I’m kind of a softy. All in all it’s not that hard for a movie to make me cry. That being said, there a couple of things a movie can do to easily make me cry, but not all kinds of sad movies make me cry. The easiest way to get my waterworks working is through an emotional moment of triumph. Think of the moment in Milk when they win the election or the ending of Toy Story 3 when Andy introduces his toys to their new owner. On the other hand, I don’t usually cry at romantic developments. Sure I can be overwhelmed by emotion or get bummed out by what happens to a couple, but I don’t usually cry. I said all of that just to say that I always cry at the end of Beauty and the Beast. Every. Single. Time.
By the time The Little Mermaid hit theaters, a version of Beauty and the Beast was already in production. It doesn’t seem so now, but the retro-musical approach of The Little Mermaid was kind of a gamble, and so, the films in production at the time, including Beauty and the Beast, weren’t musicals. The non-musical version of Beauty and the Beast was going to be directed by british animator Richard Purdum. At some point around the release of Mermaid, though, studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn’t pleased with the project and decided to scrap it and start again. Purdum quit, and when the directors of The Little Mermaid refused to take the new job, the directing position was given to newcomers Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. The most important development, however, was that the movie was now going to be a musical, with songs written by the team behind the music of Little Mermaid: Alan Menken, and most importantly, Howard Ashman.
Watching documentaries on this period of Disney history like Waking Sleeping Beauty and reading other accounts of the making of Beauty and the Beast it’s easy, and a little bit romantic, to conclude that the most powerful creative voice behind the movie was Howard Ashman’s. I say romantic because Ashman died of AIDS in March 1991, so it’s nice to think of this final production as his last great opus. And by most accounts, you wouldn’t be entirely off doing so. Ashman had already made a big input in the creative development of The Little Mermaid (the idea of making Sebastian jamaican and the “Part of Your World” sequence are both attributed to him) and everything points out to him being an even more powerful voice in the making of Beauty and the Beast. I don’t want to get into arguments about which person contributed what to the film, as it would inevitably be unfair in one way or another, but I do like to think of Beauty and the Beast as Ashman’s great contribution to Disney history.
It’s not a hard point of view to have, either. Beauty and the Beast, even more so than The Little Mermaid, feels both very reverential of Disney’s past and a movie created by people that come from musical theater. Let’s take a closer look at these characteristics. First, the movie is the best example of Disney wanting to be progressive and adapt its classic structures to a modern audience. Belle, the protagonist of our story, is the ultimate post-modern Disney princess. She is beautiful and goodhearted, but she has much more agency than any of her predecessors. She dreams of handsome princes and adventures, but she doesn’t sit around waiting for him. First, she reads book, she also refuses the advances of airheaded Gaston, and she actively looks for her father when she thinks he’s in danger. But at the same time as the movie is transforming its idea of a Disney Princess, it also revels in the romantic swoop and magic of the older films. The character and production design is very classical, and it’s telling that the very last shot of Beauty and the Beast is almost identical to the final shot of the dancing newlyweds in Sleeping Beauty.
The clip above is a very clear and quick presentation of who Belle is, and that is precisely what I was referring to when I mentioned the musical theater influence in the film. The amount of exposition and plot developments that are revealed through song in Beauty and the Beast is unprecedented for a Disney film. Just in the initial “Belle” musical number we get the traditional “I Want” song as well as a set up of her personality, her relationship to Gaston and to the village she lives in. Other signs of the influence are the fact that this is the movie of this period with the most song, as well as the fact that, different to most other animated films, the movie isn’t musically front-loaded. Most Disney films of this period set songs aside once they get closer to the climax of the story, but Beauty and the Beast does the opposite, using “The Mob Song” to add even more tension and momentum going into the final confrontation.
The musical approach of Beauty and the Beast makes its songs essential to the plot. That is one of the things that make it such a great film, and such a great musical. This was already the case with some of the songs in The Little Mermaid (most notably “Part of Your World” and “Poor Unfortunate Souls”), but the degree to which Beauty and the Beast commits to integrating its songs shows an admirable amount of audacity. These songs are not just there to be entertaining moments, they are the story. A couple weeks back I said I thought The Little Mermaid was probably the Disney film with the best songs, but Beauty and the Beast is a very strong contender for that title too. It’s no coincidence that both films feature Ashman’s amazing songwriting. The song “Gaston” is pretty much Ashman showing off his talent for witty lyrics. I mean, how can you compete with “every inch of me is covered with hair” and “I use antlers in all of my decorating”?
Although it is, in my opinion, the very best film of the Disney Renaissance, Beauty and the Beast is not a perfect movie. Its main weak point is the animation. While some sequences and characters show some of the very best animation Disney produced during this period (musical numbers like “Be Our Guest” and “Beauty and the Beast” are nearly flawless), there is also a big inconsistency to the character animation. Most notably in Belle, who, even more than Ariel before her, has her facial features changing in certain scenes. That irregularity is probably a symptom from having two relatively inexperienced directors at the helm of the project, and yet another justification for giving the bulk of the positive credit to Ashman, but it would be unfair to deny the credit Wise and Trousdale deserve for the importance of their contribution to the film.
If nothing else, the directors took the songs and story provided by Ashman’s ideas and brought them to life. It’s important to notice that the most poignant and emotionally important moments of the film always display incredibly powerful animation. The heart of the movie is, obviously, the relationship between Belle and The Beast, and there couldn’t be a better of more appropriate way of developing said relationship in an animated Disney movie. There is a level of psychological truth in the characters that would be impossible to grasp in text, since it is basically a je ne sais quoi. There is something in the way Paige O’Hara’s voice work as Belle is reminiscent of previous Disney princesses and yet feels very emotionally raw; not the mention the fantastic animation of The Beast (easily the best animated character in the film) and the powerhouse performance by Robby Benson. The very particular body language the animators can give to an animalistic creature like The Beast, paired up with Benson’s nuanced line readings make it one of the best animated performances. I have this inherently pointless belief that if the performance had been given in a live-action movie, it would have been nominated for an Academy Award.
When you think a movie is as great as I think Beauty and the Beast is, well, then it’s simply too hard to find the right way to convey how you feel about it. There is just something powerful int he movie. Something that rings true about these characters that make it transcend the fact that what we’re seeing are a bunch of drawings and that makes me feel something no matter how cutesy the lyrics of the titular song may be. I’m certainly not the only one who thinks so, in early 1992, Beauty and the Beast became the first ever animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (it remains the only one to be nominated amongst five nominees. Up and Toy Story 3 were nominated when the field was expanded to ten). What can I say, to me, Beauty and the Beast is just one of the great Hollywood romances.
Next Week: You can trace the beginning of a very particular trend in animation to Aladdin, the number one movie of 1992.