Disney’s Beauty and the Beast came out 30 years ago this month and it’s worth revisiting because it was a pretty astounding film for its time for multiple reasons. The Little Mermaid (1989) is the film that most cinephiles credit for revitalizing the Disney fairy tale musical that began with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and hadn’t really been seen since Sleeping Beauty in 1959, but Beauty and the Beast was a step above Mermaid in its ambition, scope, writing and animation and is widely considered by many to be the best animated film ever made. I do not think that is a hyperbolic statement. I think it’s a nearly perfect movie.
A quick rundown of the story: the tale begins (told in stained glass flashback) when a spoiled and superficial prince is cursed to remain a hideous beast forever unless he is able to find true love by the time the last petal falls from an enchanted rose. He gives up hope thinking no one can ever love a beast, until a beautiful young woman named Belle finds her way into his castle.
I can list many of the reasons why I love this movie so much but the main reason is the evolution of the romance between Belle and the Beast which is the emotional core of the story. Belle’s reaction to the Beast develops throughout the film from fear to hatred to curiosity to compassion to love in a believable way. Meanwhile the Beast has his own complexities, as he initially intends to make Belle fall in love with him to break the spell that turned him into a monster, but in the process ends up falling in love with her. As a result, he can no longer find it in his heart to keep her captive in his castle and at the expense of his own happiness, he painfully decides to set her free. Every aspect of the production from the animation to the acting to the music works together to pull you into the drama so well that it’s easy to forget that these are fictional characters. On top of that, the story works well not only as a drama but as an enchanting family-friendly fantasy, a funny comedy and a rousing musical with some of the most loveable characters in any Disney movie ever made.
Ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out and became a hit, Walt Disney had wanted to make an animated adaptation of the 18th century French fairy tale about a woman who falls in love with a beast, but the story was too challenging for Disney’s team of artists to tackle properly and it was eventually shelved, until 1987 when Disney decided to revive the project again with Who Framed Roger Rabbit associate producer Don Hahn chosen to produce and Who Framed Roger Rabbit animation director Richard Williams chosen to direct. However, Williams was more interested in finishing his passion project The Thief and the Cobbler, so he recommended English animation director Richard Purdum in his place.
The screenplay for the movie was written by playwright and television veteran Linda Woolverton who previously had unfulfilling jobs writing for animated series like My Little Pony and Star Wars: Ewoks as well as Disney’s Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers before Disney CEO Michael Eisner hired her.
The stories for animated films were usually created solely in the storyboard process so hiring a screenwriter was unorthodox, but Eisner insisted on this, and thankfully Woolverton collaborated well with Disney’s story team, which for Beauty and the Beast consisted of such luminaries as future Lion King director Roger Allers (who supervised the story) as well as talented people like Burny Mattinson, Brenda Chapman, Chris Sanders, Kelly Asbury and Joe Ranft.
Unfortunately Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg was not impressed with Richard Purdum’s dry take on the story so the project was scrapped and they started over from scratch, this time without Purdum (who resigned). Katzenberg wanted Beauty and the Beast to be more like the studio’s recent hit The Little Mermaid so he asked Mermaid’s songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to write songs for Beast as well. Ashman was reluctant to take on more work since he already agreed to work on the songs for Disney’s Aladdin (and unknown by many, he was diagnosed with AIDS by then) but he agreed to assist the team.
The songs that Ashman (lyrics) and Menken (music) contributed to the film were worth the price of admission alone. The introductory musical number “Belle” sets the light-hearted mood, establishes plot and entertains in traditional Broadway fashion all at the same time, “Be Our Guest” is a phenomenal showstopper like no other, “Gaston” is a fun dose of drunken revelry that may bring to mind numbers like “Master of the House” from Les Misérables, and the title song “Beauty and the Beast” sung by Angela Lansbury is a ballad that is as beautiful as anything Disney ever created.
As for the director who would replace Purdum, that would end up being two men. After The Little Mermaid directors John Musker and Ron Clements turned down the opportunity, Katzenberg decided to hire Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale to direct the film. Wise and Trousdale were animators and writers who had previously worked on Oliver & Company, plus together they directed the animated sequence in the Epcot attraction Cranium Command. It turned out the duo (who had never directed a feature film before) would be perfect for the job.
The excellent voice cast consisted of Paige O’Hara who was most famous on Broadway for her role as Ellie May in the 1983 revival of Showboat and who was chosen to voice Belle for her unique vocal skills. Meanwhile 1970s teen idol and future television director Robby Benson voiced the Beast and opera singer Richard White (another Showboat alum) was chosen to voice Gaston the boastful hunter who seeks Belle’s hand in marriage.
Other notable cast members include film and television actor Jerry Orbach (Dirty Dancing, Law & Order) as Lumiére the candelabra, David Ogden Stiers (M*A*S*H) as Cogsworth the pompous clock, Angela Lansbury (Murder, She Wrote) as Mrs. Potts, Jo Anne Worley (Laugh-In) as the wardrobe and master voice actor Tony Jay (TaleSpin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) as Monsieur D’arque.
The animation team who brought the characters to life was also an amazing group which included talents like James Baxter (supervising animator of Belle who previously animated Roger Rabbit, Jessica Rabbit and the Weasels in Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Glen Keane (supervising animator of the Beast who previously supervised Ariel in The Little Mermaid), Andreas Deja (supervising animator of Gaston who supervised the characters Roger Rabbit and King Triton), Nik Ranieri (supervising animator of Lumiére) Will Finn (supervising animator of Cogsworth), David Pruiksma (supervising animator of Mrs. Potts and Chip), Ruben Aquino (supervising animator of Maurice), Chris Wahl (Lefou), Russ Edmonds (Phillipe), Tony Anselmo (Wardrobe) plus Mark Henn, Ken Duncan, Tony DeRosa, Aaron Blaise, Pres Romanilos, Tom Sito, Alex Kuperschmidt, Randy Cartwright, Ellen Woodbury, Tom Bancroft and Tony Bancroft.
In addition to the incredible traditional animators, one of the most memorable scenes in the movie was created with CGI. The scene where Belle and Beast are dancing in the ballroom during Lansbury’s “Beauty and the Beast” number is a technically impressive feat. The CAPS (Computer Animation Production System) digital ink and paint system developed by Pixar, which was used extensively for the first time on The Rescuers Down Under (1990), allowed Disney’s artists to combine hand-drawn animation with computer animated backgrounds more easily, allowing for the camera to dolly around Belle and Beast in simulated three-dimensional space as they waltzed across the ballroom. Because of how well this scene went, Disney decided to invest further in computer animation, which may have been what eventually led to Disney’s collaboration with Pixar on Toy Story (1995).
Released in 1991, Beauty and the Beast received even more acclaim than The Little Mermaid. It was Disney’s most financially successful animated film at the box office and the first animated film in history to gross $100 million in North America. It also received worldwide acclaim from critics and audiences alike, some publications even believing it to be the best animated film ever made. I’ll leave that assessment up to others. But it is definitely a brilliant piece of art. It received three Oscar nominations for Best Original Song (“Belle,” “Be Our Guest,” and “Beauty and the Beast”) being the first film in history to contain three Oscar-nominated songs. Not surprisingly it won the Oscar for Best Original Song (“Beauty and the Beast”) and Best Score, but more surprisingly it was nominated for Best Picture, the first animated film in history to receive the honor. It was also the first animated film to win the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy, with only The Lion King (1994) and Toy Story 2 (1999) winning that award afterwards.
The massive popularity of this Broadway-inspired film led to a Broadway adaptation (the first Disney film to be adapted for Broadway), a live-action remake in 2017, a syndicated kids’ series Sing Me a Story with Belle that aired from 1995 to 1997, the direct-to-video Walt Disney Television Animation sequels Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas (1997) and Belle’s Magical World (1998) and a Disney on Ice show in Florida. And it has achieved continued success in theatrical re-releases and home video.
Unfortunately Howard Ashman did not live to see the final film, but the film was dedicated to him with this post-credits message:
“To our friend, Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul. We will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman: 1950-1991”
If anyone deserved a dedication like this, it was Ashman. Without his guidance during the production of The Little Mermaid, that movie would not be the success that it was, and as a result, Beauty and the Beast may have never even existed. He was more than just a lyricist. He was instrumental to the Disney Renaissance and a key player in the animation medium’s transformation in the late eighties and early nineties to a medium that was able to meet its full potential and gain the respect it deserves.