As a brown-haired, brown-eyed girl from a town so small it’s classified as a village, Beauty and the Beast affected me in a big way when it dropped in 1991. It starred the first Disney heroine I could see myself in. Beauty and the Beast made an impression upon me and countless others, and also impacted Disney and those who worked on the film. It was the first animated feature to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and it greatly influenced the careers of the actors and animators involved. Disney is issuing a special Blu-ray release to celebrate the movie’s 25th anniversary, and I had the opportunity to sit down with Belle‘s voice actor, Paige O’Hara, and supervising animator, Mark Henn, to look back on the character’s legacy.
O’Hara called out Belle’s physical attributes as something that’s resonated with fans over the past two decades. “She was the first one that was a contemporary heroine—strong-willed, intelligent, a little quirky… the first brown-haired, brown-eyed princess,” O’Hara said. “She wasn’t looking for a prince. She was looking for adventure from these books that she reads, and she wanted to see what the world is like. I think not being the typical perfect physical blonde, blue-eyed… fans love the fact that they could identify with her. That’s happened for all these years. I constantly get mail that they love the fact there was a brown-haired, brown-eyed girl that looks like them and that reads like them and makes them feel that it’s okay to be a bookworm.”
Belle opened the door into a new era where the female protagonist of a Disney movie wasn’t motivated by love or “finding Mr. Right.” Henn, who has had a long history with Disney (in addition to Beauty and the Beast, his credits include The Little Mermaid and Frozen, among others, explained how Belle spurred a change. “I’ve often been asked about the difference between our girls today, our leading ladies today versus some of the girls from the past. One of the things that has evolved that I can point to are the stories themselves, and that the role—Snow White, Cinderella were all great heroines in their day, but they tended to be more reactionary in my mind. In other words, things happened to them.”
Henn continued, “As our stories evolve, starting with Mermaid, you saw that swing from being reactionary to more proactive, that the decisions they made propelled the stories forward, and they got more involved. That has grown and built. With Belle, what she did was for her father. It’s the same with Mulan, which is what makes Mulan so strong. She wasn’t looking for a guy either. All she was thinking was, ‘I’ve got to do what it’s going to take to protect my family, protect my father.’ She made decisions, and those things propel the stories forward. I think that, to me, is the biggest change that we’ve seen, and it continues all the way up through Frozen.”
O’Hara said Belle started a whole new idea and concept of, “What is really a true hero and who do we want as a role model?” Belle’s relatability certainly helped. She was intentionally made older than the other Disney princesses, and she’s grounded; she’s not a mermaid or other fantastical character. Henn put it best: “She’s somebody you’d want to take to coffee sometime.”
One of the bonus extras on the Blu-ray features the voice actors in the recording booth alongside the finished animation. Even from a few clips it’s easy to see how O’Hara affected some of Belle’s mannerisms, like the way she pushes her hair off her face. But O’Hara joked that her appearance in the Blu-ray extra wasn’t her everyday look. “Actually what you saw, I was really coiffed that day because I knew that [footage] was going to go on something later. Normally my hair was messy and stringy and long and in my face.”
The animators had regular access to the voice actors’ sessions, and Henn explained they pulled inspiration from them. “That’s what artists do. They’re always looking for a source of inspiration. It’s very rare that people can just make it up. They usually have something there that they’re referencing, so having the voice actors filming or actually being there for a session, we’re sitting there looking for anything that we can use that’s going to make these characters richer, more believable in the performance. Because it is art, but it’s also acting. That’s the two sides of the coin of being an animator.” O’Hara added, “The genius about what Mark does is that they can take whatever they want from us, and then their imaginations go crazy. Then they do whatever they want. They act through their paintbrushes and their pencils.”
You can’t discuss Beauty and the Beast without touching on the memorable music. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman worked together to create a soundtrack that stands the test of time. “I have such great admiration for them,” O’Hara said, “I knew them as Broadway composers before this happened. Little Shop of Horrors is one of the biggest hits ever. Little Mermaid was great. Just having the chance to create something with them was a dream come true. I really believe they were the Rogers & Hammerstein of our era, and I think that their work, long after they’re gone, is going to be cherished like I do with Oscar Hammerstein. He was my favorite lyricist. Howard’s right there. I have to say, Howard, you’re right there.”
The film ended up being Ashman’s final project, and he poured all the energy he could into it. “It was really fascinating to see how Howard was really the visionary of the entire movie. In all aspects, he had his fingers in all the pies, and he had this vision. We all went with that. It was just so hard to watch him get sick. I said this actually on a documentary for Disney, but I think he knew that this was his last project and that was why he was such a stickler for everything to be perfect. He knew this was going to be his final legacy,” O’Hara said.
Henn had a different experience. As an animator that’s worked on several movies, he mentioned that by the time one film comes out, he’s entrenched in the next one. He said, “It isn’t until probably some time afterwards when the movies do come out and you meet people who still come up to you and say, ‘Beauty and the Beast was my favorite. Belle was my favorite character of all time.’ That just makes you feel good, and as we’re getting older and looking back on our careers a little more it’s quite an honor and a privilege to have been a part of a wonderful project like that.”
Playing the intrepid girl from a poor provincial town changed O’Hara’s life. She was a theater actress (and still is) and explained she was very proud of the performances she did on Broadway, but they’re gone and people will never see them. But with Belle, she said, “Here’s a project, this great movies that I’ve been a part of that’s going to live on forever.”
Beauty and the Beast continues to reach new audiences, and Belle will live on for a very long time. Though O’Hara doesn’t voice Belle in as many projects as she used to, she hasn’t hung up the yellow ball gown. Disney has been putting on live concert versions of their films at the Hollywood Bowl in Hollywood, California; the events have featured The Little Mermaid and The Nightmare Before Christmas so far. The voice of Ariel, Jodi Benson, appeared at The Little Mermaid show to deliver a showstopping performance of “Part of Your World.” I asked O’Hara whether we could see her play Belle again at the Bowl. “They have talked to me about it. They are planning to do a Beauty and the Beast, it’s just nothing’s been set yet. Yeah, after Jodi did… They were putting out feelers to everybody. My agent did get a call. That would be wonderful. I would love to be a part of that.”
The 25th anniversary release of Beauty and the Beast will be available on September 20. Extras include a singalong version, new segments like a sit-down with notable Disney composers, and more. Visit the gallery below to see concept art and sketches from the animated film, then head to the comments and let me know if you’ll be picking up a copy of the new Blu-ray.
Take a look at the new live action Beauty and the Beast right here!