#622) Beauty and the Beast (1991)

#622) Beauty and the Beast (1991)

OR “You Bête Your Life”

Directed by Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise

Written by Linda Woolverton. Based on the fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Songs by Howard Ashman & Alan Menken.

Class of 2002

The Plot: Once upon a time, a young woman named Belle (Voice by Paige O’Hara) yearns to go outside her provincial French town and have the kind of adventures she has read about in so many books. When her father Maurice (Voice by Rex Everhart) gets lost in the woods, he takes shelter in an enchanted castle, run by a menacing Beast (Voice by Robby Benson). In exchange for her father’s safety, Belle offers to stay prisoner in the castle in his place. Over time, Belle shows affection for the Beast, who – unbeknownst to her – is a prince doomed to stay transformed as a beast until he can love and be loved. It’s a tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme, yada yada yada.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a recap of the film’s plot and historical significance, though weirdly no superlatives.

But Does It Really?: I saw “Beauty and the Beast” when it was first in theaters, and I have to say that I was as charmed on this re-watch as I was all those years ago. “Beauty and the Beast” works on every front: it is a spectacular feat of animation, an incredible piece of musical theater, and an overall outstanding film. Every artistic choice in this movie, from the storytelling to the performances, is the right one, leading to a movie that continues to weave its magic spell. Sure, like so many Disney classics, “Beauty” endures thanks to its conglomerate’s merciless marketing, but “Beauty” holds its own as an entertaining fairy tale with a guaranteed spot in the NFR.

Everybody Gets One: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were both CalArts graduates working as animators and storyboard artists at Disney when they got the call to replace Richard Purdum as director on “Beauty and the Beast”. At this point, the duo’s only directorial credit was for the animated pre-show of EPCOT’s Cranium Command. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton was determined to break out of children’s television, landing a job with Disney after sending them a copy of her young adult novel “Running Before the Wind”. With “Beauty”, Woolverton became the first woman to write a screenplay for an animated film.

Wow, That’s Dated/Title Track: “Beauty and the Beast” not only gives us a lovely title number, but also the first of my favorite ’90s Disney staple: the end credits power ballad!

Seriously, Oscars?: The most successful animated feature at the time, “Beauty and the Beast” received six Oscar nominations, including the first Best Picture nod for an animated feature. Though “Beauty” lost the top prize to “The Silence of the Lambs”, the film prevailed in Best Original Score and Best Original Song (for the title number). It is speculated that the film’s lack of a Best Picture win prompted the creation of the Best Animated Feature category a decade later.

Before we continue, I’d like to go on a little rant I’ve been holding onto for a while, and “Beauty and the Beast” feels like the right film to say my piece. One of my main goals with this blog is to combat modern Internet film criticism, in which an entire film is dismissed due to a single logical misstep (often mislabeled a “plot hole”). Sure it’s fun to poke holes in movies we love (CinemaSins and Honest Trailers come to mind), but that becomes a problem when it is mistaken for genuine criticism and a movie is deemed a failure because it doesn’t hold up to real-world logic. “Beauty and the Beast” tends to get a lot of flak in this area (“How old was the prince when he turned into a beast?” “Is every item in the castle a transformed human?” “Is Belle displaying Stockholm syndrome?”). Here’s the thing Internet: Movies. Aren’t. Logical. The best pieces of art are based not in logic but rather in emotions: the ones that drive the art as well as the ones they evoke. When done well, as in “Beauty and the Beast”, the audience is willing to take leaps of faith with a film’s internal logic in favor of the emotional experience. So please, let’s stop chastising this movie for what it isn’t and keep celebrating it for what it is; a fairy tale charmingly brought to life on the big screen. Okay, rant over. Where were we?

Other notes 

  • Walt Disney attempted to make an animated “Beauty and the Beast” twice in his career, but both versions stalled due to development issues. The idea was resurrected in the 1980s as a project for the animation studio Disney had started in London to oversee “Who Framed Roger Rabbit“. “Roger” animation director Richard Williams declined the offer to direct, but recommended his colleague Richard Purdum. Under Purdum’s direction, “Beauty and the Beast” was a more serious non-musical, but following the success of “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, the Powers That Be ordered “Beauty” to be re-tooled as a musical, a shift that did not mesh with Purdum’s vision, leading to his resignation. Trousdale & Wise were assigned as acting directors, becoming the film’s official directors three months into their new assignment.
  • When I was young, I used to listen to this soundtrack all the time, and apparently those lyrics all stayed rent-free in my brain because I sang along during this whole viewing. Not only are the songs catchy and clever, but they do an amazing amount of storytelling. The opening number “Belle” establishes the film’s setting AND introduces Belle and Gaston AND serves as Belle’s “I Want” song. At a brisk 84 minutes, this film has no time to waste.
  • We really don’t deserve Belle as a movie hero. Unlike practically every Disney female lead before or since, Belle is not motivated by romance or wishing, but rather by kindness and inner beauty. Most of Belle’s more dimensional traits can be attributed to Linda Woolverton, though Paige O’Hara’s performance gives her a lovely balance between the fairy tale and modern aspects of the character.
  • Quick shout-out to the film’s voice cast, especially those playing the castle’s enchanted objects. Most of the voice actors were/are musical theater performers with many a Broadway and “Law & Order” credit (including that Venn diagram’s intersection Jerry Orbach!) David Ogden Stiers is clearly having a blast as the stuffy Cogsworth, and Angela Lansbury is giving us a genteel variation of Mrs. Lovett as Mrs. Potts.
  • Of course, this film’s vocal performances are perfectly matched by the animated performances. They’re all great, but Glen Keane is your MVP, embellishing Benson’s vocal work as the Beast with added nuances of tragedy, ensuring that we actually care about him. Special mention to Will Finn for matching Stiers’ exasperated energy as Cogsworth. Finn would go on to animate Iago in “Aladdin”.
  • What’s in the forbidden West Wing? Mostly just walk-and-talks with witty yet perpetually exhausting banter.
  • For those of you keeping score: Number of NFR films with Sandra Bullock: 0. Number of NFR films with Jo Anne Worley: 1.
  • “Be Our Guest” is easily the most fun song in the movie, and Jerry Orbach’s finest hour. Fun Fact: “Be Our Guest” was originally going to be sung to Maurice when he entered the castle, but an early screening made the production team realize that the song needed to be sung to Belle, and was quickly reanimated.
  • Wow, I really don’t remember Chip being this annoying. It makes one pine for the subtleties of the kid who played Thumper.
  • The title number is just as beautiful as you remember it being, with a very impressive simulation of a dolly shot moving through the ballroom as Belle and the Beast dance. This combination of hand-drawn and computer animation was achieved using a system called CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), which was developed by Pixar, right around the time the company had inked a deal with Disney to make three feature-length features.
  • Even for a movie that keeps its momentum going, the third act really moves fast. We go from “Kill the Beast” right into a comic action sequence (complete with a Wilhelm and a “Potemkin” reference), into the more serious climax, straight through to the happy ending. More movies should take note of this pacing. The finale does, however, feature the movie’s one unintentionally funny moment for me; when Belle returns and lovingly shouts “Beast!” to the Beast. Did she never bother to learn his real name? (See Internet? One nitpick and I still like the movie. It’s possible!)
  • “Beauty and the Beast” is dedicated to Howard Ashman, the film’s lyricist and one of its executive producers, who died of heart failure caused by AIDS eight months before the film’s release; though he did live long enough to see an early rough cut, and predicted the film’s success.

Legacy 

  • The critical and financial success of “Beauty and the Beast” was a grand-slam for Disney following the home-run of “The Little Mermaid”. The film continues to be a jewel in the Disney crown, and a staple of modern pop-culture. Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale would direct two more films for Disney animation: the underrated “Hunchback of Notre Dame” and the even more underrated “Atlantis: The Lost Empire”.
  • Inspired by a positive review from New York Times critic Frank Rich, Disney turned “Beauty and the Beast” into a Broadway musical, the first such adaptation of an animated film to hit the Great White Way. With eight new songs (one of which was written but deleted from the film), “Beauty and the Beast” ran on Broadway for over 5,000 performances, and paved the way for every hit Disney film’s inevitable theatricalization.
  • The aforementioned deleted number, “Human Again”, found its way back into the film thanks to an IMAX Special Edition in 2002. It’s cute, and it’s great having a few more moments with these characters, but “Human Again” has been more or less relegated as a supplemental feature in the years since.
  • “Beauty and the Beast” has been adapted for every aspect of the Disney synergy machine, from merchandising to theme parks. It also recently received a live-action remake, that adds 45 minutes of screentime to cover all of the original’s “plot holes”. I could go on about that movie’s flaws, but I’ll never be as articulate as Lindsay Ellis.
  • Rather than a direct-to-video sequel, “Beauty and the Beast” became the inaugural film on my “Beauty and the Beast midquel set during Christmas” list.
  • “Beauty” is well represented in the various Disney theme parks, including an impressive ride in Tokyo and a themed restaurant in Florida. Not only have I been to the latter, but I tried the grey stuff. It’s alright.
  • And finally, a shoutout to this parody from an episode of “The Critic”, which I found hilarious, mainly because it was one of the few lampooned movies that I had actually seen.

Further Viewing: There are countless other adaptations of “Beauty and the Beast” from before and after the Disney version, but the most renowned is Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation, considered one of the greatest movies ever made, and containing a few elements lovingly borrowed for the Disney version.

3 thoughts on “#622) Beauty and the Beast (1991)”

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