Beauty and the Beast: The film that changed everything! This was the animation feature that proved to the naysayers that animated films were just as compelling as live-action movies, and it said that all the way to a Best Picture nomination (a feat that wouldn’t be repeated until 2009 with Disney/PIXAR’s Up). While the film has flaws inherent in its story – the common joke is that Belle is a victim of Stockholm Syndrome – the animation is wondrous, the songs are timeless, and the characters are brimming with characterization; this is the movie whose flaws I ignore, and that’s okay.
Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara) lives in a small French town and feels like an outcast. When her father is held hostage by a cursed man trapped in the body of a beast, Belle goes to save her father and ends up falling in love.
As usual, I’ll reiterate the problems with the story. I consider myself an Ariel, but I identified a lot with Belle as a child. The common refrain in her town is that she’s weird because she reads (don’t ask me how they found French town with a book store, and yet it’s bizarre to read). I’m not sure what’s so weird about young women reading, but I found myself being told by my “friends” that my adoration of the library was weird and off-putting; I eventually had the good sense to find a better class of people to fraternize with. By that same token, the movie wants to condemn misogyny while endorsing it. Gaston (voiced by Richard White) is a macho man who wants Belle because he can’t have her, but the Beast (voiced by Robby Benson) is verbally abusive to her when she’s locked in the Castle. I watched a documentary, entitled Mickey Mouse Monopoly, about the issues that are thrown at children in Disney movies and Beauty and the Beast was one where they actually asked schoolchildren what Belle should do in order to subdue the Beast; they’re responses, particularly from the little girls, was the Belle needed to remain sweet, and her inherent goodness would rub off on him. Yes, this movie teaches young girls that all men need to change is the love of a good woman! It’s really never known if Belle falls for the Beast because she’s a prisoner or not; the only way it’s “proven” is when she returns to him after he’s freed her, and even then it’s because she knows an angry mob is coming to kill him.
With that being said, there’s nothing but sheer majesty on the screen. This is the top of the food chain when it comes to Disney movies, and I’d go so far as to say that Disney never topped this. The opening village scene is rendered beautifully, although it makes me yearn for Fantasyland in Disneyland, but the ballroom sequence blows everything else away! Utilizing the CAPS system to full effect, the sweeping grandiosity of the sequence is punctuated beautifully by the lyrical theme song, sung by Angela Lansbury. There’s so much emotion conveyed strictly in the use of location, and while they recycled the dance sequence from Sleeping Beauty and transplanted it here, from the minute Belle sweeps into the ballroom the mood of romance is in place; it’s the same with the final mob sequence which is filled with smoke and fire, rising as the anger of the mob increases. I also have to give some kudos to the opening fairytale introduction. We haven’t seen a storybook since Sleeping Beauty; there’s no storybook opened, but we do get a stained glass window and a “once upon a time” introduction.
The voice cast here is the perfect combination of stars and voice actors. Jerry Orbach of Law and Order fame, and 80s teen idol Robby Benson were the de facto “stars” of the film and in Orbach’s case he sounds completely unrecognizable. I remember hearing that Benson’s voice was altered for the Beast, but I’m not sure. Paige O’Hara, as Belle, is just as good as Jodie Benson from The Little Mermaid and O’Hara is one of my Disney idols. O’Hara and White, as the voice of Gaston, are probably my favorite non-famous voice cast and they definitely define the characters through their voice work. I’ll say this a few more times, particularly when Disney starts to fill their cast with A-list stars, but I miss the days of voice actors. You also have the final team-up between Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Ashman would die during the production of the movie, but did get to see rough sketches of scenes set to his music. If you haven’t seen the documentary, Waking Sleeping Beauty, you need to see it; not only is it a fantastic and loving tribute to the studio, but there’s a touching segment about Ashman. He is the unsung hero of the Disney Renaissance, and his songs for this film are all lyrical, gorgeous, and instantly memorable.
Overall, Beauty and the Beast is a stellar romance that’s perfect for showcasing Disney’s ability to appeal to children and adults. The songs are at their peak, the animation is exemplary, and the vocal cast never upstages any of it. There’s quality here, and I think Disney never hit these heights again.
NEXT WEEK: Travel to Agrabah with me as I look at the controversial Aladdin!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.