I remember going to seeing Beauty and the Beast with my mom, the neighbor-boy and his mom. For seven-year-old me, it was colorful, engaging and Belle was finally a female Disney lead I could not completely hate. We both loved to read and thought Gaston was a total ignoramus. The fact that his chest hair was part of a song, never quite sat well with me, partially because I can still hear my neighbor’s mom laugh and say, “Oh gawd!” at that point in the film. Ah, childhood memories.
Being a 90’s child meant that I grew up seeing these new summer Disney movies annually, from The Little Mermaid (still fueling my nightmares) up through the more disastrous ones like Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. My mom loves Disney cartoons so much, we had the whole spectrum on video, including many VCR recordings of the Silly Symphony shorts from the forties. By my teens, I was getting pretty sick of those mouse ears and magic castles, so I lashed out into an anti-fantasy film rebellion turning to a lot of Hitchcock and horror films. Today, I’m thankful for that broad upbringing of Disney cartoons, I have a healthy respect for quality animation, which in my mind consists mainly of Disney’s early works, Pixar and Beauty and the Beast.
Now when I talk about quality animation, I’m referring to both technical achievement and smart story telling. Today, while the technical animation itself may be a high quality, many narratives are dumbed down to keep a child’s attention. The adults in the audience are plagued by fart jokes, pop culture references that serve nothing to the story and annoying voice acting that makes our permanent teeth itch.
If you’re familiar with many Disney films, you may find some recycled bits of animation or references to past Disney moments throughout Beauty and the Beast. The final dance scene is recycled straight from Sleeping Beauty. Many moments in Be Our Guest seem to reference many moments of beautiful animation from Fantasia. And that smoke effect during the ending transformation is the same used in The Black Cauldron. If you keep your eyes peeled, there are many more, but I see them as respect to the films worthy predecessors, unlike today when The Princess and the Frog simply gives Aladdin’s Jafar a New Orleans makeover.
Beauty and the Beast is that rare moment in animation where a fairy-tale was served with dignity and charm that could win over kids, adults and critics. The film starts out with a fascinating but subdued prologue told through stained glass, explaining the castle’s enchantment and establishing the Beast/Prince’s critical need to find love before the rose wilts. Within the first minutes of the film, everyone over the age of six has a clear understanding of the situation and what exactly is at stake. It’s one of the best openings I’ve ever seen in animation the can easily rope in the whole audience and not immediately turn adults away with corny kids stuff.
Then we are introduced to Belle, the one Disney princess you don’t mind little girls emulating too much. Right away, we’re shown that she is a bit of an outcast in this little French village because she constantly reads and has big dreams. Her father, Maurice, is an inventor, so we see that intelligence is important to the family, even if it does make them the oddballs. But Gaston, the village heart-throb and manly-man, objectifies Belle down to one basic trait: beautiful. Therefore, he must have her as his wife. Thankfully, Belle is repulsed by Gaston’s brainless brute personality and we cheer when his plans go astray.
When Belle’s father gets lost in the woods and comes across the enchanted castle, he becomes a prisoner of the Beast. The family horse brings Belle back to the castle to save him and she bravely bargains with the Beast, sacrificing her own freedom to save her sick father. With the whole castle buzzing, hoping that Belle can break the spell, pressure is on the Beast to control his raging temper and win over his new prisoner. It’s only after the Beast saves Belle from a pack of wolves that she begins to warm up to him.
The way the Beast’s character is created mixes imagination, great animation techniques and subtle glimpses to the human soul within. Physically, he looks like a mix of wolf, bear and bison and can move like all three at different times. His voice can sometimes howl or growl through the human tone, obviously a big part of the Best Sound nomination the film earned. It’s only through his blue eyes and the sadness the Beast can portray that we find the human side, but the closer he becomes to Belle, the more prominent these traits become.
The most astounding moment of the film was the ballroom scene, where the title song plays. It’s not Angela Lansbury’s singing that makes this so memorable, but the technical visual aspect shown in making the ballroom that absolutely floored us back in ‘92. The early 3D rendering of marble columns and that beautiful chandelier have not lost their luster over the past two decades. The sweeping 360 camera angles were something brand new to the world of animation and the elegant way that dress could swish right across still takes our breath away. Suddenly, that dance scene was more than a little girl’s fairy-tale dream, but a serious moment of visual artistry.
One of my favorite things about Beauty and the Beast is how it feels like a timeless fairytale simply pulled from a book and into film. Nowhere will you find an eye-rolling pop culture reference, the artists are devoted to keeping us rooted in this far off tale in the French countryside and in the mysterious castle. It truly is an escape that you cannot find with many animated films.
“Oh, isn’t this amazing. It’s my favorite part because, you’ll see. Here’s where she meets Prince Charming, but she won’t discover that it’s him ’til chapter three.”