Virginia: Welcome back to A Decade Of, in which we’ve been going over Disney’s Renaissance period. Today, Munir and I will be looking at what we consider to be Walt Disney Animation’s magnum opus, 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. The Little Mermaid, and to a lesser extent, the films directly before it, had restored the company’s reputation and success, but Beauty and the Beast would take that a step farther. This film is one of Disney’s most sophisticated fairy tales, garnering several Oscar nominations including Best Picture (a first for any animated movie). This phenomenal movie was born out of turmoil at the studio; Richard Purdum was initially hired to direct the film by recommendation of animation legend Richard Wiliams. Williams himself had been asked, but he was busy with his passion project The Thief and the Cobbler. Beauty and the Beast was also the first Disney animated film to use a screenwriter, in this case, Linda Woolverton, thanks to a suggestion from then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Eventually, Purdum quit the film after then-Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered that they start over on the film’s production. The final product was, therefore, given half the usual time. It was often a fight between directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, lyricist Howard Ashman, and ardent feminist Woolverton, who had conflicting visions for the film. Let’s take a look.
Munir: As you said, Beauty and the Beast is the best Disney animated film and one of the best films, period. Which is an amazing feat, considering all the trouble behind the scenes. After Purdum resigned, the film was offered to Ron Clements and John Musker who passed it up in favor of directing Aladdin. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were also involved with Aladdin, a passion project for Ashman, but they persuaded by Katzenberg to join Beauty and the Beast. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were there just at the right moment to prove themselves. They were supposedly only temporary directors, but they ended up becoming the film’s helmers. And, as you said, Linda Woolverton was the first screenwriter to work at the studio. We also have to mention that by this time, Ashman was sick from AIDS and very fragile, so the crew had to fly back and forth from Burbank to New York to discuss things with him. Sadly, Ashman died before he could see the completed film, but Beauty and the Beast is unquestionably his masterpiece. All the turmoil paid off, and Beauty and the Beast remains a classic to this day. Let’s begin talking about the story. I think one of the film’s strengths is that you have two equally compelling leads with great arcs and meaningful change. The Beast may be the one who changes the most, but Belle also undergoes a transformation as she learns to love him despite his monstrous appearance. Another asset is Gaston. Initially, it appears as if he is a meaningless idiot, but gradually, he becomes a more menacing and dangerous person. Also, I think the trio of sidekicks the film has (Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts) are the most solid from the Disney canon. They are never annoying, often amusing, and help the story go along.
V: I agree entirely with you. Belle and the Beast each get an effective introduction within the film, letting us know from the start that this story belongs to them both. Gaston is a really clever statement on not only toxic masculinity but also the way people will follow someone simply because they’re beautiful and charismatic. On the film’s audio commentary, directors Wise and Trousdale even remark that Gaston would be the Prince in any other film. Additionally, Belle and the Beast are both rejected by society for being quirky and scary, respectively. Most of the time, the sidekicks are the worst part of Disney films, in my opinion. However, one thing that makes Beauty and the Beast the best is that every character serves a purpose, and every scene is essential to the story.
M: Exactly. I also like how the film makes a statement about reading and the importance of books and learning. Belle is different and an outcast because she reads and is curious about things other than just following and swooning over Gaston. Gaston is a very ignorant man, and he is a reflection of the whole town who just follows him blindly and are led by fear and, again, ignorance. It’s something that can be reflected in the real world, especially today with so much misinformation and dangerous, ignorant people in places of power. I like how Gaston and the Beast are different sides of the same coin. The Beast starts the film as someone filled with rage. He’s even a bully. But gradually, Belle has an effect on him by confronting him and refusing to bow to him. That makes him see her as an equal, and he starts respecting her. She also sees him past his rage and learns to respect him. Whereas Gaston, who is not used to being rejected, employs awful tactics to blackmail Belle, and pits the whole town against her and her father.
V: I completely agree. The Beast learns how to truly love someone, a concept Gaston can’t fully grasp. He sees Belle as a challenge, a beautiful acquisition to further his own status. Her rejection wounds his pride, and that he simply can’t accept. Another fantastic element of this film is that the songs are not only beautiful and cleverly written, but they always reveal character and push the story forward. Although The Little Mermaid introduced their talents to the Disney audience, in my opinion, Beauty and the Beast best showcases Menken and Ashman’s talents and Broadway sensibilities. Of course, I love “Belle” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Gaston” brilliantly shows Gaston’s egocentricity and the townsfolks’ willingness to follow him, all hidden by a happy, upbeat veneer. “The Mob Song” takes this idea full-force, showing how people can become monsters when a large group gets an idea in their heads. Several of the film’s songs are ensemble performances, which I love, as they show us several characters’ points of view on a particular subject. “Something There” is an excellent example, as we see our leads slowly falling for one another, and the castle staff growing excited at the prospect of being humans again. On that note, I think “Human Again” is actually rather weak and redundant within the film’s story-line, and cutting this in the original theatrical run was the right call.
M: On the first note, you can clearly see the change the Beast undergoes in the film’s climax. When he is fighting Gaston, he takes him by the throat and is ready to throw him to the abyss. The Beast from the beginning of the film would have had done it without a second thought, but now, his love for Belle has made him a better person, and he spares Gaston. I agree completely in terms of the music. I think Beauty and the Beast has the best combination of songs and score in the whole canon. Menken’s melodies compliment the film very well, as every character has a special theme, and Ashman’s lyrics had never been better. All the songs are great, and I agree that “Human Again” is redundant but it’s nice to have the choice to see the film with or without it. It’s not an essential song as “If I Never Knew You” is for Pocahontas, but it’s still amusing. My favorite one is “Something There,” as it perfectly showcases the conflicting feelings the leads have while the objects are filled with hope. The lyrics are playful and catchy, and the whole scene (especially Belle’s solo behind the tree) is a highlight of the film. I also have to commend the cast, as everyone actor is a tour de force and imbues their respective character with life and emotion.
V: The cast in this film is top-notch. Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson are absolutely electric together, and leaps and bounds ahead of the leads in the remake (who actually get to act together!). I wish they had kept the Beast’s voice deep in his human form, but I admit that’s just personal nitpicking. Richard White is also spectacular as Gaston; his singing voice is fantastic, and his line delivery is hilarious. There really isn’t a weak link in this film. And I totally agree about the Beast’s arc and Gaston’s pleading. The expressions on the Beast’s face in this scene tell you everything he’s thinking and feeling. Perfection.
M: The less we speak about that awful remake, the better. I think it’s one of the most pointless ones, second only to The Lion King. Now, we have talked about the music and the cast, and it’s time to talk about the animation. Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, James Baxter, Mark Henn. Will Finn, Nik Ranieri, David Pruiksma, Ruben A. Aquino and many others deserve to be celebrated because the talent in creating these characters is outstanding. Their expressions, their movements, their quirks, and their subtleties are done amazingly, and each character is different and unique. That, alongside the top-tier cast, makes these characters some of the best in the whole Disney canon. The CAPS technique, and the at-the-time nascent computer animation, are also put to good use. The colors in each scene are excellent and well-rendered, and the ballroom sequence still remains as one of the most iconic scenes in Disney’s history.
V: Honestly, I think The Lion King is the worst remake, as it adds even less and has even less personality. But we’re basically arguing about which turd is shinier here; both are horrendous, so the difference in quality and originality is negligible either way. You just listed some of my favorite Disney animators ever, especially Glen Keane. I know he’s an obvious choice, but he’s so versatile, and he’s designed so many of my favorite characters, including and especially the Beast and Rapunzel. Beauty and the Beast features some of the best character animation ever, and this is one of their most beautiful films, in my opinion. Baxter apparently based Belle’s movements while walking on ballerinas to make her graceful.
M: Agreed. I also would like to add something that we talked about in our Little Mermaid review. Some Disney fairy tale films have been criticized because the leads tend to fall in love at first sight. While I don’t mind that since it’s a trope specific to this genre, I think that Beauty and the Beast is the first one where love grows gradually, and it’s not a first-sight thing. In fact, the leads start hating each other, and then they start respecting each other, and then comes the love. It’s also a very well-built romance. People nowadays have such short memory that they credit Frozen with being this trailblazing film where many things were revolutionary. I guess it’s because of that scene between Anna and Kristoff where he tells her that you can’t fall in love with someone you just met. However, Beauty and the Beast was doing the same thing without the need to say it out loud.
V: I agree all around there, and I would argue that being able to communicate a message or theme without stating it outright is better. Frozen states many of its messages out loud (“Fear will be your enemy,” “True love is putting someone else’s needs before yours”), and it makes the film feel cheesy and forced at times. Beauty and the Beast better communicates its themes through the character’s actions and the film’s imagery, the latter of which being a considerable advantage of cinema and especially animation, in my opinion.
M: Agreed. The subtext in Beauty and the Beast is expertly handled. To wrap up, I think we can’t add much to the praise Beauty and the Beast has garnered through the years, and it’s really well-deserved. With wonderful and complex characters, outstanding music and songs, beautiful animation, and a strong story, Beauty and the Beast remains the best Disney animated film and one of the best films ever. Disney really knocked it out of the park with this one, and it’s a classic through and through. A masterpiece.
V: Any flaw I can find with Beauty and the Beast comes down to nitpicking (wishing the Beast was given a real, human name) and personal preference (wishing his voice was deeper in human form). This film truly is a masterclass in visual storytelling and character development. Disney has rarely produced a movie so good and that I like so much; as you say, few films this good exist period.
M: What do you think of Beauty and the Beast? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to come back for our review of Aladdin!