I revisit the first movie that I ever saw in the theater.
Belle (Paige O’Hara) is an educated woman living in a village in France. Naturally, reading causes her to be ostracized. Singing about how provincial and boring the town is probably doesn’t help her reputation, either. She is constantly harassed by the local huntsman, Gaston (Richard White), whose entreaties she rebuffs. One day, her father, Maurice (Rex Everhart), goes to a fair to showcase his invention, but gets lost on the way back. He seeks refuge in a castle, but it turns out the castle is owned by a Beast (Robby Benson), who imprisons Maurice for trespassing. The Beast is, in fact, a prince who was turned into a monster for refusing to give shelter to a disguised witch when he was eleven. Yes, when he was eleven, an age which isn’t an adult even by ancient standards, but apparently is legally competent if you’re a tricky witch. The Beast was given until a magical rose wilts to learn to love someone and earn love in return.
Belle ventures out to try and find her father and the Beast agrees to release Maurice if Belle becomes his prisoner. She agrees to the switch, which is good for the plot. The Beast gives her a room that is likely larger than her entire former house and doesn’t smell as much like an old Frenchman. The Beast’s staff, who are similarly cursed, because that’s totally fair, attend to her needs. The staff consists chiefly of Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), the clock and majordomo, Lumière (Jerry Orbach), the candelabra maître d’hôtel, Mrs. Potts (Angela “I love her so much” Landsbury), the teapot cook, and Chip Potts (Bradley Pierce), her chipped teacup son. Yes, those were their names before they got transformed, so I guess the curse has a sense of humor. Bad luck for Monsieur Latrinè (in fairness, the name used to be Merdehouse).
While Belle gets along with the staff, she enrages Beast by wandering into the forbidden West Wing and finding the rose. Beast yells at her, so she flees the castle, getting attacked by wolves in the process. Beast saves her from the wolf pack, and the two end up finally bonding as he shows his gentle side. Or as the Stockholm Syndrome sets in, depending on your point of view. At the same time, Maurice has tried to convince people that Belle is captive, but they dismiss him as crazy. Gaston uses his apparent insanity as part of a plan, bribing the local warden of the insane asylum, Monsieur D’Arque (Tony “I was also Frollo” Jay), into committing Maurice. However, Maurice sets off for the castle to rescue Belle before he can be committed. The fact that no one seems to notice that Belle has been missing this whole time is very concerning.
After having a romantic evening with the Beast containing a song that will make me a little misty anytime I hear it, Belle sees Maurice lost in the woods. Beast lets her go save him, giving her a magic mirror as a gift. When she rescues him and takes him home, Gaston tries to imprison Maurice as leverage to convince Belle to marry him, but Belle uses the mirror to prove that Maurice is sane. Also, magic is real, which should be a bigger deal than it is in the film. Gaston and his sidekick Lefou (Jesse Corti) rally the locals into a mob to kill the Beast while trapping Belle. She escapes and heads to the castle while the servants fight off the mob, and the Wardrobe (Jo Anne Worley) murders a man and I don’t feel like that’s addressed enough. Gaston confronts the Beast, but after Belle comes back, Beast wins the fight. After Beast spares him, Gaston stabs him and falls off a roof to his death. Beast dies in Belle’s arms, but because this is a Disney movie, her love (and also magic) brings him back as a human. They get married, and no one ever mentions that the Beast’s name is Adam.
I should clarify that this is the first movie I made it all the way through in theaters. I did try to go to other ones, but I mean, I was four and kids are dumb. I think the fact that this is the first movie that I actually sat through is a big part of why I am so enamored with the power of cinema. I have watched this movie at almost every stage of my life, from child to adolescent to adult to cancer patient to broken soul in the shape of a man to adult again, and this movie has never been anything less than a masterpiece.
This was the first animated film to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture, beating out other contenders like Thelma & Louise, City Slickers, Terminator 2, Doc Hollywood, Barton Fink, The Fisher King, Fried Green Tomatoes, and, of course, Highlander II. It was one of the most pronounced times since the original Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs that critics were really forced to acknowledge that animation can be an art form for everyone, not just for children. In a few years, Toy Story and Pixar’s revolution would follow, which would eventually lead to the creation of the Best Animated Film Oscar, but even that would not have likely happened if this film had not used computer aided drawing through the CAPS (Computer Animated Production System) program created by Pixar. The ballroom scene involved heavy use of computers and that sequence proved the use of CGI as a way to create bigger and more impressive effects than would be possible using traditional animation for the same budget.
Actually, budgeting was a major concern for this film, because it had been stalling since the 1950s when Walt Disney first tried to make it work. After Who Framed Roger Rabbit finally started to revitalize the Disney animated division in 1987, the film was put back into production, but as a non-musical film. After they worked on it for over a year, Jeffrey Katzenberg ordered it scrapped and told the team to start over. This led to the previous director, Richard Purdum, to leave the project. Now having already hemorrhaged money, Katzenberg demanded that the film be a musical like The Little Mermaid and put Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise in as directors. To give you an idea of how crazy a move this was, their only prior directing experience was doing the animation for “Cranium Command” at EPCOT. Now, to cap it off, they were ordered to finish the movie in 2 years, because Disney slotted four years for production and had already used two up on the rejected version of the film, and using the same budget that had already been half-spent by the last crew. Producing a movie of this caliber out of these circumstances is like being called in as a first-time designated hitter in the world series, told you’re down by three in the bottom of the ninth and hitting a grand slam with a wiffle bat.
That’s enough background, let’s get to the movie itself. This story is, as the song famously says, a tale as old as time. Before this film came out there were multiple versions of Beauty and the Beast on film and television, including Jean Cocteau’s famously surreal 1946 rendition from which the Disney movie borrows heavily. Despite the number of adaptations, this tends to always be seen as the quintessential telling of the story, and I think it’s actually the changes that this version made to the characters that really make it stand out.
First, all of the supporting characters have big, bold personalities. While several versions of the story describe Beast as having magical attendants, they’re usually depicted as silent magical spirits, whereas this film gives them all distinct personas. Lumiere is the aggressive and passionate one, Cogsworth is the worrywort, and Mrs. Potts is the mother figure. They all come across as the kind of people that would feel dedicated to looking over the Prince lovingly, even after they were stuck in this situation for ten years. Similarly, Maurice comes across as a quirky person but a loving father and a kind soul, despite his limited screen time.
Then there’s the bad guy. Gaston provides a villain with one of the most detestable personalities out there: Someone who has never been told no and refuses to hear it. He could literally have all three Bimbettes (yes, that’s what they’re called, don’t blame me), but instead he refuses to have anything less than the most beautiful woman in town, despite the fact that they have nothing in common. It’s even worse because Gaston IS actually good at hunting and providing, something that would make him celebrated during that time period, as the film points out. Gaston can have anything except Belle, which, of course, makes him more of a d*ck for going to such lengths to get her. He is a great addition to the story, because you probably know someone like that.
The main characters, too, are different than in any portrayal I’ve seen before this one. In both the original story and Cocteau’s version, the Beast is a gentleman who attempts to woo Belle with his wealth and lavish lifestyle, something that she reciprocates. In this version, the Beast is not initially a kind person, but is in fact bitter and temperamental. Given that he was cursed when he was eleven (no, I’m not letting this go), this may be justified, but these flaws make the love story even stronger because he is the one who has to change inside as opposed to the burden being just on Belle to look past his outer appearance. He has to learn to care about something beyond himself.
Belle, while she does initially recoil from his appearance, quickly gets past that and instead is more focused on how he treats her. As opposed to just being overwhelmed by materialism or pining for a prince like her traditional counterparts, Belle in this version is focused on adventure. While people may point out that she doesn’t end up traveling to the “great wide somewhere,” but instead marrying a prince and living in a castle like 20 miles from her house, I would point out that she’s still in a magical castle finding a connection with a cursed prince, which is still a freaking adventure plotline. Part of her journey is realizing that adventures don’t all have to be grand journeys, but can be found in just recognizing the truth within another person. Plus, she has the most outspoken and independent personality of any female lead in a Disney movie up until that point (including Ariel) and never really dreamed of finding a man. Instead, she dreamed of being part of a great story, which is what she gets. Compared to the previous versions, having a Belle who is more focused on the internal than the external is a massive step-up in protagonist. While she’s not the pinnacle of self-actualized lead (I mean, there’s still the Stockholm Syndrome discussion everywhere), she still set the stage for many more empowered women to come.
The music of the movie is… well, it’s Ashman and Menken, so it was always going to be good, but this movie contains as many iconic and memorable songs as any Disney film. “Belle,” “Be Our Guest,” “Gaston,” and, of course, “Beauty and the Beast,” are all perpetually played at Disney parks and are the subject of numerous covers and parodies. I imagine there are not a ton of people out there who have never heard at least some version of the songs in their lives. The ballroom scene would not have its grandeur without the song accompaniment. At the Oscars, Beauty and the Beast got 3 of the 5 nominations for best song. However, I want to point out that it’s not just the songs that this movie nails, but also the score. The movie consistently uses the score to heighten the tension and, given that Menken composed it, it is a master class in emotional manipulation. Guess that’s why it also got him an Oscar.
Overall, this movie does almost everything right. It dazzled me as much rewatching it this time as it did when I first saw it as a small child on the big screen. It’s part of why I consider animation to be a valid art form and why I love film as much as I do. It helped make me who I am, and, for that, I will forever be grateful.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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