REVIEW – Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Directed by: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Produced by: Don Hahn
Screenplay by: Linda Woolverton
Story by: Roger Allers, Brenda Chapman, Chris Sanders, Burny Mattinson, Kevin Harkey, Brian Pimental, Bruce Woodside, Joe Ranft, Tom Ellery, Kelly Asbury, Robert Lence
Edited by: John Carnochan
Music by: Alan Menken, Howard Ashman
Starring: Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury, Bradley Michael Pierce, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti, Hal Smith, Jo Anne Worley, Mary Kay Bergman, Kath Soucie, Tony Jay, Frank Welker
Based on the fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may have been Disney’s (and the world’s, for that matter) first animated feature film, but, for many people (including myself), its recognition as still being their best has long since been overthrown by Beauty and the Beast, a film that was so well regarded that it also became the first animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and the first film, period, to have three songs simultaneously nominated for Best Original Song. When you know the production history, it’s also apparent how much of a miracle it was that the film turned out so well, too. Originally planned as a non-musical, the original concept was thrown out after the success of The Little Mermaid (the film that reignited Disney’s animated feature division and pretty much audience’s interest in animated films and musicals worldwide). This change saw both the original director depart the project and the hiring of first time directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise to take his place, and then the writing and recording of songs to fit the new format – songs written by Howard Ashman, who had also just found out that he was dying from complications caused by AIDS. Sadly, Ashman died eight months before the film’s release, but, at the very least, it was knowing the film he had worked so hard on was being well-received at early screenings, even in its incomplete state. The film would go on to become a massive success and would even become the first animated feature Disney would adapt into a Broadway production – one that was itself nominated for multiple Tonys (albeit, in spite of critical reviews at the time being somewhat apprehensive towards the unprecedented production) – and an upcoming live-action remake, which, if it’s closer to Cinderella than it is Maleficent, should be quite a decent film in its own right.
2016 marks the film’s 25th anniversary, and if you look at the state of animated films today, you’ll notice that the landscape has changed quite a bit since 1991. The animated films currently gaining favor with audiences are decidedly less dramatic and musical than the run of prestige but family-friendly films that The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast kicked off in the late 80s and early 90s. A lot of this has to do with Pixar, of course, but you could also blame one outsider film in particular for the decline: Shrek. DreamWorks famously lampooned Disney’s fairy tale adaptations and their penchant for romantic sentimentality through the series and subsequent films released afterward, becoming the catalyst for making the formula unpopular in the eyes of the public (at least as far as the studio execs are concerned). Family films, for a while, could no longer be romantic, theatrical, nor musical without being seen as lame. It didn’t help that Disney’s own attempts to recapture critical and popular success with films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Tarzan, and Brother Bear – along with other studios’ attempts to ride their coattails with films like Thumbelina, Quest for Camelot, Anastasia, and The Swan Princess – didn’t really pan out, and it wasn’t long before they were also trying to put that formula behind them and try something new. And that really is a shame, as, for a while there, animation was really the only place where one could go to experience a satisfying, big screen musical presentation. While it’s true that the formula really was being beaten into the ground, it’s also true that the format definitely could have also been salvaged through simple restraint. People weren’t so much tired of films like Beauty and the Beast so much as they were tired of every film trying to be it, only without the effort. And that really is hard, as Beauty and the Beast remains one of the best films from that era.
Opening with a beautiful prologue, told through stained glass, that establishes the backstory of the terrible curse placed upon a cruel prince’s castle and all within it, Beauty and the Beast wastes little time wowing audiences as it then swerves into what is still one of my favorite musical numbers in all of Disney’s canon of films: “Belle,” a rousing Broadway-style introduction to the film’s protagonist. Considered by those in her tiny French village as being “odd” and “peculiar” but no doubt beautiful, Belle confounds most everyone by not conforming to the traditional roles they expect from her: find a husband, raise a family, buy stuff. No, she’s a girl who likes to learn, read, and dream of a life of greater purpose than what her current predicament affords her. Yes, it’s a bit cliché itself, now, but back then, most of Disney’s animated princesses were still damsels waiting to have fate, often by proxy of a prince, whisk them away to a better life. The song also establishes another key character, Gaston. A brawny brute of a man-about-town, he has his lustful and possessive eyes set on Belle. To him, she’s nothing more than eye candy who serves him food and gives him a number of sons to carry on his legacy, and she should be honored for the opportunity.
For all the talk about Disney Princesses being poor role models, Belle and Gaston both broke some boundaries when it comes to Disney protagonists and villains, at least in subtle ways. Belle we’ve already discussed as having a lot more agency in her life than previous princesses, but with this also comes a cost, as her good nature and bravery also put her in harm’s way. Here, she takes her father’s place in the beast’s castle after he is caught inadvertently trespassing. Gaston in particular is worth examining, as he’s basically an extreme caricature of the ideal Disney hero who comes barging into a situation to save his prize princess from the perceived villain – the beast. Beast, too, breaks with the traditional ideal of love at first sight, as both he and Belle can barely stand one another at the very beginning, for obvious reasons. Though compressed for time, their relationship is one that has to develop, rather than be instantaneous. Yes, the basic premise alone of him holding her captive is still problematic and basically ignored in the film, but, at the very least, the heart of its story is meant to be one about kindness winning over even the hardest hearts and a character redeeming himself, and even though it would’ve been nice to see Belle be a little more proactive and her imprisonment being more of a focus, it’s still nice to see Disney from this era acknowledging that the most obviously attractive person isn’t always going to be the hero and that not all heroes start out that way.
Of course, most people aren’t going to be coming into the film wanting to dissect its social politics and such (which is itself something a lot of people would describe as problematic). Instead, they come for the humor, the fun, the romance, and some even the animation. There’s plenty of that, of course, and the romance is surprisingly effective, despite the problems. The animation was, particularly for its time, phenomenal, blending the hand-drawn elements with CGI, most prominently in the famous ballroom dance scene. Nowadays, some of the animation is fairly simplistic, particularly background characters, most notable if you’re watching it in a high definition format on a large screen, but that’s always been the case with old school animation. Sometimes things just look a bit off model in these older films, even with a huge budget. It still holds up, though, and the biggest set pieces exhibit so much polish and artistry, you’ll forgive some of those issues, as well.
Character designs and portrayals are universally fantastic, however. Belle, as portrayed by Paige O’Hara, has a very charming, headstrong quality that believably lets her get away with standing up to monsters and mobs, but there’s also a sweetness to her that doesn’t feel treacly and forced. Robby Benson, whose voice is admittedly modulated to fit the role of Beast, still conveys imbues the character with rage and arrogance, but also the potential for remorse and gentleness. The beast’s character design, combining elements from various animals and combining into equal parts ferocious and cuddly creature, is likely one of the best to come out of the studio – ever. Richard White’s Gaston, meanwhile, is a charming, smug bastard who you love to hate and yet kind of actually love, in spite of all his boastfulness and chauvinism, and he gets to perform one of Disney’s most comedic musical numbers, appropriately titled “Gaston.” Every much at the front and center as the leads, however, are the supporting cast: Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, and David Ogden Stiers as Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, and Cogsworth, respectively – three servants and trusted advisors who have been transformed alongside their master into household objects befitting their personalities (a bubbly teapot, a magnanimous candelabra, and a tightly-wound clock). They’re the rare animated movie sidekicks who get to participate in moving the plot forward and having their own motivations rather than provide comic relief while the leads engage in the dramatic heavy lifting. In fact, they get most of the key musical moments in the film.
The music is really the highlight of the film, too. Oftentimes, Disney movies have a number of musical numbers and one or two become classics, but with Beauty and the Beast, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman crafted a whole score of memorable, iconic, and alternately hilarious or beautiful songs that even move the plot forward and develop the characters, rather than stop the show and take over for a few minutes. I can’t think of a single number in the film that’s even remotely bad. The aforementioned “Belle” is a phenomenal introductory song, while “The Mob Song” is its suitably dramatic and dark counterpart at the film’s climax. “Be Our Guest” is as catchy and dazzlingly animated today as it was back then, with Jerry Orbach’s impeccable Maurice Chevalier impression becoming even more impressive when he’s singing. The hilarious “Gaston” is basically the perfect douchebag anthem, while “Something There” is a sweet and pleasant internalized duet between Belle and Beast that’s also a palette cleanser before the true highlight: “Beauty and the Beast.” Reportedly completed on the first take by Angela Lansbury, who wasn’t convinced that her voice was suited for it and intended to prove it, the performance instead brought everyone in the recording session to tears. It really is that perfect, and it was coupled with some gorgeous animation that combined both the hand-drawn and CGI techniques in ways that were groundbreaking for the time.
The only song that comes to mind as being expendable is also the one that was originally cut from the film, “Human Again.” Don’t recognize it? Not shocking. Excised early on in production in favor of “Something There,” it was later incorporated by Menken into the Broadway production before Disney completed the animated sequence for the special extended cut of the film years later. The song has the animated objects, encouraged by Belle and Beasts’ progressing relationship, sing about what their lives will be like when they are human again while preparing for the romantic evening Belle and Beast will be sharing. It’s not a bad number – it’s merely redundant, as it’s placed in such tight proximity to “Something There” and the film’s title song, which I think do better to move along the leads’ growing affections as a pair rather than with a third wheel coming between them. There are also subtle changes in the animation style due to the decade or so of separation, and some of the voice actors brought back for the special occasion have noticeably aged in their voices, too, which is an unfortunate but inevitable distraction. Of course, this song is also completely optional, since Disney has graciously made every home video release since have at least two versions of the film, and so it’s generally nice to have around, if only because it’s one more Ashman/Menken song performed by the original cast.
Beauty and the Beast, along with The Little Mermaid, remains the gold standard for me in terms of Disney animated musicals – yes, even more so than their original golden age, and even compared to more recent films. It was disheartening to see the studio abandon the format out of mere market perception, rather than looking at what it was that they did right before and recognize that it was the quality of their films that suffered, not that the audience’s tolerance for musical numbers. There’s a reason why this film became the first animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture: It was the film that cemented the animated medium as a respectable one, suited not just for kids but one that adults could appreciate, too – a medium that can fully realize fantastical worlds where a castle full of animated inanimate objects can perform song and dance routines and never trigger your suspension of disbelief the way that a lot of live action films might (my main reservation about the upcoming remake). However, there is hope, as the critical and commercial success of films like Disney’s own Tangled and Frozen have proven, and with Moana just on the horizon, it seems like the animated musical’s return to the spotlight has finally come. Even Disney rivals DreamWorks and Illumination are getting in on – or in DreamWorks’ case, back on – the musical bandwagon with Trolls and Sing. And, I’m sorry, but you can already tell those won’t be anywhere near as good as Disney’s recent output, let alone something as masterfully put together as Beauty and the Beast. Even Disney itself has only come close to matching that standard since.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 5 / 5