It is sheer coincidence of scheduling, and nothing but, that I come to write about the 1991 Disney animated feature Beauty and the Beast on Thanksgiving, but it could not possibly be more appropriate; for there is no animated film produced during my lifetime for which I am more thankful.
With The Little Mermaid comfortably along in animation, that film's producer Howard Ashman turned his attention to the future. I have no idea whatsoever if it was his notion to adapt the classic fairy tale La Belle et la Bête, if the idea had been floating about in the Disney offices and Ashman simply grabbed onto it, or if the idea was presented him after it had already been developed a bit. But it is a matter of record that the project quickly became Ashman's baby, and were it not for his efforts, along with the tireless work of producer in Don Hahn, it is not unlikely that we still would be waiting on a Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. The project had been abandoned twice already: first in the '30s, as a possible successor to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (the last of the possible second features that ever, finally, became a completed project), later in the 1950s, during the post-Cinderella Silver Age. At both times, the idea was ultimately scrapped when the storymen were unable to do anything with the story, which seems like a peculiar excuse. If anything, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's version of the story - the standard version of the tale, though not the oldest - is already a far more complete narrative than any of Disney's other fairy tale adaptations (and maybe that's the problem; maybe part of the appeal was adding flesh to a structure as lean and lacking in detail as a Grimm folktale). Certainly, Jean Cocteau didn't have a problem stretching Leprince de Beaumont's text out to more than 90 minutes, with his outstanding 1946 adaptation (which, despite Disney's masterpiece-level treatment work on this film, remains the best cinematic version of the story).
At any rate, the project came back to life in the late 1980s, and this time the problems, whatever they may have been, were solved, with one of the biggest issues fixed in one suggestion from Ashman (much as his single idea that the crab in The Little Mermaid had better be a calypso singer completely changed the tone of that film): it was his notion that the invisible servants of the original story - unacceptable for an animated family feature, a medium in which a two-person drama unfolding without any amusing, entertaining side characters is virtually inconceivable - should be replaced by anthropomorphic inanimate objects, the castle staff transformed into the same everyday objects they worked with as humans, when they were struck down by the curse that left their prince a hideous animal. Another primary difficulty with the material was solved by cribbing from Cocteau's scenario: the lack of a straight-up villain was changed by giving the beauty of the title an unwanted suitor, who responded to her indifference by planning to hunt down the beast.
The story was developed with Ashman and Alan Menken as songwriters from the very first; it is perhaps thus the first Disney musical designed from the ground up, so to speak, with its songs fitting into the narrative much more organically even than they did in The Little Mermaid. If Ashman's contributions to the project went no farther than this, it would still have been a significant personal achievement, but in fact he contributed thoughts to the story team throughout; and as with The Little Mermaid, his work to help shape the story and characters ended up earning him a producer credit - an executive producer credit, no less.
Tragically, Ashman died at 40 of complications from AIDS in March, 1991 - months before Beauty and the Beast was completed. In my boundless crankiness, I would sometimes call that moment the end of the Disney Renaissance, all of 16 months old; for the two films which he did so much to help create are also the last two true Disney masterpieces. His importance in shepherding this pair to such heights was commemorated at the end of the closing credits: the film was dedicated, "To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful."
The film he left behind (which was technically directed by first-timers Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, and produced with love by Hahn; but dammit, this is Howard Ashman's movie, and I don't think any of those men would disagree with me) - is absolutely outstanding, a brilliant musical that is also an unusually effective love story and a top-notch example of the best of Disney-style design and animation. It is, in essence, as perfect as this kind of movie could ever hope to be: in what may or may not be a gross heterodoxy, I would be prepared to declare it the finest of Disney's folktale adaptations and princess films (two categories that largely overlap, but are not identical), in virtually every capacity: characters, drama, music, technical competence. Only in one area is it surpassed by any of them - it does not have such exquisite design and style as Sleeping Beauty.
Taking its cues from the classic Disney fantasies while significantly altering and reforming them, Beauty and the Beast begins with a "Once upon a time" frame like so many earlier Disney features; but it does not use the image of an illustrated storybook opening (a motif that had to this point been used in nine different Disney features, from the elemental folk tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to the innocent post-modernism of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh), telling its exposition instead through a series of stained-glass windows describing the legend of a spoiled prince turned into a beastly creature by an enchantress who sought to punish him for his heartless ways in still tableaux, as the measured, faux-British tones of David Ogden Stiers lend the story a warm gravity. This is not the first Disney feature to open with spoken narration (even among the princess films, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty beat it to the punch), but the removal of the storybook visual takes away a fig leaf, as it were, a sort of arm's length remove that comes from being told, within the text of the film, that we are watching a fictional story come alive. Instead, we open on a beautiful wooded landscape (a fantastic example of what CAPS could do for Disney, now that it was fully established: for this opening shot has all the characteristics of an unusually complex multiplane camera shot, all done on computers - such a shot would have been unimaginable in reality, given the decrepit state of the multiplane camera by the late 1980s), tracking slowly towards a castle in the distance; the stained-glass exposition windows indeed decorate this castle, implying even before we have any other reason for thinking that this is the castle where the story unfolded that it is just that place. Stiers's narration adds one further layer of authority, and despite the archly storybook tenor of the words he speaks, the whole effect of this opening moment is not that we are being taken into a story, but into a history: here is what happened in this place, a long time ago.
It is, of course, a curious fact about Beauty and the Beast that it insists on its connection to our reality in a way that few of the other animated features - certainly none of the other princess films - feel compelled to do. Insofar as a film about singing teapots can be connected to our reality. But beyond the curious and as far as I know unique treatment of the castle as a tangible place that we first see a very long time after the events of the story that takes place within its walls (sort of a Wuthering Heights approach to the material), there is the equally curious manner in which Beauty and the Beast, alone at that point amongst the Disney fantasies, stresses its own geography. That the characters all have French names is not so special, merely a typical attempt to give film's world a unified feeling; one might as well call attention to the fact that six of Snow White's seven dwarfs have adjectives for names. But there are two moments, separated by thirty minutes, where particular reference is made in song lyrics to the film as taking place in France; the topography and vegetation specifically suggest that it takes place in southeastern France. Compare that to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (both take place in an indeterminate medieval Europe), Cinderella (an impression of something not unlike France, but no France that has ever existed), or The Little Mermaid (which takes place in the most geographically unsettled location of any Disney narrative feature: I wouldn't even swear to knowing in what hemisphere it occurs). It's the point especially that gives me the feeling that the creators of Beauty and the Beast had a particular desire that we think of their film as belonging to a very specific time and place, and not the sort of dreamscape idea of a magical kingdom that the rest of their fairy tales had thus far inhabited. Curiously, the subsequent films in this model all follow Beauty and the Beast in having fairly concrete locations: Aladdin takes place in what is self-evidently Abbasid Baghdad, hidden by a fake name, while The Princess and the Frog is set in 1920s New Orleans. Pocahontas (a princess film, but not a fairy tale) is set in 1607 in a place whose foundations can still be seen by tourists; Mulan (a fairy tale, but not a princess film) occurs at a fairly distinct period in the history of China, and incorporates at least one prominent real-world location.
This very specific physical position grounds the film: of course, it remains a fantasy (Singing. Teapots), but a fantasy with one foot in the real world. I suspect that inasmuch as this was a conscious goal of the filmmakers -and it's hard to assume that with as many people as contribute to the story development of a Disney feature, that there wasn't at least one person who considered it a conscious goal - it was to give the film emotional heft that is generally absent from Disney movies, or indeed movies generally. I should like very much to expand on certain thoughts I brought up in reviewing The Little Mermaid: there, I proposed that the particular effectiveness of that film's emotional palette was based in its elemental simplicity - Ariel possesses just enough personality that she is not an unpleasant bland blob, but she still experiences what are ultimately the most basic sorts of emotions, functioning for the viewer as a reminder of primal feelings. Beauty and the Beast presents anything but a simple plate of emotions: its heroine Belle is arguably the most complex female in any Disney feature, not just because of the barbarically PC character point that she likes to read books and doesn't care for the local pretty-boy, but because of the whole set of characteristics she reveals over the course of the movie, while the Beast -mirabile dictu - is by far the most rounded and interesting male romantic lead to be found in this or any of the preceding Disney love stories (out of all the male leads in Disney to that point, the only one who comes close is Tramp, from Lady and the Tramp. Certianly, none of the bland non-entities from the earlier princess films does). Together, they create the rarest of rarities in Disney: an adult love story, presented more as a matter of dramatic interest than as wish-fulfillment, or more cynically as wish-creation for the audience of young girls that Disney seems these days indecently anxious to indoctrinate into a consumerist heteronormative world. The fact of the matter is, that despite the singing and dancing houseware, and despite the fact that I still remember with great clarity how much I was jazzed by this film when I first saw it at the tottery old age of nine (incidentally, it is to this film that I trace my lifelong love of seeing movies at night late in the year, with a fresh snowfall waiting outside the theater; they are always more rife with promise to me, even when they are things like Four Christmases), I believe that Beauty and the Beast is not fundamentally a film for children - it is a film that children can watch and fully enjoy, and millions have, but it presents its central love story too hesitantly and with a pronounced lack of dippy romanticism - unlike Snow White, Ariel, Cinderella, Aurora, the Bambi boys, Pongo the dalmatian, or Mowgli, Belle does not fall in love at first sight, nor is she looking to fall in love at all, and right up until the last three minutes of the film, she does not even consider that she is in love. And this refusal to abide by the typical "they're in love, and events keep them apart" model of other Disney love stories or most contemporary romantic comedies gives Beauty and the Beast a gravity about love that is not seen elsewhere in the studio's canon.
(This is where it would make sense to talk about the Oscar-winning love ballad "Beauty and the Beast", but I should rather keep all the talk of music in one place).
What I am absolutely not saying is that Beauty and the Beast is a movie for grown-ups that won't do any damage to the kids (not that my judgment should be trusted: I still don't see what possible entertainment a child could derive from the massive box-office and DVD hit Finding Nemo); it is, like the great Disney films of old, a movie of such essentially human concerns that it is equally well suited to a child or a parent, or any number of variations in between.
One can bring up any number of reasonable arguments that it is, at heart, a gross simplification just like the other modern Disney pictures - the commonest are that Belle's characterisation is fake feminism, yet another example of a woman trading one patriarchal system (her slavish devotion to her father) for another (her marriage to the ex-Beast), or that the message (judge people by how beautiful they are on the inside) is applied too thickly. To the first of these, I will readily agree that the seeming belief at Disney that showing a girl reading is inherently female empowerment is a pretty damn weak stand for a film to take in 1991, but this is as far as I will take it, unless it is the case that any time a woman falls in love, she is supporting the patriarchy. We simply don't have enough data to predict what Belle's live as a princess will be like, but I do not think it will be so pink and ribbon-bedecked as will Ariel's or Cinderella's.
As far as the heavy-handed moral, derived from the argument that the Beast is ugly but good, while the village hunk Gaston is pretty but evil, that's tremendously difficult to square with the fact at the start of the movie, that the Beast isn't good: he's a complete asshole, and his ugly exterior is a reflection of his inner self, not a mask. The difference between him and Gaston is not Manichean, between the Good Male and the Evil Male; it's between a jerk who, given time, is sufficiently respectful of the woman to whom he is attracted that he attempts to understand her needs and desires and to accommodate them as best he can, which includes to stop being an jerk; and a man who views that same woman as a trophy (which is, itself, not a particularly hidden metaphor, for Gaston is a game hunter, although I honestly can't recall ever reading an analysis of the film that suggests Belle is to his mind the same as his mounted antlers); the contrast is rather between a Basically Decent Person and a Total Prick. I hope I have also finished addressing the "fake feminist" argument: I am not going to be so bold as to call Beauty and the Beast a film of female empowerment, because I am quite certain it's not that. It is not, however, a film that tells little girls that they are incomplete without a husband.
At any rate, I got pretty far off of my argument that this movie has a fairly adult sensibility about romance. It's still G-rated, of course, and should be; but in its own small way it presents a world in which falling in love is a process, not an act, which is exactly the way it is in life: not only cartoons, but a great many live-action films seem to entirely miss this truth, and for this reason I am least willing to think about conceding the film it's advertising tagline, "The most beautiful love story ever told" (I'm even maybe willing to agree with it, if they mean, "The most beautiful-looking thing that is also a love story").
Now, even as the film bases its drama in an essential realism, the arc of the film is essentially fantastic, particularly given the oddities of time and space on display in its 84 minutes, enough to keep it firmly in the fairy tale realm. There are two massive holes in the film, which never come within the orbit of a resolution: how far is it from the village to the Beast's castle, and how many days does Belle spend there? The easy answer to these questions, "about thirty minutes" and "three days" are both clearly unacceptable to maintain the film's atmosphere; but necessary on the evidence presented. Somehow, this huge violation of the film's firm grounding in the real only makes it all the more appealing to me: it proves that Beauty and the Beast really is a fantasy, just a fantasy of particularly sharp observation. And there is not better kind of fantasy than that.
Structurally, the film is one of Disney's finest: there is no other musical in Disney with such a nuanced use of songs to advance plot or character, usually both: it is the absolute pinnacle of the Broadway-style narrative in Disney. The mere fact that the film uses its songs in such an organic way is enough that I would say this even if the songs were pedestrian and functional; it is in a sense only a happy accident that Beauty and the Beast has perhaps the finest collection of songs in all Disney; only Pinocchio can rival it on that score. In my most generous mood, I might even go so far as to call it the finest original musical in cinema history, period, irrespective of studio or medium (it does not in my estimation have the best soundtrack all told: I'd still hold up the instrumental score to The Little Mermaid as the very best, noticing that Beauty and the Beast's most beautiful passage is a barely-changed lift from Saint-Saëns's Carnaval des animaux).
First off, there is the unusually fine talent singing the music: several of the actors were Broadway veterans (Paige O'Hara as Belle, Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach as two of the objects, Richard White as Gaston), with the main non-singing actors (Robby Benson as the Beast, David Ogden Stiers doing double-duty as another one of the objects) cast for good reasons that have nothing much to do with singing at all. So, at a minimum, the songs are going to land easily on the ears: not a statement true of the Disney musical in the '60s and '70s, just to name an example.
This is the kind of showy Broadway spectacular that grabs you by the balls (or ball-analogues, for the ladies) right at the start, with a massive town-spanning epic song titled just "Belle", in which a coruscating series of lines, some directed at our heroine, some about her, and some just overheard snatches of random chatter, collect to form an abstract soundscape in which the mere sound of words becomes music itself; in addition to setting up the location in which the story opens, it also establishes Belle's character, and how her character is perceived. It also introduces a secondary theme, in which Belle describes with some delight a passage in her favorite fairy tale; this theme is repeated, much later, in the song "Something There", where Belle suddenly realises how her life has taken on the aspects of that same fairy tale.
The film skips from one terrific show tune to another: the extended noodle "Gaston", no doubt meant to echo the title of "Belle", functioning primarily as a series of playful rhyming games that establishes only the shallowness of its hero with its maddeningly catchy "da-da-DUM" rhythm, the precise opposite of the conversational fluidity and musical layering heard in "Belle". Another song that primarily functions as a driving rhythm is "The Mob Song" (man, that Ashman could write a title), in which the villagers are brought into such a frantic state that by the end, you can just barely puzzle out what they're saying, except for the loudly repeated refrain, "Kill the beast!" - a fine representation of mob mentality.
Of course, after "Belle" the two standouts - and the other two of the film's record-setting three Oscar-nominated numbers - are "Be Our Guest" and "Beauty and the Beast". The first of these is just damn showboating fun, the high-energy centerpiece that stretches from to "I've Got No Strings" all the way to "Under the Sea", and here reaches its fullest expression (one of the few songs Ashman completed for his next project very nearly equals "Be Our Guest" for sheer spectacle). The second is the love song, easily the best in all Disney, maybe the best in cinema: despite Angela Lansbury's fear that she wasn't up to the challenge of a ballad, it's a masterful performance of an elegant, passionate song, and the horrid radio-friendly version butchered by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson isn't nearly enough to dampen the heartbreaking effect of listening to Lansbury's voice soaring with the lyrics: "Bittersweet and strange / Finding you can change / Learning you were wrong".
That number is paired with one of the most celebrated pieces of animation in the Disney Renaissance, or at least one of the most famous: a giant CGI orgasm as the title characters dance their way around a huge ballroom that could not conceivably have been put together on that scale with those camera movements before CAPS was born. I am torn on this sequence: on the one hand, the huge contrast between the flat characters and the fully-rendered background is something that even CAPS can't smooth out, and I often spend as much time gawking at the mismatch as I do in gawking at the bravura choreography. But Lord Almighty, that choreography is pretty freaking bravura, and especially married to the sweeping music, I will admit that the sequence breaks down my fairly rigid opposition to the mixture of 2-D and 3-D animation, in a way that none of the other Disney films from this period do with any consistency.
In general, Beauty and the Beast is one of the two great visual triumphs of CAPS (we'll get to the other shortly); though it always surprises me when I re-watch it, how much of the animation is actually rather clunky. The "Beauty and the Beast" sequence is one thing; but perhaps you don't recall that just prior to the dance, the beast's face is animated in a clunky manner making him look almost like he's wearing a huge cartoon mask. Or that afterward, there is a conversation between Belle and the beast in which Belle's face moves funny, and when they touch it looks like their hands are hovering a foot apart.
The dark fact is that Beauty and the Beast enjoyed a deeply involved pre-production and a hurried animation period; at that year's New York Film Festival, a workprint was premiered with 70% completed animation, less than two months before the film's premiere. Clearly more than 70% of the film was done at that time, but in an ideal world it would have been finished already. The hectic pace with which this animation was being finished shows: there are far more moments than you likely remember in which detail is lost and characters (Belle more often than not - she is notorious among character animation buffs for going off-model at random points) are curiously inexpressive.
But that's only a very small amount of the whole; which in the main is as good as anything else in the studio's history. Once again, we see the marvelous use of CAPS lighting effects, which in the first meeting between Belle and the Beast, with a single shaft of dusty light in between them, results in my pick for the loveliest sequence in American animation after Sleeping Beauty. Belle herself is one of the best-animated humans in Disney's canon: she appears onscreen for nearly twice the length of anyone else in the movie, and so her workload was split not only between two supervising animators, but two studios, just like Ariel: James Baxter, receiving his promotion from character animator, worked on her in California, while Mark Henn, quickly on his way to becoming the studio's new woman specialist (he partnered with Glen Keane on Ariel) headed up the Florida team, still a skeleton crew that was largely under Henn's supervision anyway. As for Keane, he was busy with his all-time masterpiece: the Beast is the ultimate embodiment of what that animator does best, the huge movements of a dominating force. In his hands, the Beast switches effortlessly from a man with a large suit of fur to a rampaging mad animal, and he is totally credible in both aspects - I think of the contrast between the fight with the wolves, and the scene where he acts like a petulant brat with Belle moments later (itself another one of the loveliest examples of CAPS firing on all cylinders that you could hope to see).
He's the kind of character who even know could only really be done in animation, at least the way he is designed here: any CGI representation of that, however realistic, would inevitably prove unpleasant.
The number of gifted artists who worked on the animate objects - chief among them Will Finn, Dave Pruiksma, and Nik Ranieri - all did a fantastic job figuring out how to make teapots and clocks walk, and how a candelabra might dance like Maurice Chevalier, but I have already written to obscene length, and I will assume that the film can speak for itself on this matter: anyone who gives a damn about Disney-style character animation can see exactly why the trio of Lumiere, Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth are fantastically imaginative and well-executed examples of object animation (and they're pretty fantastic comic relief to the film's overall seriousness).
In the end, 1991 audiences responded to the emotional richness and musical brilliance and visuals of Beauty and the Beast just as much as I still do: it was nominated for Best Picture, famously the first animated picture to hold that distinction; it also became the first animated film to break $100 million at the box office, by 50%. Neither of these are particularly good indications of quality; if the film had been made ten years later, I'd cite these both as strong arguments against the film's artistic success. But every so often, good films are rewarded for being good, and Beauty and the Beast deserved every penny and accolade: it is a most visually ambitious and visually excellent animated film, with a luscious, old-fashioned love story musical giving it an emotional grandeur unlike virtually any other feature produced in its studio's lifetime. This isn't merely the best of the princess features; it's very close to being the best Disney movie of them all.