Beauty and the Beast

"Once upon a time, in a faraway land, a young prince lived in a shining castle..."

Taking influence from the original fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont as well as Jean Cocteau’s classic 1946 film, Beauty and the Beast is not only one of the best films in the Disney canon, but one of the best films ever made.

After the disappointing performance of The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast saw Disney back on top form and kicked off a three film winning streak for the studio. This was the film that made many sit up and start to see animated films as more than just fodder for children. Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and it is not hard to see why. From the opening prologue, where the Beast's backstory is beautifully retold, you just know you’re in for something really special.

The film was a major leap forward in terms of animation. The ballroom scene alone, which inserted traditionally animated characters into fully realised CGI backgrounds, still looks stunning 24 years later. Rivals at the time just couldn’t keep up with the resurgent house of the mouse. Well, American rival animation studios couldn't. Over in Japan, Studio Ghibli was knocking out masterpiece after masterpiece. Meanwhile, back in America, if you wanted something non-Disney you had to settle for the likes of Rock-a-Doodle and Thumbelina(which was doomed the minute they signed up Barry Manilow to compose the songs).

The love story was the weakest aspects of The Little Mermaid. Here it is one of the strongest. The film just wouldn't work if the romance between Belle (the best Disney heroine not named Mulan) and the Beast didn't convince. Even a grumpy old cynic like me, who always reaches for a bucket the minute things start to get too mushy, found himself rooting for these two to be together. The relationship between them is more antagonistic than it was in the original story, primarily due to the Beast’s initial inability to control his temper. The Beast of the original story was a true gentleman who just happened to be a little on the hairy side. Disney’s Beast is, at least at first, a far more fearsome figure. The look of the Beast is a triumph of creature design, an imposing mixture of bear and lion that effortlessly flips from ferocious to adorable.

In the original story, Belle was alone in the castle with only the Beast for company. That simply won’t do at all. This is a Disney movie and Disney movies need comedy supporting characters so parents have twice as many toys to buy at Christmas. It was Howard Ashman who suggested turning all the enchanted objects in the castle into living creatures. Voiced by the likes of Jerry Orbach (Lumiere), David Ogden Stiers (Cogsworth) and Angela Lansbury (Mrs Potts), Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts and the rest are probably my favourite parts of the movie. They are hands down the best group of Disney sidekicks ever and the inventive battle between them and the villagers (you can tell the animators were having a field day with that one) ensure that, unlike The Little Mermaid and The Rescuers Down Under, this film has a rip-roaring final act.

Another thing the original story lacked was a clear cut villain. The closest it had to one were Belle’s spoilt older sisters. They’ve been cut from this version, probably because they were a bit too similar to the wicked stepsisters from Cinderella. In their place we have Gaston, a handsome local hunter who comes across like a parody of the traditional Disney prince. Gaston is a textbook case of extreme narcissism (he can't stop staring at his own reflection) who wants to marry Belle simply because she’s the most beautiful girl in town, which in his head makes her the best, and Gaston deserves nothing but the best. As is now traditional, he gets his own song, a catchy number about how spectacularly awesome he is. No one loves himself like Gaston.

Beauty and the Beast wasn’t originally meant to be a musical. It was only after The Little Mermaid became a massive hit that Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg made the decision to turn it into one. He brought Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who were working songs for Aladdin at the time, on board to compose the songs and the score for the film. Despite Ashman’s failing health, the duo easily surpassed the work they did on Little Mermaid, producing a timeless soundtrack where every single song is a classic. ‘Be Our Guest’ is also the standout sequence of the film, not just in terms of music, but also animation as a simple meal becomes an extravagant Busby Berkeley musical number performed by household cutlery. Sadly, Ashman died eight months before the film was released. The film was dedicated to him:

“To our friend, Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul. We will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman: 1950–1991”

Libraries and Roses

--Disney produced two direct-to-video follow-ups: Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas and Beauty and the Beast: Belle's Magical World. I have yet to see either.

--Despite quite clearly stating that the story takes place in France, only three characters have French accents.

--I always feel like a kid again when I see the old Disney logo. The new one just doesn't have the same effect.

--I still can't quite get over the fact that Lumière is also Lennie Briscoe.

--The ferocity of the Beast's fight with the wolves still shocks me a little. There's even blood. Blood in a Disney film!

--Disney originally wanted Jodi Benson, the voice of Ariel, to provide the voice for Belle. However, it was decided that Belle needed a more "European" sounding voice. It was Howard Ashman who suggested Paige O'Hara for the part.

--The Beast's spider carriage has always creeped me out.

--The prologue states that the rose will bloom until the prince’s 21st year. Lumiere later mentions that the castle has been enchanted for ten years. This means that the prince was 11 years old when he was cursed.

Lumiere: "Ma chère mademoiselle. It is with deepest pride and greatest pleasure that we welcome you tonight. And now, we invite to relax, let us pull up a chair, as the dining room proudly presents... your dinner."

Beast: "I want to do something for her... but what?"
Cogsworth: "Well, there's the usual things: flowers... chocolates... promises you don't intend to keep..."
--That last part was ad-libbed by David Ogden Stiers.

Belle: “Gaston, you are positively primeval.”
Gaston: “Why thank you, Belle.”

Gaston: “I'd like to thank you all for coming to my wedding. But first I'd better go in there and propose to the girl.”

Gaston: “How can you read this? There's no pictures!”
Belle: “Well, some people use their imagination.”

Four out of four tales as old as time.


Billie Doux said...

I am not a fan of animation. I'm not quite sure why, but I just don't relate. But Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite movies and is by far my favorite animated movie. There's just something so special about it. As you mentioned in your excellent review, Mark, there's something about the relationship between Belle and the Beast that works. Gaston is funny in many ways, but there's also this serious sexist note in there and at one point, it feels like he's capable of rape. That shouldn't work in a Disney animated movie, but it does. And the staff -- Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts -- are just so wonderful.

Four out of four stars from me, too. I was hoping you'd review this one, Mark.

sunbunny said...

This was the first movie I saw in theaters! Accordin to my mom, that is. All I remember is being scared of the wolves.

Haven't seen Belle's Magical World but The Enchanted Christmas is actually watchable which, for a Disney sequel, is a real achievement.

Same reaction to the old school Disney logo. The new one is beautiful, though.

I was just thinking this morning that the Beast giving Belle a library is one of the best romantic gestures of all time.

When my mom first told me Lumiere was L&O's Lennie, I did not believe her. I had to look it up online before I believed it.

Freeman said...

It's gonna make me sound terrible, but when i was younger, Gaston was like my hero, man. He was just so freakin' manly. Look at that chin! I remember actively rooting for him during the final fight and being disappointed when he fell to his death. Generally speaking I don't root for the villains in pretty much anything, but I just really liked him. Plus his song, just fabulous.

Annie said...

I love animation, and this is my favorite Disney film for sure, its been a while since I've seen it though and reading your review has made me realise its been too long, must watch soon.

I love all the songs but Gaston's may be my fav... can't say it was enough for me to ever cheer him on though :)

Marianna said...

I don't know. Nala was a great heroine too.