Sunday, October 10, 2010

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

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.]


  1. I've never really liked BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at all. I find it sort of lackluster compared to Cocteau's dreamy piece, but that's not a big deal given that the two films are apples and oranges. As a father of two young kids I see the need to give children their own Disney-fied version of the story. But you bring up some other reasons why I dislike it in your piece.

    The music is a little too on-the-nose Broadway for me. I prefer how they married Phil Collins music to TARZAN and the African-inflected music of LION KING. And classic pre-MERMAID Disney music is timeless, pieces like "When You Wish Upon a Star," and "Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho."

    BEAUTY AND THE BEAST'S worst flaw, however, is the rushed animation you mention. I find it only a half-step above Saturday-morning caliber animation. It's especially jarring when placed next to the innovative computer animation used in the film. That is why it's so surprising this was the next entry released on Blu-ray where its visual flaws will appear so glaringly. It must be its popularity which prompted the release.

    For what it's worth, my all-time favorite Disney classic is SLEEPING BEAUTY, and I don't think it is a coincidence it was released before any of the others on Blu-ray. It's gorgeous 'scope visuals simply make it the most cinematic of their films. I posted some beautiful screen caps back at my site a few months ago to demonstrate.

  2. Sorry, here's the link to those SLEEPING BEAUTY screen caps if you're interested.

  3. Oh, I love Sleeping Beauty, Tony, and the Blu-Ray is fantastic (especially because it restores the aspect ratio), but I think that, of the Disney films I would call masterpieces, it has the thinnest story.

    I just think that Beauty and the Beast has a great story and good pacing. The songs may be on-the-nose, but there's also a relevance to them that absence in Tarzan and most of The Lion King. Most Disney songs are written to a situation to convey a mood, and these songs do that AND advance the story. They're no less subtle than anything in Tarzan and The Lion King, but they do so much more.

    As for the animation, I don't think it's that bad. The Blu-Ray looks spectacular and I think they really smoothed some things, but even without the restoration it has some great character animation when they're not rushing.

  4. "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."

    Indeed, indeed, indeed.

    It's a full-flung Broadway score, and it inspired the hit musical that enjoyed quite an impressive run in NYC. I prefer this to SLEEPING BEAUTY on balance, though I love that films as well. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and BY MY GUEST are terrific songs, but BELLE reaches operatic proportions at this juncture:

    "Oh, isn't this amazing?
    It's my fav'rite part because you'll see
    Here's where she meets Prince Charming
    But she won't discover that it's him 'til chapter three"

    Ashman (God rest his soul) was an extraordinarily gifted man, and with Menken, he achieved a onece-in-a-lifetime chemistry. Menke, of course, wrote the ravishing music that was vital to the equation, but Ashman's lyrical contribution was still formidable.

    I love this film to death, and yes the ble-ray is exceedingly beautiful.

    This may be the best review I have ever read of this film, which may well be the best of it's year, and one of the great Disney features by any barometer of measurement. Your frantically prolific, versatile, high-quality work at this site continues to amaze me Jake.

  5. That's very kind, Sam, but you really must read Tim Brayton's review. His is a great deal more researched and it made every point that struck me with greater depth and clarity.

  6. I've recently become a bit of an "expert" on this film, having an almost two-year old daughter and needing something to keep her calm while we fed her meals after a surgery. This was her movie of choice and in watching it repeatedly, it reaffirmed what a perfect marriage of Broadway and animation it really is. I love the songs as much as in THE LITTLE MERMAID (and really, for me, only this and MERMAID are ones I ever want to rewatch from the "Renaissance" period) and you rightly point out what is so great and efficient about the main theme.

    As for what Tony says, about the rushed animation -- I'll have to check out the Blu-Ray captures (not sure I'll double-dip on this one) but in watching it repeatedly it becomes more and more obvious and I can see how that may be a knock against it. Still, the design of the three leads is so fantastic and beautiful that I'm more than willing to forgive them that.

  7. This is a beautifully written analysis, Jake. I love this - He's the 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). Well said. But Beauty and the Beast despite its beautiful songs is my least favorite Disney animated film since the Disney resurgence began with The Little Mermaid. I find it romantic, but I find it slow. I find the animation much less dazzling than my favorites: The Lion King, Tarzan, and Pocahantas.

    But, my biggest gripe with this movie is the presentation of the character of Lefou, LeFou - "Gaston's bumbling and often mistreated sidekick," as Wikipedia puts it - a character you don't mention here.

    Disney has portrayed other village idiots; shortly after the birth of my daughter with Down syndrome, I happened to be watching Snow White and I was stunned by the floppy ears on Dopey that are one of the characteristics of Down syndrome.

    Lefou continues the trend. Note the small ears, the small head, the stunted growth, the pudgy build: all traits of Down syndrome. See this.

    But Dopey is just dopey. He's not kicked around and abused by a brute like Gaston. He doesn't debase himself as LeFou does in the song praising Gaston. Here, I thought, Disney had gone too far. And I'm not that sensitive about people casually using the term "re-tard" with their friends. But here this distasteful portrayal mars the beauty of the rest of the film.

    Oh, for innocence. My daughter LOVES Beauty and the Beast, and she just bought the new deluxe edition. I'm so glad she loves the romance and the songs (she loves the title song and knows it word for word). I'm so glad she can just see the beautiful elements in this film and doesn't see Lefou in the same way I do.

    Conversely - and I must add that its artwork is exquisite - The Hunchback of Notre Dame is ABOUT the painful loneliness and alienation that comes with being genetically different.

  8. Hokahey my friend--how I wish I could comment at your site, but alas the restrictions persist there (not to mention comment moderation) I was most impressed by your beautifully written and largely positive assessment of NEVER LET ME GO, and wanted to voice my agreement. I will be sure to link it to my Diary round-up tonight.

    I beg Jake's indulgence for this intrusion, as I can't find a way to reach Hokahey.

    I found Tim Brayton's review and as you might surmise Jake, I was blown away!

  9. Sam - Thank you so much for your comment and your appreciation of my post on Never Let Me Go. I don't know what the problem is with your comments. No one else has reported problems posting comments on my site. I assume you have a google account? Anyway, I appreciate the comments you leave on other blogs.

  10. Thank you so much for this. As a kid Beauty and the Beast was (and remains) my favorite Disney film, as I identified strongly with the independent bookworm of Belle and was inspired by the magical imagery.

    Today I saw the documentary "Waking Sleeping Beauty", which goes behind the scenes of Disney's "renaissance" and it was so cool to learn about the background of this film especially- much of which you've relayed here. Needless to say I've been in the mood to revisit several Disney films since seeing the doc, and this review only strengthens that urge!

  11. Ditto Tony's remarks on SLEEPING BEAUTY: it's always been my favorite for various reasons - when I was a kid it was the one Disney movie where the Prince was active - my little brain glowed when he faced the dragon.

    I admit I was cool to my initial viewing of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST on its theatrical release, but your write-up really got me yearning to see it again.

  12. This is one of my favorite Disney movie. Thank you for this informative post. It reminds me of my childhood. Movies contribute a lot when you feel like you want to reminisce moments from your past. Good thing we can have them in just one click over the internet and watch them again.