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Big Hero 6, Feast Oscars make case for second Disney 'renaissance'
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Hiro, left, and Baymax in "Big Hero 6," which won the Oscar for best animated feature. - photo by Jeff Peterson
Its hard to believe that there was ever a time when Disney Animation was on the verge of shutting down.

The studio arguably invented the animated feature and, in its heyday under the direction of Walt Disney, gave birth to classic after classic, including perennial favorites like "Snow White," Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Peter Pan and so many more. Its an institution, a part of every childhood.

But it came close. Twice in recent memory, in fact.

The first time, as chronicled in the 2010 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, was in the mid-1980s. At the time, Disney Feature Animation was a shadow of its former glory. It hadnt seen a major hit since Walt passed away, and the future of the studio was uncertain. Talk had turned to the possibility of dissolving the animation studio in order to focus on live-action filmmaking.

Not quite as famously, the same thing happened again just a few years ago. In 2006, when the Walt Disney Company acquired animation wunderkind Pixar to the tune of $7.4 billion, discussions turned once more to the possibility of shuttering Disney Animation.

At the time, the studio was in the midst of another dry spell. Duds like Brother Bear, Home on the Range and Chicken Little seemed out of touch with modern audiences, especially compared to the seemingly unstoppable Pixar led by the notably Walt Disney-esque John Lasseter.

Was the house that Mickey built about to run out of pixie dust?

Of course, Disney Animation didnt shut down not 30 years ago or eight years ago. In the late 80s, a couple of smaller hits (The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company) preceded a string of blockbusters (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King), now collectively referred to as the Disney renaissance. That time period, which lasted through the mid-90s, hooked an entirely new generation on the magic of animation.

To an almost uncanny degree, history seems to be repeating itself in the 2000s.

At a gathering following the Oscar win for "Frozen" last year, Lasseter, now chief creative officer at both Disney and Pixar, said (via the New York Times), "There was talk of closing this place. And we said: 'Not on our watch. We will never allow that to happen.'"

In 2006, rather than shutting down, the studio rebranded itself. Walt Disney Feature Animation became Walt Disney Animation Studios and reorganized based on the Pixar model of director-led filmmaking with a creative brain trust that oversees development instead of studio executives.

"We want to empower creative people," Lasseter told USA Today. "When they feel it's their child, they bend over backwards to raise it properly."

The results werent immediate. The Princess and the Frog, one of the first movies produced under the new direction, was still a box-office disappointment, earning just $267 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. However, just like in the late 80s and early 90s, a string of hits (beginning with Tangled,) has gotten people talking.

At first, it was about how the studio had managed to finally recapture some of that "classic Disney magic of old," as the Examiner's review of "Tangled" put it. Now, with the success of Wreck-It Ralph and the phenomenon that was Frozen, there's been talk of a second Disney renaissance (knock on wood).

"Are we witnessing a new beginning for Disney Animation right now?" asked Gary Wright in a 2013 article that appeared on the animation website Rotoscopers. "All signs seem to be pointing to it. Their output keeps getting better with every new release. Lavish visuals, emotional stories and fun new characters make todays Disney fare feel similar to what it was back in the early 1990s."

Disneys double Oscar win last Sunday for Big Hero 6 (Best Animated Feature) and Feast (Best Animated Short) is more evidence of that.

Either award would have been significant in its own right. This years Best Animated Feature category was one of the most competitive ever. The year 2014 saw a record number of animated movies eligible just to be nominated, which meant more intense competition when it came to the nomination process. Even The Lego Movie, a fan favorite to win the Oscar, didnt end up making the cut. With the category stacked with nominees like "How to Train Your Dragon 2" and Studio Ghibli's "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya," Best Animated Feature was one of the most difficult to predict of the entire awards show.

The win of Big Hero 6" marks only the second time ever that Disney Animation has won the relatively new award after "Frozen" made history last year. In the past, the category had been dominated by Disney's sister studio Pixar, which has taken home the Oscar seven out of the 14 years since the category was first introduced in 2001.

Feast likewise follows on the heels of another Best Animated Short award, 2013s Oscar winner Paperman." It was the first Disney short to win in the category since 1969.

Even though neither Big Hero 6 nor Feast is quite the history-making win that Frozen and Paperman were, they are still a big deal in that they represent a level of consistency and creativity that, for far too long, was missing from Disney Animation. They suggest that things like "Frozen" and "Paperman" weren't just flukes, but the products of a very different climate at Disney Animation Studios.

And with any luck, we could be looking forward to many more classics down the road.