I recently had the opportunity to watch the original animated Beauty and the Beast as part of a “Summer Series” at one of the local theaters. Being “The Disney Guy” of the Total Geek group, and wanting to discuss more classic movies, this was an opportunity to discuss one of Disney’s best and most beloved films in their animated catalog.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast originally released on September 29, 1991 at the New York Film Festival, and later to a wide theater release on November 22 of that same year. This film has become one of the crown jewels of their animated series, and my most favorite film that the studio has ever put out. This is also one of the very few that I consider to be a “perfect” film of any genre due to its likable characters, tight pacing, elaborate cinematography, and of course, the unforgettable music.
My journey with Beauty and the Beast has spanned years, from the animated film, the stage production, the recent live-action film, and a chance meeting with Paige O’Hara, who plays the voice of Belle (yes, she sounds exactly like her character in conversation, and I have reason to believe that she may actually be a real-life princess). I still have my deluxe box set of the film on VHS, and even a painting and book signed by Paige. The film has resonated in my life for over 25 years now.
Beauty and the Beast is a showcase of good storytelling. There are no “wasted” scenes in the film. Everything is tightly paced, and the premise is efficiently told through the initial prologue of a selfish boy prince that eschews compassion for superficiality, and is thereby punished. Not only is he punished for his cruelty, the residents of the castle are turned into household objects, and the castle itself is turned dark and foreboding. While some may view this punishment as “excessive”, the original versions of fairy tales are not known for their leniency on the wicked. Besides, a plot device is necessary to push a narrative.
From the prologue, the viewer immediately shifts to a small provincial French town. Here do we not only meet Belle, but we learn everything we need to know about her is the shared namesake song (“Belle”). Belle is considered beautiful, but is isolated by her family’s perceived eccentricities. Belle in turn wants more than a routine, predictable life, and wishes for something more. We also learn about Gaston, an extremely self-assured and egotistical huntsman who wants nothing more than Belle, who he views as a “challenge” due to her constant rejections of him. This is all conveyed to the audience in just over five minutes.
Immediately after, we meet Belle’s father, and inventor named Maurice. Maurice is indeed eccentric, and has plans to go to the fair to showcase his latest invention. When he leaves, Gaston moves in, far more forceful with the intent to marry her, and she wastes no time muddying up his plans. This sets up very clear events in motion for later.
It would be easy to cover the entire plot of the film, but we see character meetings and interactions form immediately. When Maurice is captured in the Beast’s Castle after a wrong turn, it is up to Belle to selflessly sacrifice herself and her freedom out of love. This nobility confuses the Beast, and his awkwardness is compounded by someone who is not only unafraid of him, but unwilling to put up with his temper. This conflict is told so well through subtle deliveries in dialogue and character behavior. Glen Keane’s attention to expression told through facial expressions tells so much about character struggle while saying so little.
During Disney’s “Renaissance Period” through the 1990’s (starting with 1989’s The Little Mermaid), Disney began to introduce a new attitude within their heroines. While still beautiful within the traditional “princess” mold, this new age of heroine was independent, inquisitive, feisty, and better developed as a character.
Belle’s whole nature is one of curiosity, intelligence, independence, and compassion. By contrast, the Beast is initially presented as an isolated monster, but the film’s depth makes him a tortured soul, one that has given into despair as he sees no way out of his curse. As the film progresses, his whole demeanor changes, from his stance to his behavior. He becomes less feral, and starts to readopt his human characteristics.
The turning point to these changes is best conveyed through the wolf scene. Belle becomes hopefully outnumbered during an escape attempt, and despite her initial attempts to drive the creatures away, the Beast intervenes to save her. While she has the chance to abandon him, his injuries draw her to save him in return. While the Beast later attempts to argue his point of view, Belle’s practical logic and care renders him speechless, and to the concession that his behavior was in the wrong. They find a middle ground and a chance to grow.
These changes are highlighted through “Something There”, and the titular “Beauty and the Beast”, as their complicated relationship grows from friendship to something deeper, and the complexities that arise from that.
As all of this goes on, Maurice continues to mount a rescue attempt, and Gaston’s short-sighted attempts at conquests continue. There is always something happening in this film, even offscreen. Gaston’s attempts to “conquer” Belle changes from annoying and impractical to far more menacing. After being adored by everyone for reasons so banal as a cleft in his chin and his boot wearing skills, Gaston is a character driven so purely by his ego that he can not comprehend someone not celebrating the mere fact that he exists. His imperfections have been highlighted, and is not above punishing those who show that he is less than what he claims to be.
Belle at the end once more plays hero to both her father as well as the Beast, whose will has been broken by his love for Belle. The Beast’s love for her is the very thing that allows him to grant release to save Belle’s father, while seemingly damning himself in the process. It is only her return that reinvigorates his ability to fight against Gaston’s attacks, but show his own compassion in a crucial moment. The Beast does not kill Gaston. It is Gaston’s pride and hubris that does him in.
The ending gives the expected happy resolution, complete with Disney’s often used plot device of the “false death” trope and final musical refrain via a chorus. The final result gives it a very comfortable “companion’ feel to the films Walt himself had worked on when he oversaw animation at the studio.
The film’s art direction remains as vibrant today as it did during its initial release. Due to the film’s tight storytelling, the films breezes by from start to conclusion effortlessly, and for an animated film, it remains of the most romantic stories put to cinema. I still yearn for the days of hand-drawn animation, and wish that Disney’s animation would find a balance between using hand-drawn and computer and computer animation, as both have remarkable strengths to lend to the overall medium. All of this is complimented by a strong voice cast that perfectly brings these characters to life.
Of course, there will now always be comparisons to its modern, live-action counterpart. I did find several enjoyable elements within the live action remake, such as the beautiful attention to detail found within the set design, and the realization of the Beast himself. However, I do feel the adaption missed its mark in some of it modern updates, adding unnecessary exposition that bogs down in comparison to the original’s pacing, and didn’t enhance the plot in any meaningful way. The biggest issue, however, remains in the fact that some of the principal cast had to rely on auto-tune for the songs. In a musical genre film, that is simply unforgivable, especially for a high-profile adaption such as this.
Beauty and the Beast is a timeless film that highlights animation as a credible and effective storytelling medium. It is truly an all ages film that still hold up just as well today, truly making it a “tale as old as time” for generations to come.