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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.