Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Beauty and the Beast (1991) - Disney's Brightest Light

Beauty and the Beast 3D cover
Beauty and the Beast (1991).

Walt Disney may have been long gone when "Beauty and the Beast" (1991) came out, but his spirit lived on in this classic tale. This is just the sort of tale that Walt would have picked for his animation studio to work up: a beautiful girl looking for love, an eligible suitor eager for her hand, and obstacles to be overcome. Disney followed the same formula in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Cinderella." Add this film, and you have an awesome quartet of animation classics that will stand the test of time.

Belle reading a book in Beauty and the Beast
Now where's that section on how to find a Prince....

"Beauty" is directed in heroic fashion by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. It marked Disney's first attempt in thirty long years to once again ascend the heights that made it pre-eminent in the animation field. Vietnam, Watergate, riots, hippies, all came and went while Disney bided its time. When the time was right, it re-emerged like England's once and future king. The corporation's glorious devolution back to its roots is one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the motion picture business and rejuvenated a film empire that was looking increasingly shaky.

Walter Crane 1874 illusstration of Beauty and the Beast
A classic take on the tale, by Walter Crane in 1874.

Now, Disney was making animation films throughout that period, but if anyone had suggested making a "Cinderella" or "Sleeping Beauty" in, say, 1970, they would have been laughed out of the board room. The 1980s, though, marked a change in national attitude that encouraged a return to the classics. The first sign of a change in spirit was 1988's "The Land Before Time," a dinosaur fable from Amblin Entertainment that had surprising success. Disney countered with "The Little Mermaid," a fairy tale from the pen of Hans Christian Andersen, and was gratified at the results.

Belle and Gaston in Beauty and the Beast
Gaston doesn't have a chance in "Beauty and the Beast."

At that point, Disney was ready to take the great leap of faith required to tell a fairy tale, and tell it straight. The suits didn't take the task lightly, though: there are 12, count them, 12 writing credits listed for the screenplay. , , the names of the alumni of the project read like a roster of heavy hitters of the next twenty years of animation. The funny thing, though, is that they didn't really need all those writers and others. It is a simple tale, as the best ones always are. Belle (Paige O'Hara) is ready to find love, and the options in her isolated town are limited. The scope of her problems is illustrated by Gaston (Richard White), a local who can't give a Belle what she needs.

The Beast in Beauty and the Beast
A scary beast!

The battle is not lost, however. A prince lives nearby, and he would be delighted to have the hand of the delightful Belle. There is only one slight problem: he is known as The Beast (Robby Benson) as a result of an evil spell. One day, Maurice (Rex Everhart), Belle's father, brings the two together accidentally. Belle is dismayed, but then intrigued.

Belle and the Beast dancing in Beauty and the Beast
The dance sequences are very elegant and the film's highlight

The soundtrack, not the story, is the real highlight of this film. It won two Oscars due to the influence of Harold Ashman, who did not live to see the film completed. His songs, though, are eternal. The film even was nominated for Best Picture, showing the esteem that hardened professionals felt for a film when twenty years earlier they would have been ridiculed for voting for such a sappy tale of innocent love

Belle reading to the Beast in Beauty and the Beast
Read me a fairy tale!

The backgrounds are lavish and elaborate. The exquisite ballroom and furnishings of The Beast's castle did not happen by accident. Teams of researchers studied the drawing rooms and painters of medieval and later France to get just the right look. You and I may not know the names of all the great 18th Century French painters, but they did, and they give samples of that work in the background drawings. The later big hits of Pixar and DreamWorks may have focused on toys and monsters and things like that, but Disney played it right down the line with this metaphorical investigation into the roots of true love.

The Beast offering his hand to Belle in Beauty and the Beast
May I have this dance?

"Beauty and the Beast" led to a hit Broadway play. It's not much of a secret that the film was designed with just that path in mind. Several television versions have occurred since, and they keep popping up. You need a strong voice to play Belle, so it is considered a choice role for aspiring female singers. The branches of the tree spread out after that. It was only a matter of time before an "On Ice" version followed.

Belle and the Beast dancing in Beauty and the Beast
I love how dancers in films always swing their arms like that

The film was released in 3-D early in 2012, and that is the preferred version now. One of the fascinating details of the making of this film is that it was one of the first animated films to use computer programs to help draw the backgrounds. Other studios get credit for breakthroughs in that area, but "Beauty and the Beast" and Disney helped blaze that particular trail. There were still a lot of traditionalists who only believed in hand-drawn animation, but the classic ballroom sequence done with computer assistance helped change minds.

The Beast taking Belle's hand in Beauty and the Beast
A man with manners!

You can't go wrong with "Beauty and the Beast." See it in 3-D, see the live-action version, see the television series, and see it on stage. All are worth the trouble.

German DVD cover for Disney's Beauty and the Beast
Beauty and the Beast (1991).


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