After spending nearly three decades in a creative wilderness, Walt Disney Pictures rebounded in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, ushering in the "Disney Renaissance," a period commonly accepted to have lasted through the release of Tarzan in 1999 (even a cynic would at least have to go as far as 1994's The Lion King). Yet nothing produced during the 10-year creative revival at the studio could match the power, beautiful simplicity and downright entertainment value of the two films that signaled Disney's return to prominence.
Beauty and the Beast could easily be seen as unnecessary, what with Jean Cocteau's magical adaptation floating around the ether for some 50 years before the creative teams in Glendale, Cali. and Orlando decided to finally get the twice-abandoned adaptation of the fairy tale. Yet it marks the pinnacle of Disney's style of animated filmmaking -- Broadway one frame at a time -- creating atmospheres not only romantic and lilting but intimidating and provocative. What's more, it's damn near the most subversive thing the animation studio ever put out.
Just consider the three main characters. Belle arrives in southeastern France as the daughter of an inventor, and the village folk immediately ostracize them. It would be easy, oh so easy, to point out the reductive, facile feminism of Belle, whose greatest single attribute for the first 10 minutes or so is the fact that she reads, the sort of character trait that is as much a cheap male fantasy as any of the passive homemakers in previous Disney princess movies. Yet Belle isn't a cardboard feminist, even if her only devotion is to her father; her loyalty comes off more a result of a mutually loving and supportive bond and a reaction to her discomfort with others than a sense of duty. As she walks through the village at the start of the film, everyone fixates on her bookish nature, ignoring her attractiveness.
Ironically, the only person who does notice how beautiful she is is the most boorish and pigheaded. Gaston, a muscly, self-absorbed man who makes me want to call up my old French teacher and ask, "Comment dit-on 'juicehead?'" is the most lusted-after person in the village. He's sort of alpha male that women want to be with and men want to be (to the point that they too seem to want to be with him). Where the other villagers are so rural that they don't see the point of reading, Gaston is so utterly stupid that he can't even process anything beyond physical attractiveness.
Ironically, he's one of the most brilliant characters in Disney history, because the animators and writers use him to subvert the image of the classical Disney prince. In any other movie, Gaston would be Prince Charming, wealthy, handsome and attached to the heroine, capable of improving her station beyond her wildest dreams. Here, however, he's a misogynistic tyrant who decides to marry Belle simply because she's the prettiest around and refuses to hear her opinion in the matter. Clearly, he's never not gotten his way, and Belle's polite but firm rejection is a threat to his masculinity that drives him to a murderous rage. What initial attractiveness the man might have is almost immediately dispelled by his nature, and there can be no mistaking his role as the film's villain.
Compared with the Beast, Gaston's rotted personality could set up an "inner beauty" fable on the level of Shallow Hal's fatuous nonsense. But that ignores the Beast's initial nature: he's as vile as Gaston, and his curse stems from his egotistical demeanor. There is no preferable choice for Belle's affections at the start, because she does not exist simply to give them away. She is not looking for love at all, only traveling to the Beast's castle because the monster holds her father prisoner. She asks to take her dad's place because she's young enough to spend time in a dusty, cold castle.
Fundamentally, that's the beauty of Beauty and the Beast. Rather than tell a story about separated soulmates (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, many, many more), the writers create a fairy tale that uses the fantastical elements of a castle populated by anthropomorphized objects and ruled by a demon lion/dog to tell a realistic love story. To be sure, the conceit of two antagonistic forces learning to love each other is a dead horse of a different color, but the characters don't fully realize their feelings until the last 10 minutes. Instead, Beauty and the Beast first plays as Pygmalion in reverse, a beautiful, refined woman breaking through the crude manners of a beastly male to bring out his gentler side. Only when the Beast finally ceases thinking of himself does he understand the feelings that nag at him for an hour.
From an animation standpoint, Beauty and the Beast does not quite measure up to its storytelling standard. Now, it does not want for visual imagination: rich colors and enticingly rendered characters bump against the emerging Computer Animation Production System used to handle backgrounds. CAPS allows animators to pull of shots that simply could not be done by hand, from rapidly canting angles of simulated motion to the majesty of the film's centerpiece, the ballroom dance set to the titular song.
The problem arises from time and budget constraints. Two months before the film premiered, the animators sent a workprint version to the New York Film Festival. However, that version had only 70% of the final footage, and one can see the two months' worth of cramming at times. Occasionally, secondary characters lack expressive animation, and backgrounds lose their detail in spots. When the CAPS animation sometimes jars with the 2D rendering, I can't help but wonder whether technological limitations or time issues are to blame.
What cannot be criticized, however, is the drawing of the main characters. Mark Henn, who would go on to make most of the best-drawn female characters in Disney history (he'd already co-drawn Ariel), makes Belle into someone who clearly grew up reading instead of doing chores, but she looks more ready for something bad to happen than Cinderella. And when he puts her in that yellow dress, he crafts the most stunning Disney princess since Aurora. Andreas Deja gives Gaston such a predatory stalk and evil leer that the animator clearly intends older viewers to identify a rapist mentality driving the character. It's not so explicit that children will either fail to understand Gaston's evil and thus lose interest or be scarred, but for once the creepy nature of a strapping man in a Disney film is intentional.
But nothing compares to Glen Keane's animation of the Beast. His finest creation, the Beast is first introduced in silhouette, taking on the likeness of the great demon Chernabog from Fantasia. In light, he resembles a hybrid of a lion and a wolf with demonic horns, capable of conveying terrifying, unstoppable animal force when on all fours and a comical yet believable humanity when he straightens his back. Almost as if to prove how great Keane is, the film positions the two ways of animating the Beast one almost immediately after the other (from Beast fighting off wolves to him making a buffoon out of himself learning etiquette) to demonstrate how fluidly Keane can transition between the two depictions.
The single greatest aspect of the entire film, however, more than the storytelling, more than the lead animation, is the songwriting. Howard Ashman revived Disney's tradition for great, memorable songwriting with The Little Mermaid, and his work is likely as big a reason that film succeeded and revived the studio's creative legacy as anything in the movie. Here, he ups the ante: with Alan Menken, Ashman crafts perhaps the greatest songbook to accompany a Disney film, and one of the best of any film of any kind. There are individual songs to match the hits here, from "When You Wish Upon a Star" to "Once Upon a Dream," but there isn't a single song that feels like a filler. Hell, I'm struggling to think of another Disney film that uses its songs so brilliantly not simply to adds some spice to the proceedings to but advance both narrative and character. Ashman's deliciously simple titles seem like afterthoughts but simply convey the essence of each song. "Belle" opens the film in pure opulence, creating a wave of cascading voices, some of which join into harmonies, others directly oppose one another. The effect perfectly establishes the character, whose lines are always sung the most softly and without anyone else joining in. "Gaston," meanwhile, inverts this, making the lines of all the other villagers hang off his every rhyme. "Be Our Guest" makes the opening seem tame in comparison, yet its explosion of extravagance is every bit as justifiable as "Belle": like that song, "Be Our Guest" establishes character in the midst of effervescent songwriting. The residents of the castle are all servants turned into the object they controlled, and they're thrilled to finally have a guest to wait upon once more. They are the ultimate depictions of existentialism, having literally become their jobs, so the opportunity to perform their duties simultaneously makes them feel alive once more.
As for the aforementioned title track, well, only "When You Wish Upon a Star" could possibly challenge it in my book, and I might still side with this. Sung in Angela Lansberry's beautifully soaring voice, "Beauty and the Beast" encapsulates the entire film's thoughtfulness on love, something that doesn't exist in fairy tales but in life; it's just harder to see out here. By my count, the song contains only 29 lines (including repeated ones), and all of them make an impact. "Barely even friends/Then somebody bends/Unexpectedly" starts the first stanza in earnest, and the subtlety of it has the ironic effect of being overpowering. Instead of making grandiose proclamations of destined love, Ashman goes for the truth, which is so much more romantic and rewarding: we don't know we're in love until we spend time with someone and unforced adjustments make the pieces fall into place.
Ashman died from complications from AIDS just before the film premiered, and he is beautifully (and rightly) eulogized in the credits as the man "who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul," and while Disney would make a number of fantastic films through the end of the century, Ashman's death left a hole that even the best of them couldn't fill.
Beauty and the Beast opens on a familiar sight in Disney fairy tale fiction: still images of folkloric artwork as a narrator introduces the tale. Yet compared to the storybooks of old, the animators treat us to depictions of the background on stained glass, suggesting either that this really happened or, like religious stories, it is such an inspirational tale that it deserves to be remembered even if you don't believe it. I still must choose Pinocchio for the agelessness of its dynamic vision, but Beauty and the Beast marks the pinnacle of Disney's work with fairy tales, and it's a shame Walt Disney couldn't have lived to see the purest example of what he wanted from his studio.
[Beauty and the Beast is now available on a stunning Blu-Ray from Disney. Picture and audio quality put to shame even other Disney restorations such as their sterling work on Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty. I cannot urge purchasing it enough.]