Monday, September 10, 2012

The Disney Renaissance Part 3: Beauty and the Beast

If The Little Mermaid kick-started a new public love for Disney animation, then this next film launched it into orbit. It shouldn't have been as successful as it was, considering its tumultuous development. Swapping out directors, bringing in a musical team well into production, a schedule and budget that paled in comparison to that of its predecessors. For all that, it transformed into a beautiful film, a cultural touchstone, and a gorgeous story that became the first animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture.

Of course, that film is Beauty and the Beast.

I'm certain that this movie needs very little introduction. The fairy tale is timeless and universal. The film was a massive success that remains one of Disney's most fondly-remembered and continuously successful properties. Its musical numbers were stirring and memorable. It brought together a pair of directors who would later create one of the most daring, gorgeous, and idea-driven family films of all time. In every way, Beauty and the Beast raised the bar for the medium, and remains more than two decades later a high water mark for Disney animation.

And to think that it could have been a total disaster.

As with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast was a fairy tale that Walt eyed for adaptation early on, but never put into full-scale production. It was resurrected shortly after the massive success of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and in fact Richard Williams, who directed the animated sequences of that film, was originally tapped to direct Beauty and the Beast in 1988. After he left to continue his long-in-development passion project The Thief and the Cobbler (which could be its own series of posts), his chosen successor Richard Purdum took over work on a non-musical version of the fairy tale. This version was the first Disney animated movie to use a screenwriter, rather than being developed through storyboards.

However, after the first storyboard reel in 1989, chariman Jeffrey Katzenberg called for the project to be completely re-written from scratch, initially approaching Ron Clements and John Musker (who turned it down, being exhausted from having just finished The Little Mermaid), so the film went instead to freshman directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. Katzenberg also insisted that Beauty and the Beast be given the same musical treatment as Mermaid, who's musical team did decide to return. Howard Ashman was reluctant to agree, as he had learned he was dying of complications from AIDS and had been deeply involved in a passion project of his own (Aladdin). Tragically, he wouldn't live to see either film finished.

Because of the time lost to the earlier versions of the film, Beauty and the Beast was put on an unusually tight 2-year production schedule, and was budgeted at $25 million (well below The Little Mermaid's $40 million). Between the budget and time constraints and the necessity to fly story artists between California and New York to get approval from Ashman (who couldn't travel), the film had more than its share of challenges.

Which is all the more to its credit that the movie is absolutely beautiful. Beauty and the Beast combined the "illuminated manuscript brought to life" aesthetic of Sleeping Beauty with the hints of anime influence that became more and more prevalent in 90's Disney films. The experience Disney's animators had gained on Mermaid and The Rescuers Down Under showed in the more refined and natural movement, especially of human characters. The colors are rich, warm, featuring more subtle shades than its predecessors. It also featured a ridiculous amount of detail for characters, backgrounds, and props. This is likely due - at least in part - because some of the props are characters. In order to expand the initially limited cast, the invisible servants from the story were turned into household objects and given memorable personalities. This cemented the return of anthropomorphized sidekicks, which the Disney Renaissance used even more frequently than the earlier Disney films. As would continue to be the case, they're largely used here for comic relief (including a near-overload of physical gags in the finale), but mostly show a modicum of restraint and have the good sense to get out of the way when the emotional climax is at hand.

The film also deviated from the fairy tale with the inclusion of a genuine antagonist. Forgoing the original scheming jealous sisters of the original story, Trousdale and Wise invented the egotistical Gaston as a romantic rival, an alpha male chauvinist nearly as obsessed with Bell as he is with himself. Through him and the cast's interaction with him, the film explores some deceptively deep ideas regarding societal acceptance, the importance of appearances, and the ease with which one can manipulate the fears of the public. These themes would be given even more thematic weight and much darker undertones in the directors' follow-up film, but here they also offer a great parallel to the story of Belle and the Beast. Both struggle to find his worth, she to look past his monstrous appearance and he to see himself as a worthwhile person after living as an animal for so long. Like many fairy tales, the "lesson" that must be learned takes a literal physical form here, making the Beast's appearance an outward manifestation of his character growth.

Said appearance is an animation marvel unto itself as well, as lead character animator Glen Keane spent long hours researching different animals to get a real sense of something feral and savage in the Beast's look and movement, but with hints of something softer underneath. The ease with which the audience accepts the Beast dancing in a luxurious ballroom only a short time after brawling with a pack of wolves in the snow speaks volumes to the versatility of his character design.

And speaking of the famous Ballroom Sequence, here we see another use of the Pixar-developed C.A.P.S. system that we first mentioned in Part 2. The system allowed for a much easier integration of computer-generation imagery with traditional animation, a process that originally had seen CGI elements plotted to animation cells and then hand-painted. The Ballroom Sequence was so effective that it convinced studio execs to further invest in the technology, making Pixar a key part of Disney's R&D.

Beauty and the Beast also nailed the final area needed to ensure excellence in a movie like this: a dynamite voice cast. While the great Angela Lansbury plays a notable supporting role, this would be the last film of the Disney Renaissance to not heavily rely on celebrity actors. Making Beauty and the Beast more or less the last Disney animated film for a while that traded more on its characters and story and than its voice talent (which is less a criticism of films to follow and more an observation). The two leads, Paige O'Hara and Robbie Benson, as Belle and the Beast respectively, own absolutely every scene they're in, especially when playing off each other. In fact, there's a marvelous chemistry through the entire cast which was used to great effect when the decision was made to record musical numbers as a group rather than over-dubbing separately-recorded tracks.

This is a rare family film that genuinely speaks to an older audience while still entrancing younger viewers, a movie with a love story at its heart, but with a good deal on its mind as well. And this balance is perhaps the most beautiful thing of all.

Beauty and the Beast proved a wild success for Disney, becoming their highest-grossing animated film and the first animated movie ever to cross $100 million during a single release. But that proved modest compared to the film that would come after, when audiences marveled at beautiful princesses, ragged urchins, scheming viziers, and an unforgettable genie.

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