Extended Thoughts on ‘Beauty and the Beast’
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Written by Linda Woolverton
There is an inexorable, inexplicable quality about some great movies, as there is about great art in general. Sometimes, yes, we can pinpoint exactly what makes a movie work so well, why it becomes one of our favorites, why it wins awards, why critics love it, or why it makes millions of dollars at the box office. The script is insightful, the direction is incredible, the visuals are eye-popping, the performances are immense powerhouses of talent. These are easy ways to calculate what makes a movie work, but sometimes, we see a movie and we just like it. Sometimes, you can’t put your finger on one element about a movie that burrows itself under your skin, but you love it all the same.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Beauty and the Beast has a lot of clearly standout aspects to it, but I don’t know that I can tell you why I admire it more than I admire most other Disney movies. I’m not ready to say it’s my favorite Disney movie of all time—and keep in mind, I am not including Pixar films in this mix, because that’s an entirely different list—because I’m more than partial to Pinocchio. But the more I think about Beauty and the Beast as well as other movies that came out during this so-called Disney Renaissance period, the more I realize that it’s thanks to movies like this that are making me so invested in the podcast.
I don’t mean to present some bias against movies from the 1930s and 1940s by saying this, but the level of entertainment and enjoyment I get out of Fantasia, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and even Bambi isn’t anywhere near what I get out of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and The Little Mermaid. You could probably make a solid argument that this is somewhat due to the content of children’s entertainment in the 1990s versus what was available in the 1930s. Maybe I’ve always just been more mentally able to be entertained by modern fare, though I do love plenty of old movies. I just don’t share that love very frequently with Disney animation. I admire it, but I don’t always love it.
Is that heretical to say? I’d say the same of some older live-action films, that I admire them but I don’t share the love for them. The visceral pleasures of Pinocchio make it one of my favorites, but it’s not just that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a princess movie, it’s that I find the storytelling to be far less impressive than that of future Disney movies. “Future Disney movies” means, by the by, movies from the era when Walt Disney himself was still instrumental in making the movies he produced, as opposed to just being something of a cinematic figurehead. There’s no question that watching these films is like watching works of art, literal works of art. The skill that goes into bringing Snow White, Cinderella, Peter Pan, and others to life is staggering even now. The skill that goes into the stories of those movies is, I think, a bit lacking.
That’s not the case with Beauty and the Beast, a movie that manages to be cheerfully old-fashioned while seeming fresh, new, and unexpected. The story is, indeed, as old as time itself, yet we’re won over by it all the same. Can the beautiful and intelligent girl be wooed by a ghastly, masculine creature? Can that creature grow up, leave behind his childish immaturities, and become a real man? Well, of course, but the journey we take to get to the expected resolution is more than worth it. See, sometimes, the best stories don’t have to be flashy or stylish or unique. It’s weird, I suppose, to commend Beauty and the Beast for not being something from the mind of a groundbreaking writer or director, but there you have it. Beauty and the Beast is an emotionally satisfying tale told well.
But it’s compelling to consider how badly this movie could’ve turned out. The Blu-ray of the film, which I highly recommend, includes an alternate 18-minute opening from before Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were attached to direct the film. Only a couple of years before everyone around the world fell in love with Beauty and the Beast, it was set to be directed by Richard Purdum, protégé of Richard Williams, who was the animation director for Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Purdum’s version of Beauty and the Beast shares many similarities with the version we have now, but it’s also wildly different. What’s truly fascinating is watching the creative process at work in both versions.
Beauty and the Beast is, of course, set in France, but the animation looks so starkly opposite in the junked version versus what we have now. Imagine what would have happened had the village Belle and her father, Maurice, lived in was still part of the Gallic countryside, but was populated not by rustic villagers but by lots and lots of fops. Yes, you read that right. Powdered wigs, lots of fancy makeup, corsets, the whole get-up. That could’ve been what each person in Beauty and the Beast looked like. What’s more, in the original version, Maurice seems less kindly simply for being younger and not seeming like a kooky old grandfather. And, the enchanted servants sing “Be Our Guest” to him, not to Belle. This is just one of many examples of why starting from scratch isn’t always a bad thing. Just think about how many times we read these days about production troubles for this or that live-action movie. People always assume the worst when they read such stories, and being fair, with live-action filmmaking, production troubles don’t bode well.
But animation, somehow, gets a pass from us. Now, part of this is thanks to the media not covering the ins and outs of an animated film’s production as they do for live-action films. I realize, of course, that Beauty and the Beast came out well before websites like Deadline Hollywood Daily became the norm for entertainment journalism, rifling through each movie’s daily garbage for some kind of morsel, and before other, legitimate publications aped Nikki Finke’s style of writing and content. But still, it’s always been very popular for Hollywood-based journalists to cover, with some glee, the foibles and follies of movie productions. So why not focus on stories like Beauty and the Beast having its original version scrapped and replacing directors? If that happened in live-action movies, we’d hear no end of it.
Of course, I wonder if people would’ve been as receptive to Beauty and the Beast had they known about its troubles during the production phase. As it stands, Beauty and the Beast is one of the most appropriately beloved Disney films, standing alongside Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and a few others as one of the great animated films of all time. And, just like those examples, the love story goes exactly as we assume it will, but there’s one immense and important difference. In Sleeping Beauty, we get to know Aurora, but her Prince is kind of a cipher. Still, even Prince Phillip is a vast improvement on the Prince in Snow White, who gets maybe five minutes of screen time and barely interacts with the titular character. Here, as evidenced by the title, we get to follow this story from both perspectives. Though we begin the story with Belle (and the triumphant opening number of the same name), once we meet the Beast, the film belongs as much to him as it does to her.
If there is a chief reason for this film’s creative success, it’s that. By not focusing only on one half of the blooming love between Belle and the Beast, Trousdale, Wise, screenwriter Linda Woolverton, and the Disney animators take a massive step in the right direction. Although other later Disney films, such as Aladdin and Hercules, would attempt to give equal time to both sides, it’s awfully hard to do that when your movie’s title focuses squarely on one person. I’m not saying that those movies need to be called Aladdin and Jasmine, or Hercules and Megara. No, that would be incredibly silly, but the Disney team has to know that by titling the movie after one character, it means I’m going to focus on that one character. (The discussion over how weak the storytelling is in Aladdin by making the Genie the most interesting character is one for another day.) Beauty and the Beast may make us focus first on Belle, but our interest in both characters is equal.
Of course, there are plenty of elements in this movie about which I could rave. The easy one, and the most appropriate, is the music and songs from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Ashman passed away in early 1991, and was never able to see the finished film; it’s truly heartbreaking to consider that someone so instrumental to the film’s success couldn’t see what came from his time and hard work. There aren’t as many songs as I’d assumed there would be, and certainly nowhere near as many as there are in the Broadway adaptation of the film, but when you have “Belle,” “Gaston,” “Be Our Guest,” and the title song, who needs excessive singing? Those four songs are among the very best music from Walt Disney Studios. The melody may not be as iconic or embedded in our psyches as “When You Wish Upon A Star,” but they’re playful, sweet, and damned catchy.
Beauty and the Beast is one of the all-time classics for Walt Disney Pictures. It should come as no surprise that Disney himself tried to make an animated version of the film in the 1940s, but chose not to either because he couldn’t crack the story or because French filmmaker Jean Cocteau got there before he did, at least in terms of creating an iconic version of the fairy tale. 45 years after Cocteau’s vision of the story was released, the geniuses at Walt Disney Feature Animation were able to make the namesake of their company proud with a rousing, moving, and thoroughly entertaining movie that best encapsulates the old saw: “Isn’t it a shame that they don’t make movies like that anymore?”
– Josh Spiegel