Welcome to Revisiting Disney! Today, we are looking at that tale as old as time, that juggernaut of an animated picture, Beauty and the Beast! Like always, I have labeled each category so if you want to skip to the parts that interest you most, feel free! And, of course, if you have any thoughts, burning or otherwise, please share in the comments!
BACKGROUND OF BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
There are many wonderful films that came out of this Disney Renaissance, but I think that this was the Pinocchio (That analogy actually works better than I thought because Hunchback of Notre Dame is the Fantasia, but we’ll come back to that). By that, I mean that it’s technically gorgeous, it takes risks, and it’s not afraid to show some dark moments.
However, unlike Pinocchio, Beauty and the Beast was an instant hit. People loved it and it was nominated for Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards and won that category at the Golden Globes that same year (they also won Best Music for “Beauty and the Beast,” and Best Music, Original Score, while also winning the same categories at the Golden Globes in 1992. “Be Our Guest” was nominated for both, and both the Sound Team and the song “Belle” were also nominated for an Oscar).
Okay, to be 100% honest, I love this movie. I have had many favorite Disney movies, but if I had to pick just one, this would probably be it (I appreciate that Disney made my three favorite films so close together though). Beauty and the Beast was released on November 22nd, 1991 and like I said, it did pretty well for itself. A big part of that, it can be argued, is tied to the music.
Like I said above, Menken and Ashman won Best Music for “Beauty and the Beast,” and Best Music, Original Score, while also winning the same categories at the Golden Globes in 1992. “Be Our Guest” was nominated for both, and “Belle” was also nominated for an Oscar.
With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, the studio heads mentioned that having the two of them there reminded everyone of the days of the Sherman Brothers, because they had a team that worked on all the music and were also there to help develop the story. The score is fantastic, and so are the songs.
During the production of Beauty and the Beast, Howard Ashman was very sick. The story team would travel to New York with storyboards because he was too sick to travel, and he would pass away six months before the film premiered. His work on the story and the music are created by the rest of the team as a major reason for the success of the film. There is a dedication at the end of the film, and watching the cast talk about Ashman makes me cry every time.
Howard Ashman also served as Executive Producer, and would provide very useful advice during the story-writing process. The team had been debating whose story it really was because the Beast changes the most, but he’s not as active in the story as Belle is. Producer Don Hahn remembers Ashman coming into one of those meetings and reminding them all that it was called Beauty and the Beast, so it could be both.
Directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale point out that Menken and Ashman were both fans of animation and had experience working on Broadway. This meant that their songs were structured like songs for a Broadway show; they knew how to convey information and drive the plot with their music. The songs are catchy and fun, and really do drive the plot.
I also thought it was interesting to hear how, originally, they were trying to cast a Beast who sounded more monster-like, but eventually went for a more “sincere” approach, as Don Hahn called it. This lead them to Robby Benson, who played and sang the Beast in a way that shows his inner turmoil. There are many veterans of Broadway involved in this film (Jerry Orbach, Angela Lansbury, David Ogden Stiers, Paige O’Hara, etc), which reflects the style of the film’s music.
My favorite bit of trivia about Beauty and the Beast is that Angela Lansbury (who had three Tonys at the time) did not want to record the song “Beauty and the Beast.” She remembers that it was a slow ballad and that she was afraid of it. Alan Menken recalls that once they got her to sing it, she nailed it on the first take. So that was it; the version we hear of “Beauty and the Beast” in the film is the first and only take by the talented Angela Lansbury. If you can track down the interviews on this, it’s worth a watch.
Beauty and the Beast was one of those films that seem to have been made for Broadway, mostly because of the musical style (and because it was a musical that happened to be animated, as Linda Woolverton put it). It was pitched to then-CEO and Chairman Michael Eisner. They called in Alan Menken, who added in songs he and Howard had written for the film, and used pieces of the original score to write new songs. Fleshing out the characters and diving deeper into the story, the musical would be nominated for Nine Tonys.
Like The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast used their CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), system. The major scene that showed off new technology, however, was the ballroom scene. According to Bob Thomas, Roger Allers, and Brenda Chapman “suggested that the crucial ballroom scene…could be heightened by computer graphics…the camera could seem to circle the dancers as in a live-action movie,” an idea that no one was sure would actually work (Thomas 1992: 131).
The concern that this might not work came about because it was a very experimental process; this was an important scene and this was the largest use of computer technology to date in a Disney film (Thomas 1992: 131). They basically used a computerized camera to make the scene 3D. This made the scene spin better though it’s important to note that the background is computer generated, but Belle and the Beast are hand drawn. It’s a gorgeous sequence and one that the crew refers to as very similar to handing a baton off in a relay.
When it comes to animation, Beauty and the Beast is really fun. The directors remember that Brian McEntee, one of the art directors, called it “Bambi with interiors,” and I’d buy that. The backgrounds are lush and detailed, without distracting too much from the main action of the story, and they help tell the story with the change in season reflecting the changing relationship between Belle and the Beast.
According to some sources, several animators had a ball animating on this film. Glen Keane called the transformation sequence the highlight of his career, and Andreas Deja said similar things about his animation on the complex villain, Gaston. There are also tons of fun supporting characters that aren’t humans, which must have been a blast to animate.
Fun fact, the dance at the ending is reused animation from the finale of Sleeping Beauty. The team was running out of time and, already having a wonderful dance scene, figured, why not just reuse part of it? Makes sense to me.
We open with the story of the Prince in his castle, told through stained glass (brilliant touch, I think). We learn that he is spoiled, selfish, and unkind, and see it in action when he refuses to let a beggar woman have shelter in his castle.
Now, the age of the prince is always debated, because if he was 21 at the end of the story and cursed for ten years, was he was cursed at age 11 for not letting a scary old woman into his castle? Does that mean that he was punished for following the laws of stranger danger?
I read somewhere, however, that he was a young adult when cursed (which also explains the portrait of the adult prince in his room), and he and his castle were just frozen in time for 21 years (which also explains Chip and the other kids). Maybe the ten years is just when things start to rust? I don’t know, but it was an interesting theory.
Anyway, turns out that the beggar is actually an enchantress, who saw that the prince doesn’t understand love. After reminding him not to judge by looks and that beauty is internal, she transforms him into a beast. He hides in his castle with his enchanted servants (who really got the raw end of the deal here), a magic mirror, and the rose she offered him. It will bloom for 21 years and then the petals will start to fall.
If the prince can learn about love and earn someone’s love by the time the last petal falls, the spell will be broken. Otherwise, he’ll stay a beast forever. Believing that no one could love a beast, he begins to despair.
Then we cut to our heroine, Belle, a lovely young woman who is a bit of an outcast in her town. There’s a great song, and we learn that the town doesn’t really understand her. Also, she likes to read and has a library situation going with the local bookstore. But, she’s only read her favorite book twice? How much of a favorite can it be? And then he gives it to her? That’s awesome, and I’m jealous. She dreams of having adventures, just like the characters in her books.
There’s this guy named Gaston who likes her because they’re the most attractive people in town. Sadly, he’s kind of arrogant and she doesn’t really like him because he’s arrogant and kind of dumb (he asks how she can read a book with no pictures. Ouch). Plus he throws her book in the mud and clearly doesn’t understand her.
He wants to hang out, but Belle, who is actually busy, tries to let him down gently. He doesn’t take it well. When there’s an explosion at her house, she rushes home to help her father Maurice, who is a brilliant but eccentric inventor.
Maurice figures out the kinks in his latest invention and heads off to the fair with it. He gets lost on the way and wanders into a pack of wolves. His horse, Philippe, spooks and heads home while Maurice is chased. Suddenly, he finds a gate and, seeing a place to get away from the danger, runs in. He is shocked to see a castle, but when it starts to rain takes a chance and runs in.
Inside, Maurice is entertained and hosted by talking fixtures, including Lumiere (a candlestick), Mrs. Potts (a teapot), and Cogsworth (a clock), before the Beast finds him in his castle and is furious. Thinking that Maurice is there to gawk at him, he throws him in the tower.
Meanwhile, Gaston has decided to marry Belle, staging a giant wedding outside before asking her. However, she says no and when she opens the door, he falls in the pond. Humiliated and angry, he decides he’s just going to have to keep trying. Wait, what?
Belle is pretty annoyed and very opposed to the idea of marrying Gaston. Plus, she wants to get out of the town and have adventures. When Philippe shows up without her father, Belle unhitches the wagon and sets off to find him. They arrive at the castle and Belle rushes in, determined to find her father or someone who knows where he is. The enchanted objects, knowing where he is, and hoping that Belle will break the spell, lead her to the tower.
She finds Maurice in a tower cell. He’s sick, and she is so determined to free him that when the Beast arrives in a temper, she offers her freedom in exchange for her father’s. The Beast agrees though Maurice puts up a bit of a fight. However, the Beast sends him back to the village.
Clearly not used to social interactions, he is abashed to realize that he didn’t let Belle and her father say goodbye to each other, and at the prompting of his servants, offers her an actual room, not the tower. He also tells her the one rule that she has, to not go into the West Wing. Instead of telling her that that’s his private space, he just tells her that it’s forbidden, which makes her curious. He then invites her to dinner. Well, he tries to invite her to dinner, he really just orders her to come to dinner. When he leaves, she begins to sob because she’s had a horrible day.
Meanwhile, back at the village, Gaston is having a rough day. His little lackey, Lefou, tries to cheer him up with a song about how great he is. The whole town joins in, and then Maurice bursts in, claiming that Belle is the captive of a horrible beast. Everyone laughs at him, and Gaston gets a horrible idea to use Belle’s father to get her to agree to marry him.
Back at the castle, Belle gets to know the staff and refuses to eat dinner with Beast. Meanwhile, Beast is pacing nervously and angrily, waiting for her to come to dinner. When Lumiere asks if Beast has considered that Belle could break the spell, Beast points out that she’s beautiful and he’s not. Mrs. Potts and Lumiere start to give him wooing advice, ending with the most important bit, he has to control his temper.
Cogsworth comes down with the news that Belle isn’t coming, and Beast doesn’t take it well. After a heated discussion with Belle, he tells Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts that if Belle won’t eat with him, she doesn’t get to eat at all. In the magic mirror, Beast realizes that Belle really hates him (which is fair, she is a prisoner in his castle), but it is nice to see a bit of the other side of Beast, the less angry side.
The staff sets up a guard on Belle’s room, but she sneaks out and finds the kitchen. She admits to being hungry, and we are treated to “Be Our Guest.” Cogsworth and Lumiere give her a tour of the castle, but when she discovers the West Wing, she distracts them and goes exploring there instead. She finds a portrait of Beast as a human and is captivated, but then she sees the rose and goes to look closer at it.
Beast comes back and finds her in his room (which he has basically trashed during his rages throughout the years), and starts yelling at her to get out. He breaks more furniture, some pieces almost hitting Belle, and she decides that she can’t stay. Fair enough. Running to Philippe, they race away from the castle.
Those wolves are waiting, however, and despite their best efforts, Belle and Philippe are cornered. However, Beast has followed them and defends her, fighting off the wolf-pack. He is injured, and Belle feels like she can’t just leave him to die after he saved her life. She brings him back to the castle and helps patch him up though I still can’t figure out how she got him on the horse. Disney magic, I suppose.
They fight, and Belle can hold her own, even getting the last word. The objects are in awe, and when she thanks him for saving her life, and he says you’re welcome, they realize that things might change after all.
In the village, we learn that Gaston’s plan is to have Maurice thrown into the insane asylum unless Belle agrees to marry Gaston. He’s even enlisted the help of the asylum master, who says that it’s a despicable plan, but he loves it. When they go to get Maurice, however, Maurice has just left to find Belle. Leaving Lefou to freeze in the snow, Gaston tells him to report back as soon as Belle and Maurice come home.
Beast, meanwhile, is starting to feel something for Belle, though he doesn’t know what. When he decides that he wants to give her something, he gives her a library. Best. Present. Ever. And the music is epic at this part of the story, which makes me smile.
The story progresses with “Something There,” where Beast gradually learns more about human behaviors he’s forgotten, like how to eat without making a mess, and our heroes realize that they might actually feel something for each other. Belle is more confused, because she hadn’t noticed that he was “sweet,” and wonders how she missed the goodness inside of him.
The objects are encouraged that they have started to fall for each other and set up the lovely dinner and dance that we all know and love. Lumiere tries to convince Beast to tell Belle how he feels about her, but he’s nervous about the idea. Having learned to love, he’s nervous to find out if she loves him too. He even learned to use a spoon!
Beast asks Belle if she’s happy with him, and she says that she is, but she misses her father. He lets her look in the magic mirror, and when it turns out that Maurice is sick and lost in the forest, she is distraught. Beast then lets her go, because he loves her and wants her to be happy.
Of course, he has basically ruined his chances for freedom because even though he has learned to love, she doesn’t love him back. Belle finds her father and gets him home and on the mend. Lefou runs to alert Gaston, who puts his plan into action. It backfires; Belle can prove that the beast is real by using the magic mirror. Realizing that Belle is in love with Beast (before she does, even), Gaston is filled with rage. Playing on the town’s fears, he rallies a posse to kill the beast.
Locking Belle and Maurice in the cellar, they head to the castle. Luckily, Chip (a little teacup) snuck home with Belle. Using Maurice’s invention that chops firewood, he breaks into the cellar, saving Belle and Maurice. They set off immediately to warn Beast that invaders are coming.
The objects see the villagers coming and rally together to drive out the intruders. Mrs. Potts asks the Beast what he wants them to do, but saddened by losing Belle, he really doesn’t care. Despite that, the objects succeed in driving out the villagers, but in the commotion, Gaston snuck upstairs to find Beast.
Finding him, he hits him with an arrow and pushes him out the window. Although furious that Beast won’t fight back, Gaston is about to kill Beast anyway when Belle arrives. Seeing her, Beast regains his will to live and begins to fight back. Actually, he wins the rooftop battle. He almost kills Gaston but decides to show him mercy and orders him out of his castle.
Belle appears on a balcony right after, and Beast climbs up to her. Alas, Gaston is a treacherous jerk, who stabs him in the side. It’s a mortal wound, but Belle displays her impressive arm strength and pulls Beast up onto the balcony, where he lies dying as the last petal is falling from the rose.
As he breaths his last breath, she whispers that she loves him. This breaks the spell, and Beast is turned back into a prince in one of the most stunning pieces of animation I’ve ever seen. Belle doesn’t recognize human Beast at first, but then she looks into his eyes and sees the Beast she fell in love with. They kiss, and the objects also turn back to people, the castle exchanges its gargoyles for angels, and everyone lives happily ever after.
THE ENDURING LEGEND OF BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is based on the version of the French fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, who wrote the story in 1756 (Beaumont condensed the first literary version of the story by Madame de Villeneuve). It would be translated into English three years later, but the story itself has been around for centuries. In the “Making Of” feature, the crew jokes that it really is a tale as old as time, because most cultures have a similar tale.
The earliest known “Beauty and the Beast” tale, according to Maria Tatar, is “Cupid and Psyche, which dates back to the second century AD. There are similar stories in India, Africa, France, Italy, and Scandinavia. Another variation on the same theme is the Norwegian “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” and some count “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera” as part of this heritage.
There are other stories that involve the “beauty marrying the beast” trope and some that subvert it. Shrek could be seen as a modern day adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast,” and helps show us the range of possibility for this story. It also highlights just how much this story has stuck with us; like with King Arthur, we’re still retelling this story. A new version coming soon!
Paula Sigman, a Film Historian, points out that “Beauty and the Beast” is a very sophisticated fairy tale because the romantic couple is not obvious from the get go. There is no love at first sight, and it emphasizes the idea that true beauty is found within, not something that you typically see in fairy tales.
Walt Disney and his team had tried to adapt “Beauty and the Beast” twice, once in the 1930s and once in the 1950s, and had to shelve it, because of story problems. But after the success of The Little Mermaid, the studio kept thinking of “Beauty and the Beast.” Beauty and the Beast producer Don Hahn called the story, “the last of the red-hot fairy tales,” and he has a point (though there are some that I would still love to see adapted).
The idea that Walt and his team had tried to and failed to adapt the film was daunting. The biggest problem that they faced, it seems, was that the story can stall. I’m not going to do it justice here, so I recommend that you read it for yourself. I’m just giving you the bare minimum here, and it really is a beautiful tale.
The French story goes a bit like this: There was a wealthy merchant with three sons and three daughters (Beauty, the youngest, is the best and her sisters are jerks). The merchant loses all his money and they have to move to the country, where Beauty does the work because, again, her sisters are jerks.
One of the merchants’ ships finally appears in the harbor and he goes to meet it, promising to bring back gifts for his daughters, and Beauty just wants a rose. The merchant is coming home when he gets lost, finds a castle, stays the night, finds a rose garden, picks a rose for his daughter, and ticks off the Beast who owns the castle. The Beast tells him that he must die, or one of his daughters must die in his place.
The merchant goes home and tells his daughters and sons what’s happened, and Beauty insists on going in his place. While there, she’s not hurt or mistreated, but every night she and the Beast have dinner and every night, he asks her to marry him. She always says no, and he’s always sad. This paragraph here is the bulk of the story.
It becomes clear that Beauty and the Beast have become friends, and though he wants to marry her, she just doesn’t see it happening. She knows her father is heartbroken at having lost her, so she goes home to see him for a quick visit. The Beast tells her to not stay too long, or he’ll die, but she gets caught up in being home and loses track of time.
She finally rushes back, realizing that even though she’s not in love with the Beast, there are worse things than marrying her best friend (he’s kind, even without being handsome or smart), so she agrees to marry him because she can’t live without him. He turns into a handsome prince (who is still kind but is also smart), she is pleasantly surprised, and they live happily ever after.
So, when Disney adapted the film, they made several changes to make the story more exciting. They hired had a screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, who says that no one had explained the animation process to her, so when they put her work together with the storyboards, there were clashes. She also says, however, that she thinks that this all worked together to form a better movie. The story team included Brenda Chapman, Roger Allers, Chris Sanders, and Joe Grant (a veteran from the old days).
The film also does something interesting in the characters of Beast and Gaston. Beast is both the hero and the villain, and he’s really a great character that changes and grows throughout the film. In the end, he’s hideous on the outside and beautiful on the inside. This is in contrast to Gaston, who is the villain of the story. He’s funny, the character that would be the hero in most stories (he’s a good-looking and well-liked guy), and he’s actually very ugly on the inside. It’s a fun contrast, and it also works really well to drive home the overall lesson.
Beauty and the Beast is fun because in many ways it’s not based on one particular source; it’s joining an already rich tradition of stories and films that are built on the idea of “Beauty and the Beast.” It just adds that Disney flavor to it.
In the 1990’s, there was quite a lot going on. We talked about the Gulf War last week, so this week I want to mention a few other highlights. In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolves into 15 new republics, changing the face of politics yet again, and making new globes and maps necessary.
There were also a series of fires that broke out near Oakland, California that burned thousands of homes. 25 people were killed. This was also the year that the Dead Sea Scrolls were unveiled, and the UN passed sanctions against the nation of Libya after bombing in South Africa. The Balkan War also began this year, so it wasn’t a very peaceful one.
With 70 tornados, multiple earthquakes, and the arrest of Jeffrey Dahmer, I can see why a story about looking past the ugliness would be appealing. Additionally, Beauty and the Beast took advantage of new technologies and used them to great success. With the Dead Sea Scrolls being unveiled, the popularity of stories like “Beauty and the Beast” might be a callback to the great stories of old. Not only is there an innocence to it, but it’s complicated and not clear-cut. Stories do have a unique ability to speak to us, and remind us where we come from, and I think that the success of Beauty and the Beast reflects that.
The lessons in Beauty and the Beast are simple. First, beauty is as beauty does. Belle is not just beautiful, she’s nice (and smart!), and that’s what makes her beautiful. Meanwhile, he ugliness inside Gaston overshadows the way he looks; as the film goes on, he gets less handsome.
Secondly, you can’t judge a book by the cover. When you look at Gaston and Beast, one is “beautiful” on the outside and ugly on the inside, while the other is ugly on the outside but turns out to be beautiful on the inside. Sometimes, pretty people are nice (like Belle), but you can’t assume anything about someone’s personality based on their appearance.
Thirdly, just because we don’t understand something, that doesn’t make it bad. The townspeople go after the Beast singing that “we don’t like what we don’t understand,” and while that can be true, it doesn’t mean that the castle is evil. Besides, the Beast hadn’t killed anyone yet, why would he suddenly start now? I suppose that also ties into the idea of not letting ourselves be ruled by fear.
Also, I just want to mention the Stockholm Syndrome thing. I’ve heard lots of people criticize the film for having Belle fall in love with her captor. An internet reviewer, the Nostalgia Chick (Lindsey Ellis) refutes this well in one of her pieces; basically, Belle didn’t fall for the Beast until he stopped being a jerk, and that when he frees her, she does in fact leave. Plus, they became friends before falling in love.
The other argument I see a lot of is that she was trying to change him, so it’s telling girls to stay with abusive monsters because we can change them. I can see the argument, but to me, it doesn’t hold water. Not only does she leave (twice!), both Belle and the Beast grow and change throughout the movie; as they spend time together (being the only non-appliances in residence, they really have no choice), they learn that they were both wrong about the other and he remembers how to be a human. She’s not actively “fixing him,” that’s just the byproduct of her presence in horrible circumstances.
Plus, it’s a fairy tale, and I think kids are smarter than we give them credit for. What works for two animated characters in a castle filled with enchanted plates is not a good model for human life, and I got that as a kid. At least, that’s my two-cents on the matter.
DOES IT HOLD UP?
Honestly, I think this movie is beloved for a very good reason. The animation is stunning, both leads are well developed, the music is amazing, the story is fun and still works today…to me, this movie set the standard by which all new Disney movies must be judged. I loved it as a kid, through my jaded college years, and I still love it today. If you haven’t seen Beauty and the Beast, you’re missing out. If you have, maybe it’s time for a rewatch of this classic film, one that truly is a tale as old as time.
For next week: Aladdin
If you enjoyed this post and the others in the Revisiting Disney series, and have found yourself wishing that you could find them all in one convenient and bound book with eight extra essays, there is an option for you! Check out A Journey Through Disney: My Look Back Through Disney Canon, now available on Amazon as both a Kindle book ($4.99) and a paperback ($11.99).
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Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom. Harry N. Abrams, Inc. New York, New York. 1975.
Johnston, Ollie and Frank Thomas. The Disney Villain. Hyperion. New York, New York. 1993.
Sale, Roger. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA, 1978.
Tatar, Maria. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales. W.W. Norton and Company. New York and London, 2002.
Thomas, Bob. Disney’s Art of Animation From Mickey Mouse to Hercules. Hyperion. New York, New York. 1992.
Wright, Gordon. The Ordeal of Total War: 1939-1945. Harper Torchbooks, Harper & Row. New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco, and London, 1968.Pin this article to read later! And make sure to follow us on Pinterest.