Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Directed by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale
As told through a prologue, there was once a vain, cruel young prince, who refused an old woman shelter from a storm due to her appearance and her offer of a rose as payment. The woman was an enchantress, and cursed the prince to turn into a beast unless he could get someone to fall in love with him, and love them in return, by his 21st birthday.
In a small French villain, the hunter jock Gaston sets his eyes on Belle, the pretty but bookwormish young daughter of the local inventor. He proposes to Belle, who shuts him down immediately. On his way to the fair, her father gets lost, and ends up finding the Beast’s castle. The enchanted furnishings look after him, but the Beast imprisons him for trespassing. When he doesn’t return, Belle goes looking for him, and ends up finding the castle herself. She offers to trade her own freedom for her father’s, and the Beast accepts.
The Beast’s servants, led by Lumiere the candlestick and Cogsworth the clock, believe that she is the girl to break the curse, and try everything they can think of to hook the two up. Belle is curious about the castle but cold to the angry, rude Beast, eventually attempting to escape. The Beast rescues her from a pack of wolves, and she tends to his injuries. Over the next few weeks, the two begin to warm up to each other as they spend more time together, and eventually seem to be falling for each other.
Meanwhile, her father has tried and failed to convince Gaston and the other villagers to help him rescue her. When the Beast gives Belle a present of a magic mirror, she uses it to see that her father has attempted her rescue solo, and is lost in a blizzard. Seeing how desperate she is to help her father, the Beast lets her go to him. Belle saves her father, but upon returning home is confronted by Gaston, who plans to have him committed to an asylum unless she agrees to marry him. Belle used the mirror to prove to the crowd that the Beast is real.
Realizing that he has a rival for Belle, Gaston whips the crowd into a mob intent on killing the Beast. The villagers storm the castle, where the servants attempt to defend it. Gaston confronts the Beast who, believing that he’s lost his only chance of being human, doesn’t defend himself until he sees Belle arriving back at the castle. The Beast defeats Gaston, and is willing to let him live until the man attacks him while his back returns, causing Gaston to fall to his death from the battlements. Dying from his injuries, he says his goodbyes to Belle, who confesses her love right as the deadline for the curse expires. The curse breaks, healing the Beast and turning both him and the servants human again.
Disney had first attempted to develop a movie from Beauty and the Beast back in the 40s and 50s, after the success of the fairy tale-based Snow White and Cinderella. However, not much ever came from these attempts, and the project was shelved. Three plus decades later, Disney had set up a new satellite animation studio in England to work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit. After that movie was complete, the animators hired for that project needed something to do, so Beauty and the Beast was pulled out of mothballs.
Originally intended to be a non-musical film like Rescuers Down Under, Disney CEO Michael Eisner took the unusual step of hiring a Hollywood screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, to write a complete typed script before a single storyboard had been drawn. This was contrary to how Disney had always made its animated movies, using storyboards to break the story down and develop it before coming up with dialogue. In 1989, after seeing the first storyboards developed from this script, Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered that the entire project be scrapped and restarted. The original director, Richard Purdum, resigned as a result.
To replace him, they initially offered the director’s chairs to Musker and Clements. Having just finished The Little Mermaid, the duo declined due to exhaustion. Instead, Katzenberg went with two first-time feature directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, who had previously done animated shorts for Epcot rides. He also called up Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and asked them to work the same magic on Beauty and the Beast that they had on The Little Mermaid. Ashman was reluctant to take the gig, as he had just received a terminal AIDS diagnosis and didn’t want to spend what little time he had left away from home. Pre-production was moved from London to his home in New York to accommodate him, and he managed to complete work on the film before his death in March 1991, eight months before the movie’s release. He never saw the completed film, but did see rough versions and was informed of its reception at test screenings.
Due to all the time lost with the original non-musical version, the animation timeline had to be massively compressed into just a two-year timespan. As such, it wasn’t really a project just for the London branch anymore. It ended up being an all-hands-on-deck affair, with the main California studio and the one in Florida doing the majority of the work. If not for the CAPS system, they might not have made their deadline. Fortunately, CAPS also allowed them to integrate fully rendered CG backgrounds for the first time in animation, during the title song. The executives were so impressed by this sequence that they decided to make further investment in computer effects.
In a first for the studio, Katzenberg decided to screen an approximately 70% complete version of the movie at the New York Film Festival. Despite large portions of the movie only being in storyboard form, it nevertheless received a ten-minute standing ovation, to the disbelief of many critics who hadn’t been there. It was definitely a sign of things to come, as Beauty and the Beast not only became the first animated movie to gross over $100 million at the box office, but also became the first ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (the Best Animated Feature category wouldn’t exist for another decade). Howard Ashman also won a posthumous Oscar for the title song (one of the movie’s record-breaking three song nominations), the eleventh posthumous Oscar winner and the first in 11 years.
This movie is widely considered to be the jewel at the center of the Renaissance, a masterpiece on par with Snow White or Pinocchio. And who am I to argue with that? While I may enjoy both Aladdin and The Lion King more than Beauty and the Beast, I cannot deny its quality. There’s a reason it became the first animated movie to get a Best Picture nod, after all.
While I still think the movie might have been successful in its original, non-musical version, it seems to me that the massive cultural impact the movie had can be laid squarely at the feet of Ashman and Menken. Ashman knew he was dying, and every last remaining scrap of musical talent he possessed is fully on display here. It’s the single most consistently excellent set of songs in the entire Disney canon, as evidenced by its record-breaking three Best Song nominations. It’s no wonder that the show translated almost seamlessly to the stage, with the Broadway show becoming one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history.
Of course, it helps that they were able to bring in several musical theatre ringers. Paige O’Hara (Belle), Richard White (Gaston) and Jerry Orbach (Lumiere) all had extensive Broadway experience, not to mention the First Lady of Broadway herself, Angela Lansbury. Lansbury reportedly nailed the title song in only a single take, an amazing feat given the amount of emotion that song generally provokes in me. The only major singing cast member who didn’t have prior musical theater experience was Robby Benson as the Beast, and he only has a couple verses in one song.
Speaking of Richard White, I absolutely love Gaston as a villain. He’s the rare villain to actually get something of an arc, going from a vain hunter at the beginning to an outright monster willing to kill and imprison innocents just to get a girl. He bears a visual similarity to Brom Bones from the Sleepy Hollow short, but here he’s turned up to eleven. Yes, his villain song is completely over the top, but it’s also just as much of a showstopper as “Be Our Guest” is. For whatever reason, up to this point all of the best Disney villains have been female: Maleficent, Cruella, Ursula. Here we finally have a male villain who measures up to their ranks.
On the technical front, the use of CAPS and CG rendering enables the animators to pull off some shots that hadn’t been attempted in animation before, moving the camera with a never-before-seen fluidity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the title song. There’s an epic crane shot about halfway through the song, that starts at the ceiling with the chandelier (a CG image that would have probably added a million dollars to the budget if they’d tried to animate it by hand), and spirals in a full 360 degree circle down to a floor-level shot of the titular characters dancing. The shifting perspective on the chandelier alone would have given animators nightmares without CG. For my money, it’s the best single shot in all of animation to this point. And yes, the CG is obvious now with 30 years of advancement in the technology, but it still gets to me every time.
The Little Mermaid may have shown the world that Disney was still a force to be reckoned with in animation, but it was Beauty and the Beast that truly restored them to the heights that they hadn’t reached since Walt’s death. I wasn’t able to find exactly who coined the phrase “Disney Renaissance”, but this was the movie that proved that it wasn’t just a one-film fluke.
Animation: A (You’d never be able to tell that this was technically a rush job. The animation is just exquisite from top to bottom)
Main Characters: A (I think Belle is actually a step up from Ariel. They’re both strong-willed and independent, but The Little Mermaid’s plot is mainly driven by Ariel’s infatuation with Eric, whereas Belle is driven by a desire to save her father and ends up falling in love despite herself. And I also think that Shrek had it right: the Beast is much more interesting *as* a beast than he is as a human)
Supporting Characters: A- (The interplay between Cogsworth and Lumiere is great, but there’s a lot of supporting characters that get introduced only to be mostly underused, so I had to dock it just a little bit)
Villains: A (I think everyone went to high school with someone like Gaston)
Music: A (Howard Ashman’s masterpiece)