Disney's Beauty & The Beast: revisiting the original

The current trend in the corridors of Disney, as you probably well know, is to take some of its classic animated movies – well, lots of them actually – and turn them into live action films in various guises. It’s had success with this, too, and the live action take on Beauty & The Beast, that’s been helmed by Bill Condon, is now taking its turn. It’s pretty much assured to be a monster hit. Haw haw.

For me, though, the 1991 animated version is a flat-out classic, and the new version inevitably doesn’t top that. But what about it makes is so special for me? You might just regret asking that.

I originally wrote this article for the site back in 2010, but I’ve updated it with some further thoughts and new additions. The bottom line for me, though, is that Beauty & The Beast is the best Disney animated movie to date. And one of my all-time favourite films. Buckle up…

“For who could ever learn to love a beast?”

Me, me, me, me, me. And many before and after me.

For it’s probably best I declare my bias right at the start. Beauty & The Beast is one of my all-time favourite films. I’m a Disney animation nerd at the best of times, but this, for me, was the one that really got me started. Ironic, given that it was a film I didn’t really have much interest in at first.
I first saw it when I took my then-five-year-old cousin on an outing to the cinema for the first time. I was 16, not hugely interested in the film, but intrigued enough to agree to watch it. And I was utterly blown away. So much so that I went to see it two further times during its original theatrical run. And it flamed a passion for the Disney animation back catalogue that’s been burning ever since.

“Dismissed. Rejected. Publicly humiliated.”

As with most films that turn out so well, Beauty & The Beast  threatened, for some time, to go the other way. Producer Don Hahn documented many of the mountains that Beauty & The Beast was facing in his outstanding documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, a film I really can’t recommend enough. But the primary one is that Disney was struggling to find anyone to put the film together. That the idea has been around for some time, but nobody coud quite make it click.

Beauty & The Beast was, in the late 1980s, being developed in France, with directors on board who were struggling to get on top of the material. This is something discussed on the excellent special edition Blu-ray of the film, which is surprisingly candid in its documentation of the uphill struggles that were being faced.

In its early guises – and this was a project first initiated under the stewardship of Walt Disney himself – the film wasn’t set to be a musical. Then-head of Disney animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, wasn’t impressed with what was coming back from Paris, and new filmmakers were sought. Beauty And The Beast was, it seemed, in its proverbial last chance saloon.

Katzenberg thus took a gamble.

Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were animators at Walt Disney Animation Studios, and promising ones. Katzenberg gave them a chance. They had a few months to find a shape for the project, and to develop it. Those months, thankfully, turned out to be well spent.

It’s impossible to think of Disney’s Beauty & The Beast as anything but a musical now, but the studio at this stage was in a very different place. Oliver And Company had buoyed confidence in Disney animation, that had been lacking for most of the 1980s to that point, but one of the main catalysts for the second golden age that Disney would enjoy in the late 80s and early 90s was the late Howard Ashman.

Ashman, working with Alan Menken, had at that time most famously collaborated on Little Shop Of Horrors. But then they got the Disney call, and as Menken noted, their lives went off in a whole new direction.

The pair had fashioned a musical score and songs for The Little Mermaid, that by this stage was in the latter parts of production. Crucially, though, it was still unfinished, and audiences were some way off feasting their eyes on it Again, it’s easy to say now, but it was no sure-fire thing that The Little Mermaid would be a huge success. A sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, was to be the Disney project lined up for immediately after. That seemed a safer bet on paper.

Yet Ashman and Menken clearly had something special. Ashman, in particular, was abrasive, driven, rubbed people up the wrong way, and notorious for his manner. He was also brilliant, and his life is soon to be the subject of a new documentary from Don Hahn.

What wasn’t widely known when Ashman started work on Beauty & The Beast in earnest though was that he was dying.

“I use antlers in all of my decorating”

If you get a chance, dig out a copy of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. The opening of that film is a big, sweeping musical number, that introduces the characters, the town, and their positions. It’s a clear, respectful tip of the hat to Beauty & The Beast, and as Don Hahn told me back in 2010, “I think it’s brilliant”.

But then so is the music to Beauty & The Beast. And I’d argue that it’s Disney at the peak of its storytelling song powers.

The opening song, Belle, is a staggering achievement, a masterclass in getting across of lot of information in just a matter or minutes. Yet it nearly wasn’t in the film at all. Nor was the Broadway-inspired Be Our Guest. The quite brilliant The Mob Song. Nor the goosebump-inducing central Beauty & The Beast song and sequence itself. But as Hahn said, the entire project was a “perfect storm” of the right talent at the right time. The majesty and experience of Disney’s older guard, crossing over with a new generation.

“Something’s lurking that you don’t see every day.”

I certainly subscribe to the notion that Beauty & The Beast was the proverbial lightning in a bottle. I love The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians, The Little Mermaid and many more. But never has music and narrative gelled so compellingly in a Disney film for me as it does here.

It gets through an awful lot of storytelling, too. Many animated films introduce a collection of characters, whose names you struggle to remember come the end credits. It’s massive testament to the screenplay of Linda Woolverton that the supporting cast, from the tremendous and witty double act of Lumiere and Cogsworth, through to Chip the cup and even Le Fou the sidekick, all get enough space to develop as distinctive characters in their own right. Put simply, everything fits, and leaves room for a full, three-act story, too.

Yet the magic here is in the central pairing of Belle and the Beast, two characters you can’t help but really care for. Disney, of course, already had an unusual and successful love story in Lady And The Tramp under its belt by the time it embarked on Beauty in earnest. And that was a film that avoided all the mawkish trappings that the story could have led the film makers into.

“There’s something in him that I simply didn’t see.”

Beauty & The Beast’s masterstroke, however, was to ultimately make this the Beast’s story (the new version edges things more towards Belle, with is the natural thing to do rather than doing a straight photocopy).

That’s perhaps the less obvious thing to do, and in the first act of the film, it’s not apparently clear that that’s the direction the film is going. The focus for the early running time is firmly on Belle, and her resisting of Gaston’s advances (note how Gaston is the popular one at the centre of society, with Belle the one forced to live on the sidelines, as a sort-of-outcast).

In fact, much of the early investment of the script is in establishing Belle as a rounded, intriguing character, and it looks to all intents and purposes to be her that’s going on the biggest journey throughout the film.

But it’s not. Instead, while both Belle and the Beast have to change throughout the film, it’s the latter that has to undergo the biggest transformation. And it’s a delicate tightrope that the film walks. The trick? That he’s kept sinister enough to work as a threat until reasonably late in the film (this is something that the remake tones down, and not to its advantage I don’t think), and that he feels unpredictable enough to jump between comedy and rage.

He’s consistently subtlety challenged by Cogsworth and Lumiere in the first half, but it’s only when he’s basically forced Belle to flee his castle that these little nudges result in any kind of action. It’s, ironically, when he’s had his most beast-like, fighting off wolves, that the other side of his character emerges. Other films? They might have him singing a song to camera, to push across that kind of transformation. But not here.

Instead, here’s where the genius of music as storytelling kicks in. There’s incredible efficiency in the song of Belle at the start, but surely the track with the heaviest workload is Something There. In two minutes and 19 seconds, it gets across just how the position and feelings of the characters have changed, in an utterly convincing and un-mawkish manner. It lays the path for the jawdropping ballroom sequence (can you see the early work of Pixar in there?), and the superb Beauty And The Beast title song (“bittersweet and strange, finding you can change”).

I’ve always felt that both Something There and Beauty & The Beast as songs work because the two characters aren’t on screen singing directly at each other. It allows the character animation focus to be on subtle little changes in expression and stance, and it’s a further masterclass in getting across emotion, without having to bludgeon the audience with it. Everyone who makes an animated film that has a love story at the heart should watch this.

And while they’re there, they also should school themselves, if they haven’t already, in the incredible work of the late, great Howard Ashman.

“It’s my favourite part, because you’ll see…”

Ashman was not a well man when Beauty & The Beast was being made, to the point where much of the production had to come to him. He died of AIDS-related illnesses before the film was finally locked, and, tragically, would never get to see the massive commercial and critical impact the final cut would have. But heck, the film owes so, so much to his brilliance.

If I had to pick one of the many elements that Ashman fused into the film, though, it’s the lyrics to The Mob Song (Kill The Beast). Ashman, I’d argue, is a lyricist whom Disney has never been able to replace, and arguably never will. The tightness of his writing on the songs of The Little Mermaid would be enough to top 99.9% of careers. With Beauty, though, his work gave my 16-year-old self goosebumps when I first saw the film, and has done pretty much every time I’ve watched the film since.

His creative input extends far beyond the songs here (it was reportedly him, for instance, who identified that this must be the Beast’s story), but I just want to focus on the lyrics of one of them anyway. And I am talking about the Kill The Beast sequence, which, as Don Hahn recognised, features the lyrics of a man fighting an illness with such a stigma attached to it at the time. “We don’t like what we don’t understand, in fact it scares us, and this monster is mysterious at least,” the crowd chant on the way to the castle to try and slay the creature of which they know nothing, but have been rallied to fear.

Heck, this is a Disney film. The same Disney that too often gets unfairly criticised for taking a safer, softly approach to material. Yet, here it was, at the start of the 90s, with subtexts that other films wouldn’t go anywhere near, with a dark underbelly to its story that it’s rarely given credit for. Granted, most people didn’t notice, but that didn’t matter. There’s ambition from top to bottom here, and Ashman’s genius is surely at the heart of it.

To be clear: Ashman’s sister, at her excellent Part Of His World tribute blog, has clarified that her brother never saw Beauty & The Beast as a metaphor for his illness, and that he never wrote his lyrics with such a subtext overtly in mind. But as she also points out, and her excellent post is here, it is the right of all of us to put whatever spin, or find whatever meaning, on or in a piece of art. Beauty & The Beast is no exception.

“Very different from the rest of us.”

Let’s, while we’re here, give Alan Menken some of the credit he really deserves. Working with Ashman, he’d already sent a jolt into the heart of Disney animation with his Caribbean-inspired music to The Little Mermaid.

But I wanted to just commend his broad, excellent score that underpins Beauty & The Beast. It’s emotive in itself, able to seamlessly knit the songs together, yet particularly in sequences such as the transformation at the end, it manages to quickly change direction when needed. It’s often Menken’s song work that gets the bulk of the attention, but I do urge you to keep the second half of the soundtrack album playing if you get the chance. Because Mr Menken is on absolute fire here.

The transformation, however, does give me the chance to mention the one element of the film that never quite worked for me. And it’s hard to see how it could have been got round.

For I’ve yet to meet a single human being on this planet who warms to the prince that the Beast ultimately turns back into. It feels odd. It has to happen, but it’s the Beast we’ve spent 80 minutes getting to know, and even though the prince only appears briefly, he never feels like the same character to me (the remake does make improvements here, I’d argue). No wonder they dress him up in the same outfit as the Beast for the final dance. It’s about the only way we could really emote with him.

But that’s my quibble. For while you can look back and say that animation techniques have come on a lot in the 25 years since Beauty & The Beast was first screened (although the ballroom sequence still looks superb), few have matched the storytelling skill and character work on display. Pixar a lot of the time, and recent Walt Disney Animation Studios output (I’d argue the latter is in the midst of one of its best runs of all time). Illumination consistenly nails character, usually fumbles story. Beauty & The Beast hits the bullseye on all counts

Few outside of Disney would even attempt to tackle a musical project on this kind of scale. Nor would they be able to come up with an antagonist of the quality of Gaston, a character who marked a sea change in Disney villainy (I could pen a whole piece about how Gaston is easily one of the most unconventional and effective characters to fill such a role in an animated movie.)

It’s not surprising. Because Beauty & The Beast, for me, set a quality mark so high that, quite simply, nobody who’s followed and tried to make something of similar ilk has stood a chance. Partly that’s down to the loss of Howard Ashman, certainly. But there’s also the behind-the-scenes passing of the baton from the old animators to new, the fearlessness of filmmakers who have never had a chance to tackle a project like this before, perhaps the naivety and the fearlessness of new directors, and a marriage of animation, music and storytelling that I’d genuinely be amazed to see topped in my lifetime.

It was, quite simply, the right film, for the right people, at the right time.

Finally, my nerdy mistake spot. In the opening scene, Gaston flicks through Belle’s book and declares there aren’t any pictures in it. When Belle is sat down reading the book? We get a close-up of a spread with a picture on it. Just saying…

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