I promised in my Arrietty review that this would be coming, sorry it’s taken me so long but reviewing a film I’ve acquired on DVD is my lowest priority as I like to review games, books and new cinema releases soon after playing, reading or watching them while they’re still fresh in my mind. It’s less of a pain to rewatch DVDs if I need a refresher so such reviews get shunted to the back of the queue more often than not. Now without further inexplicable apologies here’s why Beauty and the Beast is my absolute favourite Disney animation, a prestigious distinction.
With The Little Mermaid Disney rekindled its animation fires after two decades of only moderate success giving rise to an era that would come to be known as the Disney Renaissance. Though the previous twenty years of output had yielded some terrific films (Robin Hood, The Great Mouse Detective) alongside the less well-realised entries (The Black Cauldron, Oliver and Company), The Little Mermaid felt like a return to Old Disney with its fairytale setting, princess protagonist and infectious songs empowered with new spirit in its animation quality, colour grading and overall sense of wonder. Disney had rediscovered its best form and the future looked very promising.
The immediate follow-up to The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under didn’t really build on its predecessors foundations. It was perfectly good film, well-animated with a decent story and great vocal performances but underperformed at the box office and lacked that special something. With the following feature the company returned to fairytale and a story that Walt had tried and failed to bring to the big screen decades earlier.
Something quite extraordinary happened at the New York Film Festival in 1991. Disney screened an unfinished work-in-progress version of their new picture with unfinished scenes and some very skeletal animation. Remarkably the groundwork of what they had created was good enough to warrant a standing ovation from a thrilled audience. The company were clearly on to something and anticipation for the finished product quickly became the greatest Disney had seen in a long time. Upon the unveiling of the completed movie the reviews declared it as the most satisfying animated film in years.
So what makes it so special? Built on the strong foundations of a well-known story Disney’s interpretation of the plot got everything right. The concept of the Beast’s curse and his need to break it before the final petal of a wilting rose falls gave the narrative some tension for one thing but the critical point was the characters. The protagonist, Belle is as beautiful as her name suggests but it is her intelligence, thirst for adventure and love of reading that makes her stand out from other Disney leading ladies like Cinderella and Snow White. The Beast’s character comes out in his superb design that can seem threatening, pathetic and regal in turns. He’s an initially terrifying character who, by the end, has completely earned your pity through a combination of fine writing and Robby Benson’s nuanced vocal performance. The villain is, for once, not the ultimate embodiment of evil but merely an arrogant and hugely entertaining buffoon nonetheless capable of real cruelty. The animation department had the most fun with the supporting comic characters this time around giving exuberant life to a cast of servants transfigured into various household objects including candlesticks, teapots and clocks, an inspired, infinitely charming idea that came from an unexpected source.
Executive producer Howard Ashman, whose idea it was for the Beast’s curse to extend to his staff, returned with partner Alan Menken after their excellent work on The Little Mermaid and the two combined to write the best musical numbers the studio had ever attached to its musicals. The romantic number that shares the film’s title, sweetly warbled by Angela Lansbury is about as enchanting a love song as this famous romance could have hoped for but it isn’t just the headliner that hits the spot. The opening number is a bouncy and charming piece that introduces the Belle, her dissatisfaction with the provincial setting and its people’s fascination with Belle as well as Gaston and his infatuation with Belle. Both entertaining and informative it’s the Swiss Army Knife of Disney songs. Then there’s Gaston’s own hilarious piece which helps develop his character and raise more than a few chuckles. The show-stopping Be My Guest let the animators cut loose with their character creations and the vigorous mob song ramped up the tension towards the close. Also worth mentioning is the elegant Human Again which was cut from the theatrical release but can be seen in the extended DVD edition. Arguably the most important song however is the most unassuming. Something There has the tough job of convincing us of the central romance after we’ve spent half the film watching the Beast snarling and Belle cowering from him, a task it meets with real aplomb. Without it the story could have fallen down. Menken’s contribution and even more so Ashman’s cannot be overestimated. Beauty and the Beast wouldn’t be half the film it is without their input, a poignant fact given that Ashman was dying of AIDS during its making and tried to direct vocal performances of his songs whilst himself unable to speak. He passed away months before the picture saw release.
As you would expect it’s a gorgeous looking film with wonderfully flowing animations. The design of the settings, especially the Beast’s gargantuan gothic castle really drive home the sense of wonder that runs through the whole film right from the opening scene-setting prologue. The writers, animators and voice actors found the perfect balance of comedy, expression and tension resulting in a film that deserves all of the plaudits heaped on it. This was the high point of the not just the Disney Renaissance but the studio’s entire back catalogue that retains its irresistible charm twenty years on.
The strength of the characters, musical numbers and the plot combine to weave a film at once hilarious and beautifully animated while packing some real emotional heft. It may not be Disney’s best adventure, that title goes to its next film, Aladdin, but it is the mouse house’s best romance, its best musical and its best film.