With Beauty and the Beast, we enter deep into the Disney Renaissance. For almost the entirety of the 90’s, Disney released a major animated hit every year. Not all of them came from the main studio mind you – Toy Story 1 and 2 and A Bug’s Life were Pixar productions, while Skellington Productions made 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Disney Movietunes, which spawned from the Disney Channel, also released a few movies in theatres during the 90’s. But we’re only focusing on the main Disney Animation Studio for this project.
Beauty and the Beast released in 1991 to massive critical acclaim. It grossed $425 million on a $25 million budget. It became the first Disney movie to be adapted to Broadway, which first happened in 1994. It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture and was even the first animated movie ever nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It’s even only animated movie ever nominated for that category before they expanded it to 10 contenders. Since then, only Pixar’s Up and Toy Story 3 have been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Beauty and the Beast lost the Best Picture award to Silence of the Lambs, but there’s no shame in that.
Walt Disney himself wanted to adapt the french fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast”, and he tried in both the 30’s and the 50’s, but it didn’t take off either time. After The Little Mermaid’s success, Disney decided to go through with it. It went through a 2-year production cycle instead of Disney’s normal 4-year cycle. A lot of people confuse it as the first animated movie to use CGI, but as I’ve explained in previous posts, it’s not even the fourth. That said, Beauty and the Beast uses CGI more extensively than any previous animated movie. Several environments, most notably the ballroom, were done entirely in CGI. The movie’s use of Pixar’s CAPS software to ink the movie looks noticeably better in this movie than it did in The Rescuers Down Under, with better use of shadows, shading and lighting effects. The result is a brilliantly animated movie, especially considering its compressed production cycle.
But what is quite possibly the greatest part of this movie is the music. The soundtrack combines a mystical, enchanted feel with a dramatic tone. The songs carry a classical feel that belongs in 1700’s France, yet they’re often bombastic and fun. “Be Our Guest” is a perfect example, combining an increasingly large choir with visuals that get increasingly over the top along with the song. But the title song is a far simpler, more romantic number sung during the ballroom scene. It’s an absolutely beautiful song. No wonder Beauty and the Beast won the academy awards for both the original song “Beauty and the Beast”, and for Best Original Score.
There is also a deleted song from the theatrical version, “Human Again”, that they included in both the Broadway and the more recent Blu-ray/DVD releases. You can skip it, and I personally don’t like it as much as the others, but it’s also kind of fun.
The story itself is very well known, so I won’t detail the story itself. Instead, let’s talk about the characters. Belle, the daughter of an inventor, isn’t satisfied with living in her village in France. She would much rather read a book or go on an adventure than just live a normal, provincial life. The Beast starts off as selfish and ill-tempered, but he’s venerable inside and he realizes his flaws. They’re both great leads, even if Beast’s nasty side is a bit exaggerated at first.
Gaston provides the movie’s main villain as a conceited, but physically impressive specimen who’s obsessed with marrying the prettiest girl in the village. That happens to be Belle, who shows no feelings for him whatsoever. He’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, but he’s a great hunter who seems to own a pub downtown. He’s charismatic and he clearly loves himself, but in the end he turns out to be just as much of a moral monster as the beast is a physical monster. He’s a lot of fun, both with his inept thinking skills and his determination.
There are a bunch of supporting characters as well, each with distinct personalities and sometimes even subtle character development, but it would take too long to get through them all. Every single named character contributes something to the movie, whether it’s emphasizing the drama, adding comedy or helping explain the story. Every single voice actor fits their role perfectly. Robin David Segal as the beast sounds frightening when he’s angry, yet he sounds charming when he starts calming down. Paige O’Hera is perfect as Belle. She’s got a great singing voice and puts a lot of emotional energy into her dialogue. Opera singer Richard White as Gaston sounds like a total jock when he speaks, and he might actually have the best singing voice in the movie. That’s saying a lot.
With all these praises thrown at the movie, I do have some criticisms. I’m not going to cry Stockholm Syndrome like some people do. Stockholm Syndrome requires the victim to be completely submissive, and Belle isn’t. She stands up to the beast on multiple occasions, like refusing to eat dinner with him at his command early on, and standing her ground when they argue earlier in the movie. She only starts softening up after The Beast risks his life to save her from wolves, and even then, she lectures him when he complains that her cleaning his wound hurts. Even when they start falling in love, Belle doesn’t just change the Beast – they make compromises and often laugh about it. With all that said, the Beast is a bit too monstrous at the start of the movie. He locks up Belle’s father for no real reason considering his servants let him into the castle to warm up. In the original version of the story, Belle’s father at least stole a rose from the Beast’s garden. You also have to wonder why Lefou is so loyal to Gaston, considering how bad Gaston treats him.
Minor complaints aside, this is a really good movie.
Like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, One Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Jungle Book before it, Beauty and the Beast has also had a live action remake. I watched the remake in preparation for this post and … it’s not very good. With very few exceptions, it’s a beat for beat remake, sometimes even shot for shot. They removed some of the comedy in attempt to make the movie more dramatic, and it makes characters like Belle’s father less compelling as a result. The comedy they added often falls flat. It also answers questions that never really needed to be answered, like how Belle’s mother died of the plague (which adds nothing to the movie’s overall narrative), and hinting that the Beast had an abusive father and then never mentioning it again.
The movie is also casted wrong. Gaston is a huge, muscular man in the original, which the song lyrics often refer to. In the remake, Gaston is barely taller than Belle, and you never see any of his muscles thanks to his oversized outfit. He doesn’t even sound intimidating either – he just sounds like an average guy. Emma Watson is fine as Belle when she’s talking, but her singing voice is vastly inferior, not to mention it’s obviously using auto-tune.
In fact, almost all of the singing voices in this movie are inferior to the original, sucking the energy right out of the music. The new songs are all kind of boring and don’t match the lyrical mastery or the fun and dramatic melodies of the original. In fact, the only song that comes close to is “Be Your Guest”, except the over the top CGI presentation in a live action movie just looks silly.
But the worst part may be the CGI. In the original animated classic the living cups, candlesticks and clocks all look charming. The movie didn’t try to look realistic in the first place, so they match the visual style perfectly. Trying to make them look realistic through CGI just makes them look unsettling. The beast fares much better, but he doesn’t look half as intimidating or as impressive as the original. It would have been better to go with a costume and maybe touch up the facial expressions digitally.
This year’s Beauty and the Beast is the perfect example of why you shouldn’t remake a movie that was nominated for Best Picture. The only exception to that rule is if the original is from the era where people referred to movies with sound as “talkies”, or even older than that. And yet, the live action remake made a lot of money somehow. I will give it this much though – it included the rose stealing bit from the original story. That at least improved on one of my complaints about the original.
I won’t go so far as to say I love Beauty and the Beast, but it’s got a lot of loyal fans for a reason. This is probably the first romantic story I ever enjoyed, and it’s part of the reason I can enjoy them even now. It’s a story about seeing past what someone looks like, and learning what kind of person they really are. The comedy is often funny and it never distracts from the dramatic tone. The action at the end is intense enough to be exciting, without going too far for an otherwise romantic movie. It’s by far the most developed romance in Disney movies that I’ve talked about so far. That makes this an easy recommendation for fairytale fans.
Next up is Aladdin, one of my childhood favourites, followed by The Lion King. After that, it’s Pocahontas, which is actually the first Disney movie I ever saw in theatres.