Disney has been bringing animated and live action films to our screens for years and whilst I am a huge Disney fan I find that most of these films fall into the same cookie cutter category. Disney found a formula that worked and stuck to it, nobody can blame them for that when it makes them billions of dollars. However, when Mulan was released in 1998, we were suddenly given a new era of Disney film.
In the year 1996, Disney decided that 2D animation was no longer innovative enough for them and so began to focus their efforts on 3D animation. Their studio in Florida remained the one studio to release 2D animation films and were given a lot of free reign with creating the films. Between 1998 and 2003 the Florida studio released seven films that were different from Disney's previous ventures.
One of the first Disney films to bring a different culture to life, Pocahontas and The Lion King being previous popular attempts, Mulan was based on a Chinese legend. Whilst it remained very Disney in the sense that musical numbers were included and the story-line was romanticised, Mulan gave us something we had rarely seen before in the form of a strong female character who saves the day rather than waiting for her Prince Charming. The writers were sent to China to immerse themselves in the culture and whilst I've never been to China personally I think they brought the country to life. The film was well received at the box office and was recognised at awards with nominations at the Golden Globes and the Oscars. Despite this, Mulan isn't really considered a classic Disney film, not in the same sense that Beauty and The Beast or The Lion King is, and so kicks off our weird Disney period.
Tarzan again was a film that brought a different perspective to our screens. Usually, male leads in Disney films were animals such as Dumbo and The Tramp, however, Tarzan brought us a male character who wasn't a prince but a man raised in the jungle. The Jungle Book remains one of my favourite films, but Tarzan brings us a different side to a very similar story. One lesson that Tarzan seemed set out to teach young kids was that sometimes the most isolated people are the most human. In true Disney fashion, there is a love interest, but it's very much downplayed to the themes of humanity and what it means to be human. Tarzan goes from a man who's wild and a little feral to a human being who has to find out who he really is. The film did incredibly well at the box office but was largely ignored come award season, cementing its place in Disney's weird period.
John Henry (2000)
Possibly better known as part of the Disney's American Legend's series, John Henry is a rather obscure film. Based on an African American folk hero who raced a steam-powered hammer and won only to die from heart stress after his victory. It is only a short movie but one that recognises the weird phase Disney was going through as it was unlikely subject matter.
Emperor's New Groove (2000)
I personally would have loved to be there when they pitched this idea for a film. An ungrateful Emperor is turned into a llama by his adviser and goes on a path to redemption helped by a stranger; genius. Comical characters, bright colours, and extremely quotable lines, Emperor's New Groove is a film that should be one of Disney's greatest hits and whilst I remember watching it as a child it wasn't until I was older that I really appreciated this film. On the whole, it isn't the most ambitious film attempted but it's fresh and has that something different that makes turn your head and watch it twice. It practically bombed at the box office and was non-existent during awards season but it's a modern film and trust me when I say both kids and adults love it.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Disney's first science fiction film tells the story of Milo, who sets out to find the lost world of Atlantis. This is a story almost every adult knows, the tale of a kingdom lost undersea, but this film is a brilliant way to introduce children to the legend. You can see in the film that the story is also inspired by the work of Jules Verne, a legend in his own right. However, a lacklustre turn out at the box office meant this gem has gone largely unnoticed over the years. Atlantis: The Lost Empire does seem to have garnered a cult following possibly due to the unique animation style. Strong female characters, an unlikely hero, and hard themes of anti-capitalism and greed, Atlantis: The Lost Empire is a story for the ages and deserves more recognition than it gets.
Lilo and Stitch (2002)
My favourite Disney film if only for the line, "Ohana means family and family means no-one gets left behind or forgotten." Lilo and Stitch is a story of a family finding their place again. Set in Hawaii after losing their parents, Nani is forced to raise her younger sister Lilo who decides she wants Stitch as a pet, mistaking the alien for a dog. The most amazing thing about Lilo and Stitch is the strong messages it sends to kids. Family is everything and family can be made, not born into. The term 'Ohana' refers to extended family and became a big theme for the writers to work with. With the music of Elvis on its side, the film could do no wrong and was a hit at the box office second behind a Steven Spielberg film. Several sequels were released but none captured the original essence of the first film.
Brother Bear (2003)
Another film that focuses on the power of family and how that doesn't just apply to blood relatives, Brother Bear is the story of an Inuit and gives an insight into their customs, more specifically totems. Kenai receives his totem of a bear which will, in turn, help him become a man. Instead of embracing this, Kenai sets out to kill the bear that he blames for his brother's death. Kenai is then turned into a bear and joined by Koda, the cub of the bear he killed. Brother Bear was a limited release and received mixed reviews from critics claiming the plot was generic. I, however, disagree. The story of Brother Bear is a journey from boy to man, it's a story of redemption, and a story of finding your family. It is anything but generic.
Disney's weird period didn't last particularly long arguably ending with Home on the Range in 2004 when 3D animation became all the rage. But this phase in Disney animation should not be ignored; in fact, it should be celebrated. These films broke the norms, they gave us strong female characters, they gave us story-lines that don't revolve around romantic relationships, and I think this period was significant enough to have a lasting effect on Disney animated films. Frozen, Wreck-it-Ralph, even Moana seem to explore these themes, so please remember Disney's weird phase because I wish it had lasted longer.