Until 2009’s Up, only one animated film in the history of cinema had ever been nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
Released 20 years ago this year, Beauty and the Beast was Disney’s 30th animated feature (this year’s Tangled is its 50th). It was actually something they’d been thinking about for years, but didn’t really know how to make it, especially with the technology they had to hand. To remind you, this is what 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs looked like:
Of course, the animation is amazingly fluid for its age, and Snow White pushed the very boundaries of what 1930s technology was capable of. Walt Disney mortgaged his house to finance the film – referred to as “Disney’s Folly” during production – but his ambition paid off and the film was a huge success.
By 1984, Disney had narrowly avoided a hostile takeover by corporate raider Saul Steinberg and, in response, underwent a shake-up. Paramount’s Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were drafted in to head up a new operation of which Warner Bros’ Frank Wells became President. The recent animated features had been flops and the following year’s Black Cauldron was another failure. The legendary animation department was removed from the Disney lot and consigned to an off-site warehouse, with Eisner in charge. He began to take risks, of which Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid are notable successes, sparking what is often referred to as the Disney Renaissance.
What to say: Beauty and the Beast, Roger Rabbit and The Nightmare Before Christmas represent the era when Disney was truly magical.
What not to say: Cartoons are for children, silly!
1. It has a great story
OK, so it’s not The Usual Suspects or Fight Club, but it’s a great story in that it’s all about looking past the exterior – a healthy message against shallowness that we could take more heed of in this vacuous age. Of course, the film takes its story from the old French fairy tale, though differs in many aspects. Maurice is an inventor, not a wealthy merchant. Belle doesn’t have wicked sisters. Instead of being imprisoned because he picked a rose from the garden for his daughter, Maurice is captured simply for trespassing. He doesn’t send Belle to the castle – she rushes there to rescue him and offers to trade her freedom for her father’s.
The original storyboard stuck closely to the traditional fairytale, but after they showed their work to Disney boss Katzenberg, they were forced to scrap the first year’s work, and the director was replaced with two co-directors with a completely different vision.
2. It has great characters
Belle isn’t like the other Disney princesses. While Ariel was a little feistier than the earlier leading ladies, Belle is downright brave. OK, so she’s not exactly Tank Girl, but she’s a bookish eccentric designed to be “unaware” of her own beauty, and who certainly isn’t dreaming that One Day [her] Prince Will Come. On the contrary, she starts the film by explaining that her dreams involve leaving her dull provincial town in search of adventure, and by turning down the proposal from the somewhat keen Gaston. He’s the villain of the piece – vain, selfish, cruel and wilfully ignorant – so they made him very handsome as a foil to the hairy-but-sweet Beast.
My favourite scenes are when Belle and the Beast argue over whether she’s coming downstairs for dinner (his exasperated expressions are priceless) and the bit after the forest scene when they’re bickering as she cleans his wounds. Again, it’s all in the animation, as Beast looks smug every time he says “well, you shouldn’t …” and lists off one of her failures, only to be met with a stern retort.
Then there’s womanising candelbra Lumiere, uptight clock Cogsworth, flirty featherduster Babette (voiced by the girl who played Annie in Twin Peaks!) and kindly teapot Mrs Potts – each the enchanted inhabitants of the castle. Even the dim-witted triplets with crushes on Gaston are fairly unforgettable.
3. It’s surprisingly dark
We might be more used to sophistication from Disney these days, but Beauty and the Beast had a surprisingly gothic tone in its day. From the Burtonesque touch of the enchanted carriage in the scene above to the toddler-scaring scene below, Beauty was as fond of darkness and shadows as it was of the lush painted tones of its backdrops.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though – even in spite of its memorably tear-jerking finale. It’s also the funniest non-CGI entrant in the Disney canon.
4. It has great music
You probably noticed the extraordinary music in the forest scene above, which forms part of Alan Menken’s award-winning score. After the initial reels had been dropped and the rewrite ordered, Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman were hired to create a “Broadway musical”. Casting was held in New York rather than Los Angeles, in order to get the best stage stars for the auditions. Paige O’ Hara was an experienced Broadway actress, whose voice (Snow White meets Dorothy Gale) won her the role as much as her acting talent. Vocals were recorded live with the orchestra rather than being overdubbed, in order to capture the energy of a live performance. There’s something slightly old-fashioned about that way of singing, and about those songs, but they work in the context of the film – which often feels more like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta than anything we’re used to.
Sadly, Howard Ashman died before the film was released, but he wrote some wonderful lyrics such as in the clip above: “No-one plots like Gaston/takes cheap shots like Gaston/tries to persecute harmless crackpots like Gaston …”
5. It changed how animated movies are made
One of the things that they could do in 1991 that they couldn’t do in 1937 was to use CGI to create the illusion of dollying the camera as in the famous scene below. The digital effects shots in Beauty and the Beast were so well-liked that the studio used a lot more of them afterwards. Yes, there’s still a demand for traditional 2D animation, but the technology from Beauty made films like Toy Story and Up possible. This year’s $260m production, Tangled, aims to blend the best of traditional and modern animated techniques and has thus far been very well received.
What Beauty did most was to prove that animated films needn’t be vapid and soppy. It taught us that Disney cartoons can also be great films.