Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in No Boys Allowed | 1 comment


Disclaimer: While most Disney films are mildly racist or sexist, this is at least a little progressive. It does, however, have some scary parts.

Beauty and the Beast is Disney’s crowning achievement, combining the enchanting magic of Snow White, the musical genius of The Little Mermaid, the striking fear of Fantasia and Pinocchio, and a visual ecstasy all its own. Instead of the simple two-dimensional style that has characters and action move in and out of frame, the picture often swirls in a crane- or helicopter-type motion, giving life to impeccable animated figures like never before. This technique of rendering fully textured 3D backgrounds via computer animation combined with traditional animated characters is best exhibited in the romantic ballroom scene. As Angela Lansbury delicately sings the title song, the characters enter an incredible ballroom and the camera introduces us to a beaming chandelier, shapely pillars, and heavenly ceiling. On the way back down, as the music swells, we travel through the chandelier and revisit the couple dancing gracefully. It is, quite simply, one of the most magical moments in the history of film animation. Luckily, the rest of the film, which is a modern version of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version, brings us more of the same.

The opening expositional song (similar to Beauty3The Sound of Music) introduces us to a provincial, French Romanticism-era village full of gossiping low-brows, all except for Belle (Paige O’Hara), a well-read individualist. Among the village’s residents is Gaston (Richard White), a square-jawed, barrel-chested hunter who aims to wed the beauty. But this feminist female (a rare abandonment from the damsel in distress) seems an ill match for this anti-egalitarian who says, “Women shouldn’t read; soon they start to get ideas and are thinking.”

En route to a fair, Belle’s inventor father (Rex Everhart) gets lost in the woods and becomes a captive of The Beast (voiced by Robby Benson and lion growls) in his enchanted castle straight out of the German Expressionism era. To rescue her sick father, Belle trades in her own life. As we learned during the opening narration, Beast was once a handsome prince until his cruel nature transformed him (and his staff) to a more suitable likeness. Unless he can experience mutual love before a magical rose wilts, they will remain in that state forever.

From the moment Belle arrives, the staff – including jaunty candlestick Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), stern clock Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), curious teacup Chip (Bradley Pierce), and his teapot mother Mrs. Potts (Angela Landsbury) – collectively hopes she is the answer to their prayers. While there are plenty of misadventures on the way, and a Frankenstein-type conclusion, they will live happily ever after.

But, being a Disney princess tale, there are a few skeletons in the closet. Just as they made Ariel a feminist who owns her sexuality (yay!) but must win over her love with only her body (nay!), so do they here make Belle strong, smart, and independent (yay!) who then rationalizes an abusive relationship (nay!).

“I just can’t endorse the ‘my-love-can-change-him-from-a-beast-into-a-handsome-prince’ nonsense,” my dear reader Danette commented. “For bedtime stories, I always change the endings on all the princess tales to something more realistic like: ‘Then after a long and mutually respectful engagement, and after both had obtained gainful employment, the prince and princess married.’ [My daughters] think I’m a little crazy, but we’ve had a lot of laughs about my special kind of crazy. But I digress …”

The movie later became the subject Beauty1of a Broadway adaptation, and rightfully so, as Alan Menkin and Howard Ashman continued their musical brilliance (following The Little Mermaid). Though the world lost lyricist Ashman to AIDS in March of 1991, his work will live on forever and Beauty and the Beast’s final credit went to none other in the form of a deserving dedication. Of the six Oscar nominations the film earned that year, four rightfully went to the audio department for best sound, score, and song (nominated twice). The film’s best songs include the title track previously mentioned (not the duet with Celine Dion sung during the credits), a fun number about Gaston’s alpha male status called Gaston, and Be Our Guest, a mealtime treat for Belle as kitchen utensils take part in a chorus line as if choreographed from a Bob Fosse dream.

Walt Disney reportedly attempted to bring this classic folktale to the screen in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until The Little Mermaid broke new ground and unveiled a new era that Beauty and the Beast came to be. The timing proved marvelous and matched technological advances to become the first animated Disney film nominated for a best picture Oscar (losing to that year’s big winner The Silence of the Lambs). It was a huge hit (as Little Mermaid was) and proved Disney’s belief that animated films aren’t just for children, but for everyone.

When my sister saw this film and fell in love with it, despite being only a few years old, my parents bought her a Beauty and the Beast playhouse for Christmas. It was essentially a small tent, painted like the exterior of Beast’s Gothic castle, made of raincoat-type material and held together with flimsy plastic poles. She spent hours upon hours in that tent, and though she has little recollection of it, the tent delivered her to Beast’s castle itself – the way children take a refrigerator box and make it a spaceship. On the rare occasions when a film has the power to pique the imagination and make viewers want to be in that cinematic space, it calls for the celebration of a truly one-of-a-kind experience – and that’s just what Beauty and the Beast is.

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