Beauty and the Beast was the second Disney film released during the golden era of Disney animation. It began with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and continued after with the release of Aladdin in 1992 and The Lion King in 1994. The big difference between Beauty and the Beast and the rest of the bunch is that it generated the most enthusiastic response from critics. Not to say that the other films were critical disasters (very far from it) but Beauty and the Beast became the first animated feature to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards (and probably made a future case for the inclusion of the Best Animated Feature category that was added years later).
Disney knew they had lightning in a bottle with this release. The Little Mermaid gave them a much needed boost of confidence after a string of mediocre releases and there seemed to be a sense that that a creative perfect storm was happening with Beauty and the Beast as well. In an unprecedented move, Disney screened a 70% complete work print to a packed auditorium at the 1991 New York Film Festival months before the movie was finished. The astounding reception helped to build a sense of anticipation that was unrivaled since the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
The reception, then and now, to Beauty and the Beast is completely justified. While The Lion King is my favorite Disney film of all time, there is no denying the magic imbued in every frame of Beauty and the Beast. It is a true triumph of artistry and one of those rare animated films where every aspect gels seamlessly. You can feel the creativity flowing through every moment of its 84 minute runtime and it generates the same feelings now as it did in 1991.
Belle (Paige O’Hara) is the most beautiful girl in a provincial town in France. Unfortunately for those who might want her as a wife, including the narcissistic Gaston (Richard White), she’s also one of the village’s oddest inhabitants. She keeps to herself, helping her inventor father, Maurice (Rex Everhart), with his contraptions, and, in her spare time, devouring books. She has read just about everything available in the town, and eagerly awaits the arrival of anything new. Every time she ventures outdoors, she draws stares and snickers, but, despite her strangeness, Gaston is determined to marry her.
Then, one fateful day, her father disappears in the forest. Belle goes searching for him and stumbles upon a dark and scary castle. Venturing inside, she discovers a gallery of magical creatures which appear as regular household objects that speak and move. There’s Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), a candlestick with impeccable manners; Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), a clock with a high impression of himself and his role in the castle; Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury), a grandmotherly tea pot; and many others. Then there’s the Beast (Robby Benson), the terrifying creature who rules over this domain and holds Maurice captive. Once a handsome prince, he has been cursed to remain a beast until he finds someone who truly loves him in spite of his appearance. Now, he is filled with equal parts hope and dread at Belle’s arrival — hope that she might be “the one” to break the spell, and dread that she might be repulsed by his ugliness. Nevertheless, he agrees to release her father if she accedes to being his permanent guest. She makes the bargain, Maurice is set free, and she is trapped. In time, however, Belle discovers that life in the castle is not as dreadful as it initially seems and that the Beast has a hurt buried underneath all of his hostility.
The real allure of the movie is the amazingly-detailed animation and a half- dozen spectacular song-and-dance numbers. Of all Disney’s golden era animated features, this is the most polished-looking. Although films like Aladdin and The Lion King all have their share of eye-popping moments, none are as consistently impressive as those in Beauty and the Beast. The ballroom sequence, which mixes computer- generated backgrounds with hand-drawn characteristics, is the best scene in the movie. As a child, it captivated my imagination and as an adult it still elicits those same feelings. It truly is a feast for the eyes. And, while the camera in most animated films remains largely static, here it’s frequently on the move, soaring and zooming as it circles characters and imitates tracking shots. Visually, Beauty and the Beast is so carefully-constructed that repeated viewings reveal new details. Essentially the film transcends its animated realm and feels like it’s almost existing in a live-action realm. For an animated film released in 1991, that’s extremely impressive.
The production numbers, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman (the duo who worked on The Little Mermaid), represent the best in Disney’s arsenal and continued to be referenced by a generation who discovered them in 1991. They’re the animated equivalent of Broadway show-stoppers, with all the energy of something choreographed by any of the Broadway greats. There’s “Belle”, the opening number; “Gaston”, the tongue-in-cheek villain’s theme; “Be Our Guest”, with singing and dancing china and utensils (also my personal favorite in the film); the playful “Something There”; the warlike “Mob Song”; and the memorable title ballad, “Beauty and the Beast” which beautifully accompanies the visuals of the ballroom sequence. I will say that I gravitate more towards the songs from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King but taken all together all four films would make for a perfect greatest hits catalog of memorable Disney songs.
As a romance, Beauty and the Beast is pleasantly delightful because it creates a pair of memorable, three-dimensional characters and gives us a reason to root for their union. Belle is strong-willed, independent, and smart. The animators have taken pains to make her features more flexible than those of any previous Disney heroine at the time, and her face displays a wide range of expressions: anger, concern, contempt, fear, joy, sadness, sarcasm, skepticism, and wonder. The Beast, despite his frightening appearance, isn’t as terrible as he first appears. Inside of him beats the heart of a true hero, and, in an act of self-sacrifice when he risks his life for Belle, he displays his true nature. I know over the years jokes have been made about Belle falling for the beastly creature but the film is so good that it makes you forget about the differences in their physical appearances. Their chemistry resonates on a level that showcases their personalities, rather than their looks.
The vocal characterizations are flawless. While many of the actors in this film are better-known than those in Mermaid, the performers’ immersion in their roles is such that, you long for the days a bit when lesser known voice actors took on these roles rather than big name celebrities. Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Angela Lansbury are all solid in their respective roles and probably represent the strongest supporting players in a Disney animated film. Robby Benson, as the Beast, is excellent. He showcases a wide range of emotions and manages to be at times frightening, but ultimately sympathetic. Finally, Paige O’Hara, a relatively unknown newcomer at the time, gives voice and personality to Belle that has made her of the most enduring all of all the Disney princesses. She gives Belle her strength and her likability is instantly engaging.
Tomorrow’s release of the live-action version of this animated classic allows fans to revisit the film that started it all. I hadn’t watched this film in a few years but I was instantly taken back to that place of wonder from when I first laid my eyes on it. Animated films make a strong case for themselves in this day and age but magic like this hasn’t quite been duplicated since. Beauty and the Beast is a true animated classic and while it is a “tale as old as time,” it still manages to be relevant and an enduring work of art.
Reel Talk gives Beauty and the Beast 4 Reels