, 2014. The film received very widespread critical acclaim from critics, receiving an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, along with an 89% approval from audiences, making it the highest audience-rated film of the era. The film debuted at #1 with $56.2 million, grossing more than Wreck-It Ralph, but less than Frozen. Big Hero 6 would eventually go on to become the highest-grossing animated film of 2014, and the fourth highest-grossing feature Walt Disney Animation Studios has released both domestically and internationally, behind only The Lion King, Zootopia, and Frozen.Big Hero 6 won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and Annie Award for Best Animated Feature Film.
Along with Big Hero 6 came the animated short Feast, which received critical acclaim similar to that of Paperman, and won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short.
In 2016, the studio released Zootopia to considerable international critical and commercial success not only for its artistic excellence but also for being a timely fable about overcoming prejudice and stereotypes. It also scored the biggest worldwide opening for an animated film. Zootopia became the fourth animated film and second Disney animated film in history to cross the $1 billion mark worldwide. The film would go on to win the Golden Globe and Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
The same year, Moana, a CGI fantasy-adventure musical film, was released. The film was shown in theaters with the animated short Inner Workings. Moana was another commercial and critical success for the studio, grossing over $640 million worldwide and receiving two Academy Award nominations.
In November 2018, the studio released a sequel to Wreck-It Ralph, titled Ralph Breaks the Internet. The film grossed over $500 million worldwide and received nominations for a Golden Globe and a Academy Award, both for Best Animated Feature.
Disney Television Animation also saw a significant resurgence during this period. After several years of setting aside TV Animation for animated features as well as their preteen shows on Disney Channel. In 2012, with the success of their revival films, as well as the success of animated shows from other channels such as Cartoon Network, Disney Channel agreed to pitch Alex Hirsch's show, Gravity Falls. The show was both a critical success and a cult phenomenon, containing elements of adventure, mystery, and drama.
In April 2014, TimeOut New York ranked the top 100 greatest animated films of all time based on the rankings of over hundreds of experts in the field of animation. Three of the revival films made the list: Frozen ranked at number 67, Wreck-It Ralph ranked at number 56, and Tangled ranked at number 54.
According to the-numbers.com, many of the revival films have become some of the best-selling Blu-ray movies of all time. As of October 2015, Wreck-It Ralph is the 47th highest grossing Blu-ray (1,934,909 units sold), Tangled is the 38th highest grossing Blu-ray (2,187,683 units sold), Big Hero 6 is the 23rd highest grossing Blu-ray (2,675,905 units sold), and Frozen being the highest grossing Blu-ray of all time (7,286,169 units sold).
In 2005, during the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland, Bob Iger, the chairman of the Walt Disney Company, noticed that most of the Disney characters featured in the park's parade were from decade old films, such as The Little Mermaid or Aladdin, while the only characters to have originated from recent projects weren't from Walt Disney Animation Studios, but from Pixar. This was a sign that the studio had lost its strive, as the theme parks are an indication of success in terms of how films and characters resonate with audiences. Since The Princess and the Frog's induction, all of the films of the revival, including Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Big Hero 6, Zootopia, and Moana, have substantial presence within the parks and vacation chains such as the Disney Cruise Line.