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Later this month, Disney’s seminal work BEAUTY AND THE BEAST will celebrate its 25th anniversary. The film famously premiered at the New York Film Festival on September 29, 1991. It was the first time The Walt Disney Company had premiered a film at the festival and despite the fact that only 70 percent of its animation was complete, the film received a 10-minute long standing ovation, as fondly remembered in Don Hahn’s 2009 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty. The film about a peculiar girl in a “poor, provincial town” who winds up on her own adventure in an enchanted castle is the second film in the animation studio’s Renaissance era, following The Little Mermaid, but it is probably the best and most-loved film of the time (rivaled only by The Lion King), and quite possibly of the studio’s entire history.
So what is it about this film, which is receiving the live-action treatment from Disney next year (and is the most anticipated of their string of live-action films so far), that puts it above the rest? Overall, it’s the depth of Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise’s film, as seen in its musically-inclined cast of characters, animation, themes, and more. Let’s start with characters and themes because arguably those are the film’s greatest strengths and quite possibly why it received that 1o-minute applause.
It’s common for criticisms to be lobbied at Disney’s portrayals of their princesses. Sometimes these criticisms are founded, sometimes they’re not (Cinderella was not looking for a husband, she was escaping an abusive home; Ariel sings “Part of Your World,” her yearning song to join the human world before she meets or even lays eyes on Eric). On the whole, Disney princesses are largely positive characters, with real dreams, goals, and personalities who are drawn affectionately and powerfully by their animators. This is far and away true of Beauty and the Beast’s princess, Belle, who is one of Disney’s most popular women of royalty. This popularity largely stems from her relatability — wanting to get out of her small town, having an affinity for reading, possessing compassion and courage. She is an incredibly selfless character, taking her father’s spot as the Beast’s captive in his enchanted castle (even though, as her father cries, he’s much older than she is) despite her dreams of adventure, and there’s plenty to love and admire about her.
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And speaking of her dreams, there’s nothing that stops them from happening once she and Beast fall in love. Frankly, with the wealth Beast undoubtedly has (somewhere… the logistics of Beast’s royalty and means are very unclear), she probably now has a greater ability to travel and have adventures. Plus, the whole movie is technically her first adventure and that has to count for something. Meeting the Beast and falling in love are adventures of their own accord for Belle, but the film never reduces her character to this — she still longs for her father, she still loves to read and explore, she still possesses an incredible strength of character. While love and marriage are often included at the end of a Disney princess film, they are not the sum of the parts (in The Princess and the Frog, Tiana may end up marrying Naveen, but the film ends with the successful opening of her restaurant).
The romance between her and Beast, as well, is wonderfully done. The phrase “Stockholm syndrome” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to this film, but that is a terrible misunderstanding of the situation and characters. It is extremely important that in the film, Belle does not start warming to Beast or falling in love with him until after he begins treating her with respect and dignity. Throughout her time at the castle, she is still in control of her agency. She returns to the castle after she runs away to ensure Beast’s safety once he saves her from the wolves — it’s her compassion, which is not a weakness, shining through. From there, he begins to treat her with more gentleness and vulnerability, and a bond develops. When she aches for her father, especially after seeing him alone in the woods via the mirror, Beast lets her go to him and it becomes abundantly clear that she had not been his prisoner for some time.
Disney explores complex and layered relationships in several of their films. Belle and Beast are decidedly one of those relationships. However. it is not Stockholm syndrome (if you want to see better examples of that in Disney animation, look no further than Quasimodo and Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame or Rapunzel and Mother Gothel in Tangled).
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Themes of self-loathing, self-sacrifice, loyalty, and learning to love oneself are all touched on in Linda Woolverton’s script for the movie and they really elevate the film. Just look at the film’s villain, Gaston, who is terrifying largely because he is real. His hyper-masculine and misogynistic bravado are dangerous, as proven both in his treatment of Belle and his leadership of the mob at the end of the film, and it is all the more profound because men like Gaston actually exist in the real world. For all his puffed-up self-esteem, there is a real, subtle menace to his character that could have easily been mishandled in a lesser script.
Beauty and the Beast’s more discernible aspects, such as its music and animation, are also nothing short of fantastic. While I would not call Beauty and the Beast’s soundtrack the best in the Disney canon, it is certainly very good, winning Oscars for both Best Music, Original Score and Best Music, Original Song (for the ballad “Beauty and the Beast”). Interestingly, the film originally was not intended as musical and also looked more like something out of Marie Antoinette and 18th century France. But the studio convinced the duo of Howard Ashman, who was far more focused on Aladdin, and Alan Menken to turn the film into a musical after the original director, Richard Purdum, was replaced by Trousdale and Wise. This also helped propel the film from the screen to the stage, when it arrived on Broadway 1994 with seven brand-new songs (of which none will appear in the upcoming live-action film, which is a bit of a shame, especially Beast’s solo “If I Can’t Love Her”).
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The animation, of course, as with any Disney film, is breathtaking — and how could it not be when it’s headlined by veterans like Glen Keane and Andreas Deja? The project was completed in two years, which is less time than most other Disney films, because of the scrapped material made for Purdum’s vision (that Marie Antoinette-esque aesthetic I mentioned earlier) before he was booted. It was also the second Disney film to use CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), a program originally designed by Pixar. There are some truly thrilling sequences of animation in the film – particularly the prologue, done entirely as images from stained glass windows and the whole of “Beauty and the Beast.”
By the time Beauty and the Beast was released, Disney was getting back on their feet after their lowest point of production, revenue, and critical success (this period is often referred to as Disney’s Bronze or Dark Age). The Little Mermaid had started to get the studio back in good graces, but it was this film, an “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” that really propelled the Mouse House toward what would become one of their most successful periods. And it’s no wonder as to why, based on everything this film possesses, from its themes and characters to the beautiful technique showcased throughout. When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was first released in 1937, everyone was astonished by the mere existence of a feature-length animated film (not to mention its true artistic beauty). The same thing happened with Beauty and the Beast when audiences were wowed by its maturity, complexity, and, well, beauty, which they likely had not been expecting from a Disney animated movie, especially at this point in the studio’s history.
So when it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, the first animated film to earn that recognition, it was a historic moment and also one that was completely deserved. It’s troubling the Academy hasn’t bestowed this recognition upon many other animated films, as I’ve lamented before, but Beauty and the Beast was, and still is, a qualified film to have set this precedent at all. It’s a remarkable film in many ways, as a technical achievement and as an important piece of cinematic history, but perhaps most importantly, it’s a tale as old as time, beautifully told by a studio that still believes in its own wonder.
Anya Crittenton | Associate Editor