In the previous posts, we’ve examined 52 of out the 55 animated features produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation since 1937. There are so many great films that it’s hard to narrow down what rises to the top of a list like this, but the top 3 films are easily the greatest of Disney’s films–which makes them the greatest masterpieces in the history of animated film. Each one of this films get their own post, beginning with the #3 film out of Disney’s 55 animated classics, and it’s the greatest animated film not personally overseen by Walt Disney himself.
3. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1991) Disney’s take on a “tale as old as time” had been in various forms of production since the 1930’s. Walt loved the story, and was inspired by the masterful 1946 French adaption La Belle et la Bette to think about trying again in the 1950’s. The movie never moved forward, though–the story was generally about an animal keeping a girl prisoner, asking her to dinner every night, only for her to say that she didn’t love him. Not a lot there, and it looked like an animated adaption might never see the light. In the late 1980’s, Disney tried again to do something with this somewhat dull fairytale: a serious, non-musical story. No talking household objects, no “Be Our Guest,” no Gaston, and no Angela Lansbury singing.
Thankfully for an entire generation of children, in 1989 Disney partnered with Alan Menken and Howard Ashman on The Little Mermaid. Hiring screenwriter Linda Woolverton to solve the story’s lack of drama, and bringing Ashman and Menken in to write songs, Disney ditched the serious version and began moving forward with what would become one of the greatest animated films ever, and one of the only later generation films to carry the heart and spirit of Walt Disney himself. He would have loved Beauty and the Beast, not just because of the great characters, fantastic music, solid story, and leaps forward in animation. Like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this movie was a groundbreaking moment in film history. Unlike Snow White, which first showed audiences the power of an animated feature, Beauty and the Beast reminded audiences of something they had forgotten.
The Disney version of the story is well-known now. An opening narration tells us about a spoiled prince who refused to help a fairy, who in turn cursed him, and everyone who lived in his castle. Fast forward a few years, and the nearby village is now the home of a bookish yet lovely young woman named Belle and her eccentric inventor father. Although the handsome and manly town hero Gaston desires her, Belle wants nothing to do with him. When Belle’s father is taken prisoner by the cursed prince, Belle offers to take his place. Through a series of events, she comes to care for the Beast and ultimately is able to free him and the people of the castle from the fairy’s curse.
The power of a clear and concise story–something Walt passionately made a priority in his films of the Golden Age–is seen beautifully in Woolverton’s screenplay. Within 30 minutes, we are introduced to the main conflict, the key players in the plot. Supporting characters are strongly drawn and serve the plot, adding humor while advancing the story. The main character is relatable and engaging, and regardless what contemporary critics might say, it wasn’t Elsa (from Frozen) who was the first independent Disney heroine–it was Belle. While she may eventually fall in love with the enchanted prince, she doesn’t set out to, being motivated to stay in the castle out of bravery and love for her father. Love is a by product of their growing relationship, mutual trust, and deep friendship. It’s one of the healthiest male-female relationships in any Disney movie. (No, please don’t bother with any arguments “Stockholm Syndrome.” That’s ridiculous.) It’s their willing to sacrifice for the other that ultimately leads them to fall in love with each other.
Fantastic music is also a throwback to the earliest days of Disney animation. While the music Menken and Ashman created for The Little Mermaid was good, the songs in this film are superior in every way. The New York Times‘ Broadway critic called it the best musical of 1991. Menken’s adaptation of French impressionist composers in the score adds warmth and a distinct flavor to the story, particularly felt in the opening narration. The songs are fantastic, with not a single stinker in the bunch. From the opening number, “Belle,” sung by the entire village like a true Broadway musical, it’s clear that this is a throwback to an different style of musical film. “Gaston,” wherein we learn all about the character’s propensity for manliness (and in a reprise, his willing to hurt someone to get to Belle) is a rousing drinking song. The title song is hauntingly beautiful. Recorded in one take by the incomparable Angela Lansbury, it’s amazing in that a song about a beauty and a beast could be so good. “Be Our Guest,” is an old-style Busby Berkely number sung with panache and flair by Jerry Orbach (a Broadway legend like Lansbury), channeling his inner Maurice Chevalier, and it’s a standout animation sequence as well. One song cut from the film, added to the Broadway show, and then added back to the movie for a later release is “Human Again,” which is a wonderful bridge song showing how the castle’s inhabitants look forward to the future–and shows a deeper passing of time than is implied in the original cut. “The Mob Song,” wherein Gaston riles the village to fight the Beast and destroy him, has a definite Les Miserables feel to it–and reveals Gaston to be the film’s true villain: the good-looking guy is actually the bad guy, while the scary monster is actually the hero. It’s an intense and truly dark moment in Disney animation, seeing how quickly people can turn ugly and violent toward what they don’t understand (an actual line in the song).
The animation is uniformly excellent, and eventually led to even more outstanding animation in the next 10 years. Watching the use of the CAPS system to create more sweeping camera angles adds drama and excitement to the film, and the “Beauty and the Beast” sequence, with its soaring camera and CG ballroom, is justifiably famous. Character animation by legends Glen Keane, Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, David Pruiksma, and others shows the new generation of animators firing on all cylinders. (The only gripe I have is the obvious difference in facial proportions between Henn’s Belle and James Baxter’s Belle–very clear in the opening song, and it’s distracting.) Voice acting is superb, and not a single character was cast because of their “name.” The biggest voices in the film were more famous on Broadway or television than they were for movies, and it helps because audiences hear the characters, and no guess the voice moments distract from the story. Richard White as Gaston is probably the standout, because his final 10 minutes of sheer villainy are unexpected based on the vain and rather humorous performance earlier in the film. In addition, the rain effects during the climactic battle are some of Disney’s best since the 1940–raindrops actually bounce on the ground, blow with wind. It’s truly beautiful.
The final moments of the film also reveal the strength of the story. Belle never set out to fall in love with the Beast, and it’s only when he is gone does she realize the depth of her feelings for the monster. His own willingness to give up everything–sending her away to be with her father when her staying could mean his salvation–helps her see who he really has become. When she says “I love you” and his transformation begins, it’s a revelatory moment. (He does get a really dorky animated moment, too–shortly after their first kiss, it’s clear Keane was not animating him.) Danny Troob’s orchestrations of Menken’s music was rewritten before the film’s release, and it’s beautiful–most likely why Menken earned his second Best Original Score Oscar in a row.
Beauty and the Beast is the true start to the Disney Renaissance. The weaknesses of The Little Mermaid are gone, and the strengths of a team focused on a tight story, challenging their ability to create art, are evident everywhere. It’s as close to perfection as a film can be, and if there were any justice, it would have won that Best Picture Oscar. It’s a superior film to anything else released in 1992 (sorry Silence of the Lambs), and it continues to have a lasting cultural impact through theatrical adaptations, character interactions at the Disney parks, and more. Belle is a wonderful and inspiring heroine, while the supporting characters are all memorable in their own way, contributing to the story without distracting from it.
It’s the only film of the last 30 years of Disney animation that doesn’t just feel inspired by Walt. It feels as if Walt himself was there producing it. And that’s the highest praise any Disney movie could ever have.
Next week, it’s #2 out of #55–the greatest achievement in animated art, and one of Walt Disney’s greatest achievements in sight and sound. As the original advertising stated, “It will amaze ya,” and it continues to influence Disney films to this day–including the smash hit The Jungle Book.