1991 saw the release of what is not only one of the most critically acclaimed films to hail from Disney’s Renaissance Era, but one of the most celebrated animated features of all time, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Beauty and the Beast broke numerous records, both as an animated film and as a musical. It was the first film to receive three Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song (something which 1994’s Lion King would later accomplish), and was the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture.
This was actually not the first time that Disney had attempted to adapt the classic fairy tale for the silver screen. Around the time of the Golden Age of Animation, Walt Disney Pictures had plans on making a Beauty and the Beast feature length film, but a few story issues caused the film to be shelved for a while. Similar things have happened to other Disney films such as Tangled and Frozen.
Beauty and the Beast has one of the most beloved soundtracks in all of film, which is kind of funny when you consider that the film was not originally envisioned to be a musical. But after seeing how much of a critical darling The Little Mermaid was, Disney changed course to make the majority of their subsequent films musicals.
While I’m sure the title track would have made it into the film, musical or not, it’d be hard to imagine watching Beauty and the Beast without a few of the other songs. Title track aside, the only song that really stuck with me was Human Again, but the song between Gaston and his men in the tavern, as well as the one that opens the film and follows Belle as she makes her way through the village are great pieces.
There’s quite a bit of history behind the animation of Beauty and the Beast. At the time, most of Disney’s major animated films had a four year production schedule. But the final version of Beauty and the Beast had to be completed in two years, as half of the usual time was spent working on the earlier, non-musical version.
At first glance, Beauty and the Beast is a film that lacks the natural flair and style of earlier Disney films, as well as its Renaissance contemporaries. It doesn’t have grand fight scenes against villains like Scar of Maleficent, nor does it have the sweeping shots of films like Tarzan or Mulan. But the film is by no means bland or boring, far from it actually.
Beauty and the Beast is a perfect example of understated animation. At its core, the film is about true love, so there’s no need for it to attempt to consistently wow us with its visuals. Even the village and the castle, the two primary settings of the film, are much more realistic and downplayed. However, the film is also very aware of the times it needs to crank up the production.
The ballroom dance is obviously the highlight of the film, and for multiple reasons. For me, the most notable aspect of this scene is the color. Up until this point, the film was primarily using natural earth tones (green, browns etc), with the most distinctive color being the blue in Belle’s normal attire. But the ballroom scene is a complete shift in tone and ambience.
Belle is wearing her famous yellow dress, and the Beast is wearing a classic royal blue suit (heavily modified of course). Even the ballroom itself is bathed in a warm, orange glow. The colors, in conjunction with the music and the dance choreography, made for one of the most famous scenes in all of Disney history.
Another interesting historical fact about this scene, is the fact that it was shot using technology developed at a burgeoning Pixar. Before they became the animation juggernaut that could rival and even surpass Disney themselves, Ed Catmull and Pixar spent years developing the technology to create entire animated features using only a computer program. This program would come to be know as CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), and the ballroom was shot almost entirely using this technology.
Another piece or gorgeous animation that sticks out to me is the broom dusting scene that takes place towards the end of the Human Again sequence (which also takes place in the ballroom). It’s a really simple scene overall, but I just loved seeing the way it was shot. It’s shown entirely from an overhead perspective, and the choreography from the brooms as they clean the ballroom in time with the music is really a special sight.
I’ve yet to talk about the actual cast of Beauty and the Beast, but I’m definitely saving the best for last in this case. Characters like Belle’s dad are really endearing, and Gaston is a cool villain just by how smarmy and self-absorbed he is, but I’m going to focus on the principal cast, namely: Belle, the Beast and his servants.
The Beast and his servants’ transformations are the result of a spell that was cast on them by a traveling witch, and it can only be undone if the Beast can learn to truly love and be loved in return. So naturally, the castle inhabitants see Belle as a prime opportunity for romance.
The Beast is not the most entertaining character on his own, but the film almost always gives him other characters to play off of. Seeing him slowly soften up at the influence of Belle, as well as his usually comical talks with characters like Cogsworth and Lumiere make for really memorable scenes.
The standout characters as far as servants are concerned are easily Cogsworth, Lumiere and Mrs. Potts. Mrs. Potts is the calm motherly figure, and is a huge help to the Beast in his efforts to woo Belle. Cogsworth is the Beast’s right hand man, much like Sebastian to King Triton, and Lumiere is a charismatic and occasionally insightful ladies man. These three somehow manage to provide both levity and depth to the film’s narrative, and are wonderful additions to the cast.
Belle’s character is without a doubt the highlight of the film. The best way I know to describe her is, “the one you take home to mom.” She’s extremely well read and has perfect manners, but she also knows how to stand up for herself when she needs to.
Much like The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, Belle isn’t content with just sitting around and waiting for things to happen. The moment she realizes something bad has happened to her father, she hops on her horse and sets out to find him, regardless of the fact that the village has dozens of strapping men that would be more than willing to assist her.
One of the most interesting things about Belle is the dichotomy that she shares with the Beast. She is beautiful and dainty, while he is towering and ferocious. One of the more notable scenes in the film is the one directly following Belle’s rescue from the wolves. As she’s patching up the Beast’s wounds, the two have a very entertaining back and forth, with Belle being the victor. She’s much smaller than the Beast, but doesn’t let that stop her from defending herself.
Beauty and the Beast isn’t a classic for no reason. It’s a tale as old as time that has stood the test of time. It’s a truly endearing story that teaches us that true love goes deeper than the surface. In addition, Belle is a great role model for young girls. She’s just as strong and independent as her male counterparts, but also not as reckless and headstrong as someone like Ariel or Rapunzel (these two are still amazing characters, they’re just younger and not as experienced as Belle). I can’t imagine someone not at least acknowledging and appreciating what Beauty and the Beast has done for modern animation, and it will continue to be a classic story for years and years to come.