Beauty and the Beast is my all-time favourite Disney film.
Belle is the first Disney princess (though, thankfully, not the last) to have a brain and value reading over chasing down a man. She pursues her dreams, challenges authority, stands up for herself and is whip-smart while doing it. The Beast, meanwhile, is the first deeply flawed hero the studio celebrates. He must overcome his internal pain to grow as a person and deserve to be loved, not simply handed love for the simple merit of being a prince.
Combining the two of them, the studio does a startlingly good job of telling young people that they must value themselves as people first and learn to love honestly in order to be loved truly in return. It condemns those who value themselves only through superficial standards like beauty and desirability. When Gaston says Belle is “the most beautiful girl in town. That makes her the best! And don’t I deserve the best?” the statement is comical, silly but almost dangerous. Better lessons are rare in modern film.
Beauty and the Beast focuses on the internal elements of characters in a way that is new to the studio, and it allows for some of the most heart-felt and memorable characters ever to grace the silver screen. It’s no surprise that it was the first animated film ever to have been nominated for the Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year, a feat not duplicated until Up in 2010.
Beauty and the Beast had a troubled beginning, though.
Walt had looked for ways to treat the film as far back as the 1930s and again in the 1950s. The studio could never come up with an appropriate way to tell the story, though. In 1988, the team that had brought Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the screen was tapped to write a script for Beauty and the Beast. They came back with something non-musical and set in Victorian France, complete with white wigs and characters speaking in uppity tones, using words like “coquette.” It was terrible. In 1989, studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered the whole thing scrapped and asked a new team to start again.
Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale were brought in to direct, while Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were asked to create the music in the way of a Broadway musical. The magic began.
Howard Ashman, though, had recently learned that he was dying. Complications from AIDS were reducing his ability to travel, his weight was dropping quickly and he became very ill as the film progressed. Production of the film was moved to New York state to accommodate his ailing health. But he knew exactly what was needed to bring Belle to life.
As in The Little Mermaid, he allowed the music to communicate important internal dialogue and move the plot forward quickly without losing the emotional connection to the characters. From the opening number “Belle” that quickly sets the main character apart as a book-obsessed oddity in her home town, to the brief reprise that includes “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere! I want it more than I can bear!” the song fulfills the same role as “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid.
Howard Ashman came from musical theatre. And he knew that music is more than a distraction in a show, it plays a key role in moving plot and character forward.
“I’m really a musical theatre person, and I do see a very very strong connection between these two media,” he once said to a group of animators, a film segment of which is shown in the documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty. Later in the same film, he says:
“In almost every musical ever written, there’s a place, it’s usually about the third song of the evening, and sometimes it’s the second, sometimes it’s the fourth, but it’s quite early, and the leading lady usually sits down on something. Sometimes it’s a tree stump in Brigadoon, sometimes it’s under the pillars in Covent Garden in My Fair Lady or it’s a trash can in Little Shop of Horrors. But the leading lady sits down on something and sings about what she wants in life. And the audience falls in love with her and roots for her to get it for the rest of the night.”
He wrote “Part of Your World” for Ariel to sing, and “Belle” for Beauty and the Beast. To this day, almost everyone who has ever seen either film can hum those tunes.
Once storyboards, characters and songs were written, production moved at a feverish pace. But Howard’s health was failing faster. By March of 1991, he was down to 80 pounds, had lost his sight and could barely breathe. He died on March 14, only two months before his 41st birthday, having never seen the completed film.
It was a terrible blow to the team. But Howard had already been such an important personality and so dedicated to the project it was impossible to stop.
In September, 1991, at the New York Film Festival, a version of the film that was only 70 per cent complete was screened for industry insiders, journalists and the most hardcore of Disney fans. Dialogue and songs were complete, but significant sections of the film were only pencil drawings, screen tests and story boards. The team was nervous. It was incomplete. It was too late to change most of it. If the audience hated it, there was little that could be done to change anything.
They needn’t have worried.
“There was almost, when the movie ended, it was almost a pause where you went one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, and then all of a sudden the place just erupted,” Dick Cook, then the president of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, said in Waking Sleeping Beauty.
The buzz was everywhere immediately. By the time the film was released widely that November, it was a predetermined hit.
“Lightning has definitely struck twice,” extolled the New York Times, comparing it with The Little Mermaid two years earlier. “Here, in the guise of furthering a children’s fable, is the brand of witty, soaring musical score that is now virtually extinct on the stage.”
“The viewer would be well advised to bring a hanky,” the reviewer wrote, before advising Alan Menken to make more room on his shelf for another Oscar.
It was a prescient warning.
Beauty and the Beast went on to win Best Picture, Best Score and Best Song at the Golden Globe Awards. It received Best Original Score and Best Original Song at the Academy Awards and was honoured with a Best Picture nomination, the first time an animated film had ever received the nod. The film also won five Grammies and uncountable other awards from around the world.
Technologically, the film pushed boundaries. It was the first to use fully 3-D modelled backgrounds, the fabled CAPS system was used throughout to great effect, the magnificent ballroom scene demonstrated the kind of power 3-D computer animation could hold in the right hands, and the sound designers miraculously blended Robby Benson’s normally soft voice with the real growls of lions and jaguars to give it a threatening tone while maintaining the human sensitivity beneath (edit: According to Karla DeVito, Robby Benson’s wife, the vast majority of the dialogue was Robby’s own voice, while the animal sounds were only added to the roars and snarls that are difficult for humans to imitate. Thank you, Karla, for reading and setting the record straight.).
But artistically, it was the coup-de-gras. This is the pinnacle of Disney Animation and Belle is a hero I hope one day my daughter, if I should have one, will look up to.
The film is appropriately dedicated to Howard Ashman. After the closing credits, the dedication reads:
“To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.”
But Howard Ashman’s last published work would wait another year to see daylight. Before giving himself to Beauty and the Beast, he had been working on another project: Aladdin.