Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Recently I made an entry on the much beloved Disney classic Pinocchio.  In that entry I professed my love for the Disney classics, the films, the characters, the shorts – love em!  When I picked up Pinocchio recently on Blu Ray I also grabbed several others.  I did it in part for some free tickets to Finding Nemo 3D but mostly I did it out of my love for nostalgia.  My modest Disney Blu Ray collection now includes seven films and it’s a mixture of old and modern.  After getting re-acquainted with Pinocchio, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at a more modern, but perhaps equally loved, film:  Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast came along during Disney’s renaissance period that began in the late 1980s with The Little Mermaid.  Prior to that film, Disney films had experienced a noticeable drop in quality.  Once praised for being good quality, family entertainment, most of the newer films were regarded as children’s movies that adults had to stomach in order to keep the little ones happy.  Disney was also being challenged by Universal Pictures and their animated films which were suddenly the biggest thing in animation.  To reinvigorate the brand, Disney went back to the its roots and started adapting classic stories and fables for its feature-length films.  The films were also heavily influenced by broadway.  Disney films always contained some element of song but now the films contained full musical numbers featuring elaborate choreography and big moments.  The Little Mermaid was a rousing success, as were many of the films that followed throughout the 90s.

Beauty and the Beast arrived two years later and was met with even more praise by critics.  Beauty and the Beast is perhaps best known now for being the first animated film nominated for an Academy Award for best picture.  It didn’t win, but just being nominated was a big achievement for the genre.  It followed in the same style as The Little Mermaid combining a classic story with state-of-the-art animation and catchy musical numbers.  I saw it as a kid, and my family had a copy of the VHS, though I always kind of associated it with Cinderella and considered it more of a “girl’s movie.”  That’s what young boys do, and as an adult I’m not much concerned with those things.  I was eager to see it again and hoped to perhaps see what made so many kids and adults enjoy it twenty years ago.

I’ve always enjoyed the Beast’s look.

Now, I mentioned in my Pinocchio review that I prefer the older style of Disney films in their approach to song.  I can’t deny some of the songs from the modern films are catchy and well put together, but I just hate how they disrupt the flow of the narrative.  Beauty and the Beast is not immune to this malady, but I knew that going in so I just tried to enjoy the songs for what they were.  As a spectacle, “Be Our Guest” is quite impressive and even pretty entertaining to watch.  The inhabitants of the Beast’s castle are fun to behold as they’re mostly animated inanimate objects.  There’s Lumiere the candlestick holder and Cogsworth the clock as well as many others.  Mrs. Pott’s reciting of the title song is also delivered quite well and actually doesn’t completely halt the narrative.  Some of the musical numbers I didn’t care for though include the opening to the film which includes the song “Belle.”  It’s a little silly and kind of drags.  Another one that people seem to enjoy is “Gaston” where the villainous character of the same name is celebrated.  It’s kind of amusing for a bit, but like “Belle” just drags on too long.  I guess I’ll just never like the broadway approach.

At any rate, the musical numbers aren’t going to make or break the film for me.  The film’s plot is going to play a much large role, and as far as tales go, Beauty and the Beast is a good one.  I’m sure most are familiar with it, but the gist of it is an unkind prince was cursed to take on the form of a beast.  If he can’t find love he’ll remain that way forever.  Enter Belle, the beauty component of the title, whom the Beast imprisons in his cursed castle.  Not only was the Beast cursed, but so too were all of his servants who really got the short end of the stick.  While Beast is large and fearsome, others end up as footstools and dressers.  It’s actually Belle’s father who first stumbles upon the Beast’s castle (how the villagers did not know of its existence is a plot-hole best left alone) while running from some wolves.  The Beast does not take kindly to strangers, so he locks up the poor old man in a dungeon.  When Belle comes to find him, she trades her freedom for his.  The Beast, naturally thinking she may be the one to break the curse, agrees to keep her at the castle.

The ballroom scene is one of Disney’s most breathtaking sequences ever committed to celluloid.

What follows is a gradual melting of the Beast’s heart as Belle learns to see the gentle soul within.  Back in the village, the vain Gaston is plotting to make Belle his trophy wife and when Belle’s father returns with tales of a hideous beast he sets out to kill him.  It’s a fairly predictable plot, especially if you’re familiar with the old tale in one of its many forms, but it’s executed well.  The voice acting is especially good and I can’t recall a single performance that I didn’t like.  The Beast (played by Robby Benson) is the star for me as his delivery contains the perfect amount of savagery and humanity.  Others seem to really enjoy the over-the-top performance of Richard White as Gaston but I found him a bit too cliché for my taste.  I think he could have been toned down a little and still would have worked just as well.

As far as animation goes, the work put out by Disney is routinely praised as top-notch and Beauty and the Beast is no exception.  The animation is fluid and the color palette vibrant.  The lighting, the textures, the motion – it’s all stellar.  The Blu Ray release has been visually enhanced as well though to mixed results.  The outdoor scene that opens the film is almost too bright and colorful, but the darker and bolder scenes in the Beast’s castle never looked better.  There’s also a new scene included with a new song that was cut from the original release.  I didn’t find it to be anything special (obviously, since I don’t care for the musical numbers) but it doesn’t harm the film in any way.

With these films I’m mostly taken aback by just the sheer quality of the animation.  Watching Belle’s hair flow or her dress rustle is gorgeous.  I have such great admiration for hand-drawn animation, and while I do love the stuff Pixar puts out, it’s just not the same as good old hand-drawn art.  I’ll never out grow it!

The film may be predictable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still moving.

Comparing the modern works to the ones from long ago is actually quite difficult considering the approach.  They’re all-together different and really the only comparisons that are easy to make are the technical ones regarding the animation.  Beauty and the Beast is certainly more flashy than those old films, but I don’t know that automatically makes it the better looking film.  I’ve really enjoyed watching the classics and each time I watch them I notice something new to appreciate.  Beauty and the Beast, and the other Disney works from that era, did bring the company back into the world of family entertainment.  That sounds kind of unattractive in a sense, the term family entertainment, but I take it to mean entertainment for all ages.  You don’t need kids to enjoy the Disney classics, and you don’t need them to enjoy Beauty and the Beast.  I’ll always be partial to the older films, but this is a good one on its own merit and one of the better films to come out of the 90s, animated or otherwise.  The little boy version of me would probably be somewhat surprised to hear me say that, though he’d probably be shocked to know I can’t wait for the eventual Blu Ray release for The Little Mermaid!

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