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BY Steven D. Greydanus
At the intersection of great animated films, great filmed stage musicals, and great fairy-tale romances, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast stands alone. Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, it is simply the quintessential Disney masterpiece, the perfection of everything that Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty and The Little Mermaid aspired to.
True, Disney’s great pre-war fairy tales, Snow White and Pinocchio, are no less perfect—but they belong, with Fantasia and Bambi, to a world of their own, and each of those early, experimental films stands alone, unique and untouchable. (Dumbo is a ringer, a slight effort that almost feels more like the “package films” that filled out the rest of the 1940s, from Saludos Amigos to The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, than a bona fide feature.)
By the time Disney released Cinderella in 1950, the experimental phase was over, and formula set in. The Disney films from the 1950s onward, good and bad alike, all feel more like one another than any of them do like Snow White or Pinocchio (although Sleeping Beauty comes close).
Even The Little Mermaid, which snapped the post-Walt doldrums of the 1970s and 1980s and ushered in the Disney renaissance of the 1990s, represents a fresh reinvention of the Disney formula rather than a radical departure from it. Two years later, Beauty and the Beast came as less of a surprise—but it perfected what The Little Mermaid had done while avoiding its predecessor’s weaknesses.
Even more than The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast isn’t just a musical, but a Broadway stage-musical film of the best kind, drawing inspiration and creative energy from the disparate traditions of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Busby Berkeley, going beyond the stage as only film—and animation—can. Songwriters Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are as responsible as anyone for the Disney renaissance. The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” were a revelation in 1989, but on repeated viewings the set pieces in Beauty hold up even better.
The songs here don’t just illustrate the action, but develop and propel the story. The opening sequence, the smartly written and choreographed operetta-style “Belle,” establishes the heroine, the villain and their milieu. (Little throwaway moments—a boy alternately chasing and being chased by a pig; a vendor whose attentiveness to a buxom patroness earns him a knock on the head from his no-nonsense wife—enrich the scene.)
Belle (a winningly expressive Paige O’Hara) quickly emerges as the most sympathetic and endearing Disney heroine of the 20th century. Unlike the adolescent Ariel, Belle regards her “provincial” world with affection and appreciation even as she yearns for something more. She’s brainy and bookish, romantic but also imaginative, and not hung up on the thought that someday her prince will come. We also see that she’s devoted to her father, who may be a dotty, ineffectual comic figure like the fathers of Jasmine and Jane (Tarzan and Aladdin), but who at least has a gift that Belle believes in and respects.
Gaston (hilarious Richard White), whose raucous barroom anthem “Gaston” hilariously sends up his caricatured hypermasculinity, is likewise unique in the annals of Disney villainy. At first he seems merely the ultimate dumb jock, preening and vain, admired by the same mob that finds Belle tragically odd. Yet though a buffoon he’s a cunning one, with a mind that is limited but quick.
Gaston’s darker side—first glimpsed when he arrives unannounced at Belle’s house with a wedding party in tow, planning to pressure Belle to marry him on the spot—is obliquely developed further in his song: “No one plots like Gaston / Takes cheap shots like Gaston / Plans to persecute harmless crackpots like Gaston!” (His song is in the tradition of Oklahoma!’s “Pore Jud Is Daid,” not to mention “Captain Hook’s Waltz” from Peter Pan: “Who’s unlaughable? (You!) / Who’s unliftable? (You!) / Whose existence is quite unforgivable? (You!) / Who would stoop to the cheapest and lowest of tricks in the book? / Blame me, slay me, Captain Hook!”)
Why some enchantress didn’t come along and turn Gaston into a walking nightmare is one of life’s mysteries. At any rate, both the Prince (at the beginning) and Gaston (especially at the end) are monstrous, but the Prince has been visited by a sort of grace, and confronted with his monstrous condition made manifest. The Beast’s dilemma is a cruel one: The spell can only be broken if he loves another and to earn her love. He thus has a vested interest in trying to win Belle’s love—but as long as he’s only doing it in the hope of breaking the spell, it isn’t really love.
Unique as Belle and Gaston are, it’s the Beast (Robby Benson, digitally tweaked but with lots of character) above all that really raises the bar over the studio’s previous work. No previous Disney film depicted so profound a character change: Crucially, the Beast is really scary and menacing, with a violent temper and a selfish, cruel disposition, in the first part of the film, and only slowly develops the capacity for restraint, courtesy and self-sacrifice. The scene in which he heroically fights off the wolf pack, defending Belle at cost to himself, is a key turning point, but the real test comes when the Beast is faced with the choice of letting Belle go to her father, potentially giving up his hopes for her sake.
The difficulty with which Belle and the Beast hesitantly slowly open up to one another, ideally realized in the charming “Something There” as well as the Oscar-winning title number, does credit both to the emotional depths of the fairy tale and the strange mystery and magic of courtship. Both are strong-willed and wary, and if the Beast must learn to conquer his monstrous nature, Belle must learn to look beyond appearances and trust someone who has far more power than she does. They are in different ways equals and unequals, making for a much more romantic and intriguing pairing than, say, Pocahontas, which is way too P.C. to make John Smith a real match for the heroine.
Then there are the enchanted household accoutrements, from the fiery Gallic candlestick Lumière (Jerry Orbach) and the fussy British clock Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers) to the warmly maternal Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury)—hands down the best supporting cast of anthropomorphic sidekicks in Disney history, perfectly integrated into the story without overshadowing the principals. Indebted to Jean Cocteau’s surreal 1946 version of the tale, with its eerie arrays of living arms emerging from the walls and doors that open themselves, the Beast’s enchanted castle takes full advantage of the advantages of animation, above all in the spectacular show-stopper “Be Our Guest.”
The trickiest part of any fairy tale is the climax. A good fairy tale has only one possible ending, one that perfectly resolves all of the story’s tensions, not always in the most cinematic way possible. (Further complicating matters, not all fairy tales supply a Disney-ready happy ending. The flubbed finale of The Little Mermaid, with the stupid death of the Sea Witch, is a good example of what happens when you try to tack a happy ending on a story that doesn’t want one.) Beauty and the Beast is note-perfect to the end. The siege on the castle, Gaston’s showdown with the Beast, Belle’s arrival at the last minute, the wounded Beast, Belle’s tears—it all works, time after time.
Before we had kids, Suz worked as a nurse at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she was forcibly exposed to the same children’s movies over and over and over. The acid test of excellence is how well a presentation holds up to repeated exposure. With sufficient scrutiny, even small flaws in decent entertainment become more and more glaring, while the luster of great entertainment shines brighter and brighter. Beauty and the Beast was one of the few that, far from palling, grew in her estimation. Nearly twenty years later, Beauty and the Beast is still unsurpassed in its ability to reward continued rewatching.
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