By the late 1970s, Disney had proven that it could continue financially without Walt Disney. Both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom were thriving, with Walt Disney World busily building its third park, Epcot (then referred to in large capital letters as EPCOT). The Rescuers had been a hit. Re-releases of previous Disney animated films had proven popular, allowing even the financial failures to move into the black, and the firm was, as always, doing well with merchandise sales.
And, after a four year gap, executives decided it was time to give another nod to the artform that had started this all. Not with anything too innovative, of course, even if innovative animation had been part of Disney since the beginning. No, nothing that would challenge the Disney brand, at least, not until this new group of animators, largely working outside the supervision of the Nine Old Men (the original Disney animators who had worked on the classic films) had proven themselves with a safe film. No, nothing too different. Another animal film, perhaps. Featuring cute little animals, with feel good, family friendly themes of friendship and growing up.