Looking back at Disney’s Beauty And The Beast

Simon puts forward the case for why Beauty And The Beast remains Disney’s finest animated feature to date…

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

Well, me for starters. And many before and after me.

For it’s probably best I declare my bias right at the start. Beauty And 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. Yet I first saw it when I took my five-year-old cousin on an outing to the cinema for the first time.

I was 16 at the time, 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.

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“Dismissed. Rejected. Publicly humiliated.”

Back to the film, then. It’s hard to conceive it any other way, but the original thinking with Disney’s Beauty And The Beast (a project first initiated under Walt Disney’s stewardship), arguably the last of the classic fairy tales for the studio to adapt, was that it wasn’t to be a musical. This was the film that followed the terrific The Little Mermaid, and one that’s gone on to be a Broadway musical in its own right. Yet, it was first conceived as having no songs in it whatsoever.

When you consider just how strong the music in the film is (and I’m going to come to the score individually, as it rarely gets the credit in isolation that it deserves), it’s surely impossible to imagine the film without it now. For this is Disney at the peak of its storytelling song powers.

Take a look at the breathtaking opening number, Belle, so wonderfully lampooned in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. It’s not only a masterclass in getting across a lot of information, it’s also a flat-out brilliant piece of musical work. And yet, it nearly wasn’t in there at all. Nor was the Broadway-inspired Be Our Guest. The quite brilliant The Mob Song. Nor the goosebump-inducing central Beauty And The Beast song and sequence itself.

But then Beauty And The Beast was, at one stage, very much a different animal. This take on the project originally got under way in London, and it took some time for Disney to tune the direction it wanted. One director went by the wayside, before first time helmers Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale landed the job, with basically six months to prove themselves. It was one of several pivotal moves on the project that, as producer Don Hahn has said, led to a “perfect storm” of the right talent at the right time.

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For prove themselves they did, and then Disney animation boss Jeffrey Katzenberg gave them the green light to carry on. And the course was set for a production that would result in the first animated feature to garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

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

I’m going to go a bit further than the Academy here, though. I’d argue that Beauty And The Beast is the best Disney animated film, full stop. I say that as someone who loves The Jungle Book, 101 Dalmatians, The Little Mermaid and many more. But never has music and narrative gelled so compellingly 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.

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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 And The Beast‘s masterstroke, however, was to make this the Beast’s story. 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. 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, 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”).

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I’ve always felt that both Something There and Beauty And 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 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 And 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 (and let’s not forget too that he co-wrote Little Shop Of Horrors with Alan Menken). 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.

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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.

“Very different from the rest of us.”

And 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 And 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.

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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. 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 20 years since Beauty And The Beast was first screened (although the ballroom sequence still looks superb), only Pixar manages to raise a torch to the sheer storytelling skill and character work on display here. And Pixar hasn’t even attempted to tackle a musical project on this kind of scale. Nor, interestingly, has it until lately even attempted to tackle a central villain. (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 And 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, 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.

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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…

Beauty And The Beast is out on Disney Diamond Edition Blu-ray right now.

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