Song & Story

How the Disney Renaissance Films impacted storytelling

12/2/2022The Symposium

The Screener

The Disney Renaissance films were widely successful and changed the way audiences experienced children’s animated films. The three principles that guided the success of the Disney Renaissance Formula (DRF) were:

  • The Active Protagonist
  • The Song Square Principle 
  • The Simple Balance

Today, modern Disney films, like Encanto (2022), beg the question, does the DRF exist in modern stories and are there lessons storytellers can learn from its decade-long success?

From ancient legends to the Billboard Top 100, we’ve been using music to tell our stories for a very long time. Songs can be a great storytelling tool to engage audiences while delivering impactful stories. And one of the most iconic ways to enjoy music is a musical.

Originating from opera, modern musicals have always been a fun sandbox arena to play, pull, break, and bend common storytelling rules. But how does this relate to movies? Well, some of the most beloved musicals are none other than Disney Renaissance films.

The Disney Renaissance included films released from 1989 to 1999. They had a profound impact on the way children’s films were created, distributed, and seen. Many musical theater, scriptwriting and animation principles were revolutionized by these films. They were able to make complex themes identifiable and universal to audiences. Most of all, they told good stories.

As I rewatched many of my childhood favorite movies, I began to wonder, “How do the Disney Renaissance films work? Why do they work? And how do they utilize music to create a more impactful story?” I began to notice there was a common theme to their success. Disney had perfected a storytelling formula.

The Disney Renaissance Formula (DRF) had three primary principles that I believe contributed their success, which are:

  • The Active Protagonist
  • The Song Square Principle
  • The Simple Balance

Before the Formula

The Disney films of the Gold and Silver Age were iconic fairy tales. Stories where good fought evil and prevailed. Film themes played into traditional morals and ideals and character arcs were exemplified by extrinsic change1. A great example of Disney’s iconic fairy tales is Sleeping Beauty (1959).

Sleeping Beauty encapsulates the moral of good vs evil. Aurora, the protagonist, goes throughout the story being influenced by other character’s words and actions. The villain, Maleficent, is the one that guides her towards her doom. The prince is the one who fights the evil Maleficent and the movie ends with the expected “Happily Ever After”. But the audience doesn’t know about Aurora’s wants. Other than falling in love, Aurora lacks internal change. Perhaps she’ll just be careful next time around needles and spinning wheels. But by the end of the 1980’s, the stories of good and evil seemed fundamental for modern audiences.

The Active Protagonist

The DRF introduced a major writing shift on how main characters conveyed their wants and desires. Previously the protagonist’s actions were reactionary, but with the DRF the choices made by the protagonist drove the plot forward. Aided by the addition of the “I Want” song, protagonists act as a catalyst for the plot instead of being a victim of it.

Exemplified in Mulan (1998), Mulan makes active decisions that drive the story forward. She impersonates a man to avoid her father getting killed. She solves the training camp’s pole challenge. She creates the plan to save the Emperor. Mulan’s actions fueled the story, not the other way around.

The Expert Understanding

After Disney had 10 to 12 years of mediocre success, Michael Eisner wanted to release an “animated Broadway Musical” with the hopes of saving Disney’s failing animation studio. And they only wanted one man to do the job. Howard Ashman.

Howard Ashman had years of experience with adaptations and musicals on Broadway. His career began as a writer and thrived when he realized that his passion was songwriting. His lyrical understanding culminated with the successful adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors2.

Howard presented a new understanding of music and how it can be used in tandem with plot. He knew that the key was distilling vital plot information into songs that directly spoke to a character’s wants and desires. With the guidance of Howard and his partner, Alan Menkin, The Little Mermaid (1989) launched one of Disney’s most influential and successful periods of its history.

The Song Square Principle

“Music is information. It’s a way to get character and plot information across. So you want music to be information. You want it to develop story or character in some way so the song will carry its own weight and justify its existence.”

— Howard Ashman, "Howard's Lectures"

The Song Square Principle acts as a foundation for the plot so viewers can understand how the characters interact with each other, how they feel, and the main goal of the film4. The placement of each song is purposeful and complements the story while adding new, valuable information to drive it forward.

You can add more songs along the sides of the square to “make the foundation stronger” but all songs must feed into the idea of presenting new information about the character or the plot, otherwise the additional songs can throw off the balance of the foundation and detract from the message they are trying to convey.

“Raise the Curtain” Song – The Opening Number

The first side of the square is the Opening Number. As the first introduction to the setting and story, it establishes audience expectations. The Opening Number can reinforce a later score theme, outline character information, or simply highlight the suspension of reality. With multiple ways to structure an Opening Number, its primary function must establish its audience in the reality it’s trying to set up.

The “I Want” Song - The Plot Driver

The second side is the “I Want” Song. The “I Want” Song, originating from Broadway tradition, allows the protagonist to explain their motives, drives and wants of their character to the audience. It also reveals the main conflict or goal of the plot, outlining what will be achieved by the end of the story. By song’s end, audiences care about what our main character cares about.

The “Helpers and Hinderers” Songs – Giving Voice to Sidekicks and Villains

The third side is the “Helpers and Hinderers” Song. Sometimes films have partial numbers or combined musical numbers for the sidekicks and villains, so I have grouped the two in one side. The importance of these songs is to have the audience know what the other characters are feeling. It’s not enough, however, to have the side characters and villains sing about their emotions. They have to sing about how they feel in relation to the main protagonist’s conflict or goal.

The “Love” Song – The Resolution Presented

The final side is the “Love” song. Stereotypically, this song has had the expectation of highlighting the romance between the main character and their love interest. But, I believe that the “Love” song represents the resolution needed for the protagonist’s conflict or goal established in their “I Want” song. Understanding the resolution provides the audience a tangible look into the film’s main theme and what it wants to convey.

The Simple Balance

“[The Disney Renaissance films’] beauty is in their simplicity.”

— Sideways, "Why Mulan (2020) Didn't Work"

The DRF introduced the idea of weaving complex character themes into simple, directed stories. Many Disney Renaissance films focus on intrinsic change and personal identity. With an increased focus on the protagonist's inner growth, there is an identifiable path on how the character will change from who they were at the beginning to who they need to be by the end of the film. We might all not be mermaids willing to trade their legs to go on land, but we all identify with wanting to experience something new and potentially facing the consequences, good or bad, of that experience.

Modern Disney and Encanto

More than two decades after the Disney Renaissance, Disney is still releasing family friendly musicals for audiences to enjoy. One recent release is Encanto (2022) that premiered on the streaming service, Disney+. Met with critical acclaim and enthusiastic audiences, Encanto is a modern subversion of the classic Disney Renaissance film.

When I watched it, I admired the brilliant animation, set location, and catchy lyrics. And as I watched the credits roll, I realized that I didn’t like it. I thought I was weird. I watched it a second time. And again. How could I not like it?

I wanted to understand why I didn’t like Encanto. If we use the DRF to analyze Encanto, key principles were changed that resulted in the film feeling flat.

Mirabel was not an active character. For a majority of the film, her motivation is dictated by the prophecies of Bruno. It was Bruno’s vision and the threat of the family candle burning out that ultimately pushed Mirabel towards extrinsic familial change5. Viewers knew of Mirabel’s wants, but by the end of the film, the plot never resolves her conflict or goal, leaving an unfulfilled feeling by the end credits.

The songs deviated from the Song Square Principle. With an unclear foundation on how the songs can support the plot of Encanto, the songs offered limited information about the motivations of each character and how they related to Mirabel’s personal journey on overcoming detrimental family expectations.

Mirabel’s personal journey was undirected. The amount of characters, although critical for representing the Colombian family structure, distracted from the focus on Mirabel and her personal journey. With more time needed to develop each family member, Mirabel’s wants and inner growth paused to focus on others. By the end of the film, the audience is left with an extrinsic change, symbolized by the reconstruction of the family house, rather than seeing how Mirabel grew internally.

Being Timeless

The Disney Renaissance ended in 1999. There is a reason, maybe several, to why it ended. But the DRF lends itself to be a guide on how to create a timeless story. In order to bend and break proven storytelling principles for modern films, critical understanding on how they work needs to be established.

The Disney Renaissance films have a beauty and timelessness that all films strive to reach. And all we can do is sit back, relax and hit play.


  1. Eyebrow Cinema. “Writing in the Disney Renaissance (Video).” YouTube, 11 Jun. 2020,
  2. Howard. Don Hahn, Stone Circle Pictures, 2018. Disney+.
  3. “Howard’s Lectures.” Bonus Materials. The Little Mermaid Diamond Edition DVD Collection, Paramount Pictures, 2001.
  4. Sideways. “Why Mulan (2020) Didn’t Work (Video).” Youtube, 31 Jan. 2021,
  5. Jones, Juan Pablo Reyes Lancaster. “Mirabel and Her Family.” The Art of Encanto, Chronicle Books, 23 Nov. 2021, pp. 70-71.

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Hello I love your blog content and topic series. I recently view a movie with Tom Hanks called My name is OTTO I am interested to hear various angles on this movie. For it seems to be well received by the audience.

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