Disney was in dire straights in the ’80s. Movies like The Black Cauldron and The Great Mouse Detective have their admirers (me) but they didn’t take the world by storm. It wasn’t until the Jeffrey Katzenberg era began in earnest that the studio became the animated film powerhouse that it is today. The Little Mermaid began that trend in 1989, and while it was a massive hit, 1991’s Beauty and the Beast is what truly turned everything around as the first animated film in history to be nominated for Best Picture. After 25 years, the movie is still nothing short of amazing.
I was always an Aladdin kid — and having watched it again recently for its own Blu-ray release, the music and comedy still way stand up — but I think I missed out on watching Beauty and the Beast over and over as a kid. The movie looks amazing in HD; you can see the care and detail in the human characters as well as the inventiveness and design of the object characters. Famously the first major animated film to use any sort of computer animated elements (done by Pixar, don’t ya know), it feels at once like a relic from the past and a fresh new film full of wonderful themes and characters.
The characters are impossibly well defined, in terms of their individual wants and needs and personalities. Belle is an intelligent, adventure-seeking woman who has a clear sense of her own worth. The Beast, likewise, is an angry, embittered sort who has a hidden sweet side if he can only get this one person to see it. He’s one of the more unself-assured “heroes” the Disney movies ever had! Even Gaston is surprisingly layered. He’s an arrogant pig, of course, but he’s also got this hilarious and weird strand of buffoonery that comes to the forefront in his titular song. Most villains are mustache twirlers who aren’t much more interesting than that, but Gaston is humorous in his narcissism, on top of being nasty and cruel.
And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the music, which is arguably the great Alan Menken’s best. He worked with the dying Howard Ashman on this film; it would be Ashman’s last, and it’s his finest in terms of lyrics. The movie feels so much more like a stage musical or even an opera than a regular flick. “Be Our Guest” and the titular “Beauty and the Beast” elicit goosebumps still to this day. Populating the film with Broadway actors also helps a lot; Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach have a terrific knack for singing in character.
I still don’t think the character of Chip is cool, though.
Beauty and the Beast has gotten a 25th anniversary release from Disney, as part of the Walt Disney Signature collection, and it’s got some great features on it. You get an interview with Paige O’Hare, the voice of Belle, who has since become a certified Disney Legend. She discusses the impact the movie had on her life and how it has been the best thing that could have happened to her. It’s a nice talk.
The next, and probably most enticing to people, is called “Menken & Friends” in which composer Alan Menken sits down with Stephen Schwartz (of Wicked, who worked with Menken on Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame); Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (who won Oscars for their music in Frozen); and a little someone named Lin-Manuel Miranda (who, in addition to his work on the wildly popular musical, Hamilton, is composing songs for Disney’s upcoming Moana) and the group discusses composing, their favorite pieces of music from Disney films, and talk about the lines and musical moments from Beauty and the Beast that had an impact on them.
My favorite feature was something called “#1047: Walt, Fairy Tales, and Beauty and the Beast” which details the genesis of the project. The story of Beauty and the Beast was actually among one of the earliest ideas Walt Disney had for stories following his fabled late-’40s trip to Europe, where he became enamored of the fairy tale mythology and specific Danish illustrators whom he brought to work for him. This eventually led to Sleeping Beauty, Disney’s most ambitious feature to date. I find this kind of stuff endlessly fascinating, and loved the explanation of how Beauty and the Beast grew in the ensuing decades until it was unearthed and remounted by producer Don Hahn and the animation team.
Overall, the extras on this disc are great, but much like almost all of the extras on the Disney classics Blu-rays, they could stand to be longer. I’m already interested in this stuff, and people who grew up with these movies will want as much ancillary information as possible. They’re too often geared just for kids. But, again, maybe that’s just me being an animation fanatic.
Beauty and the Beast might well be the crowning achievement for Disney Animation, even to this day, and remains a cornerstone in feature storytelling. It’s a tale as old as time, and it’ll probably be beloved just as long.
And what about the new Beauty and the Beast?