Tale As Old As Time – The Groundbreaking Legacy of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Animation historians will note that one of the most pivotal periods ever for the artistic medium was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, at a point where animation made a great leap forward that would help carry it into the new millennium as not just something for the kids, but as a respectable artform respected by Hollywood at large.  Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, animation was trying to define itself in new ways.  This included experimental animation from the likes of Richard Williams and Ralph Bakshi, to darker toned animation from the likes of Don Bluth, to acclaimed imports from the likes of Japanese anime.  In many ways, they were there to fill a vacuum left over after the biggest names in animation, Disney and Warner Brothers, had diminished in popularity.  Warner Brothers had already retired it’s animation division and were solely using their beloved Looney Tunes characters mainly for television purposes.  Disney fell into a funk in what was known as the post-Walt years, or otherwise known as the Disney Dark Ages.  There were still animated films being made like Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977), but they were fewer and far between and a far cry from the movies of Walt Disney’s time.  Going into the 80’s, fear began to spread that Disney was going to fold their entire animation department altogether, which became especially possible after the colossal box office failure of The Black Cauldron (1985).  But, a new regime at the studio led by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to give Animation one final shot to save it’s future.  In order to do that, Disney Animation decided to return to the foundation on which it began and take on a another beloved fairy tale, that being The Little Mermaid (1989).  The experiment worked, and Mermaid ended up becoming a huge hit and saved Disney Animation from annihilation.  But, it wasn’t over as Disney decided to strike while the iron was hot and pursue yet another beloved fairy tale as their next animated hit.  That of course would be the immortal tale of Beauty and the Beast.

The tale of Beauty and the Beast is one that has it’s origins in many different places and cultures, spanning across the globe and the centuries.  A tale as old as time, as it were.  Though you can find it’s influences in many different cultures, the story that we are familiar with the most is from the 1756 French interpretation from writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.  This version is the most noteworthy because it centered on the identity of the central heroine of the story; the country girl known as Belle, which naturally means Beauty in French.  The Beaumont interpretation also defined other elements crucial to the story like the Enchanted castle that the Beast calls home as well as the significance of a Rose as a plot element in the story.  In the original story, it is a Rose that sparks the series of events that leads Belle to meeting the Beast, as the Beast threatens retribution against Belle’s father for stealing a Rose from his garden, and Belle elects to take her father’s place as his prisoner.  Over time, Belle begins to see the humanity in the Beast and the two grow closer, eventually leading to Belle being able to break the curse that has turned the Beast from man to animal.  It’s a story that has captivated the imaginations of many over the years, both as a pivotal work of fantasy but also as quintessential love story as well.  Of course, it became a favorite filmmakers as well.  Renowned French auteur Jean Cocteau created his own magical version of the story with what many consider to be among one of the greatest works of cinematic art ever made.  Cocteau’s version was almost so beloved that few other filmmakers dared to touch the story afterwards, because they felt that they would fall short of Cocteau’s masterpiece.  But, if there was ever someone to try, it was Disney.  Given that the Cocteau version itself features many incredible flights of fantasy, it only makes sense that animation could take on something similar.  However, bringing new life to an age old story carries it’s own set of problems.  Walt Disney himself ended up shelving a version of Beauty and the Beast, because he could never resolve the challenges of the story, mainly that the whole second half of the story is just two characters alone in a castle.  He ended up opting to make Sleeping Beauty (1959) instead, which gave Walt a more satisfying artistic pursuit.  But, for his successors in the years after, it became an especially daunting challenge to undertake; could they end up doing something that Walt himself found too difficult.

With Michael Eisner taking over as the new CEO of Disney in 1984, and Jeffrey Katzenberg left in charge of the Animation department (something he admittedly knew nothing about going in), the culture began to immediately change at the studio.  After years of wondering “What would Walt do?” the question shifted to what were the people now in charge going to do.  What Katzenberg did bring was a renewed sense of trying harder and going bigger with their new projects.  The new culture at the studio did in the end work out, as The Little Mermaid‘s success would attest.  And like Beauty and the Beast, Mermaid was another property that Walt Disney had attempted but later abandoned.  If they could make Mermaid work, why not Beauty.  Around 1987, while Mermaid was still in it’s final phases of production, Beauty and the Beast was given the greenlight for development.  The same songwriting team behind Mermaid, composer Alan Menken and Lyricist Howard Ashman, were commissioned to write the score for the new film.  A longtime story department member at Disney named Don Hahn was also given the opportunity to produce his first feature.  Initially, the film was going to be produced at a satellite studio in London, with animation legend Richard Williams directing, as he was just finishing up his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) for the studio.  However, unresolvable story issues came up and Williams ended up leaving the project after the first pass at the story, opting instead to return to his pet project The Thief and the Cobbler (1992) instead.  With Williams departure, producer Don Hahn  and the story team scrambled to save the project from cancellation.  They decided to bring the production home to Burbank and assemble a new team to guide the production.  Directing duties fell on two newcomers named Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, whose only work previously at Disney was creating a pre-show segment for a theme park attraction called Cranium Command, which was found at the Wonders of Life pavilion at Epcot.  These were not the usual suspects you would expect for a prestigious project like Beauty and the Beast, but like the moral of the story itself, looks can be deceiving.

With a looming deadline of Thanksgiving weekend 1991, the animation team had to scramble quickly.  Principle animation didn’t even begin until early 1990, giving the team little over a year to complete the film; an unheard of short window in the medium known for it’s long production cycles.  Still, once things began to roll, the film began to come together without interruption.  One of the big successes of Beauty of the Beast was the fact that they managed to resolve the story problems that confounded even Walt Disney.  What helped the most was that they filled out the cast of the story with a colorful collection of characters who populated the Beast’s castle.  In the classic Cocteau version, the Beast’s chateau is populated with enchanted appliances and decorations that have human like appearance and even come to life at times.  Disney includes these enchanted objects as well in their version, but unlike the ones in Cocteau’s film, they have personalities of their own.  For Disney’s Beauty, we learn that the curse that turned a handsome prince into the beast also affect his household staff as well, making them into enchanted objects that are scattered throughout.  As a result, the empty desolate castle no longer feels empty, and the stories of these enchanted objects help to support the main story between Belle and the Beast.  Though the enchanted objects number in the hundreds, it’s three primary ones that are central to the story, and they are a debonair candelabra maître’ d named Lumiere, a stuffy table clock majordomo named Cogworth, and a sweet matronly teapot maid named Mrs. Potts.  It also helped that several veteran character actors were brought in to give these enchanted objects their personalities, with Broadway veteran Jerry Orbach channeling Maurice Chevalier in the role of Lumiere, David Ogden Stiers doing his best wound up British butler as Cogsworth, and the incredible Angela Lansbury absolutely warming our hearts as Mrs. Potts.  But their contributions wouldn’t have worked as well enough if the movie hadn’t effectively perfected it’s two leads.  Broadway star Paige O’Hara landed the coveted role of Belle and as a result with her forceful but dignified performance, she set a new high standard for a Disney princess.  Most surprisingly however was the choice of one time teen heartthrob Robby Benson in the role of the Beast.  Certainly not the voice you would first think of for a Beast, and Benson had to really stand out in a large crowd of potential actors, including Regis Philbin according to director Kirk Wise in the film’s audio commentary (can you imagine).  What probably won Robby Benson the role ultimately was that he managed to find the soul of the character.  And indeed, one of the remarkable strengths of the final film is how well it makes us the audience fall in love with the Beast.

But apart from the stellar cast that was assembled for the movie, the film also remarkably pushed the animation medium to new heights.  A few of the animators from the now shuttered London studio did manage to make the trip back to Burbank, California and pick up right where they left off, and because of their work on Beauty and the Beast, they have gone on to become some of the most celebrated animators of all time.  Of special note was the animator of the Beast, named Glen Keane.  Keane, who also animated Ariel in The Little Mermaid, was instrumental in not only animating the Beast, but also designing his look as well.  His work is really a masterclass in animation, because he perfectly constructed a character that can be equal parts fearsome and loveable, and as a result he found the beauty with a monster that was instrumental to the morale of the story.  Working in unison with Keane’s animation of the Beast was James Baxter’s incredible animation of Belle.  The subtlety of his animation helps to give Belle this graceful presence in the story; stern, independent, but not afraid to express her emotions openly.  Again, Belle set a new high standard for Disney princesses, and it was largely due to the marriage of James Baxter’s animation and Paige O’Hara’s soulful performance.  Another animator, Andreas Deja, also stood out with his animation of the movie’s villain Gaston.  With Gaston, Deja set out to create the exact opposite of the Beast, a character beautiful on the outside but ugly within, and for inspiration he modeled Gaston on the muscled beefcakes that frequently populated the gyms around the Los Angeles area; something I can attest to being real as I’ve been to gyms in the LA region.  Gaston would mark the beginning of a solid run of memorable villain assignments for Andreas, as he would go on to animate Jafar in Aladdin (1992) and Scar in The Lion King (1994).  Also of note was animator Will Finn, who worked on Cogsworth.  He developed the concept that would help guide the animation of the enchanted objects, developing the idea that the characters were made of a material he called Disneyite.  As he described it, Disneyite to the touch would feel like brass or wood, but it would be as flexible and moldable as rubber, and that’s what he said the enchanted objects were made of.  This helped to give the other animators the idea to be more flexible with their animation and not portray the enchanted objects as too stiff.  One other thing that Beauty and the Beast broke new ground on was the incredible use of a new tool called computer animation.  Still in it’s infancy, and years away from Toy Story (1995), applications of computer animation were still untested in animation, and many didn’t know if it would work in conjunction with traditional hand drawn animation.  But, a devoted team of artists attempted to apply this new technology to Disney animation, and Beauty and the Beast provided the most unexpected result of all.  For a pivotal scene in the movie, hand drawn Belle and the Beast enter a completely CGI environment made to look like an ornate ballroom.  Remarkably the two elements matched up perfectly, creating a breathtaking result as the camera swoops around the environment like nothing seen in animation before.  It’s still to this day one of the most enthralling moments ever in animation.

While the movie managed to cross the finish line under such a tight schedule, there was an unfortunate drama also taking place behind the scenes.  Unbeknownst to much of the crew at the time, lyricist Howard Ashman was in the final stages of his battle with AIDS while working on Beauty and the Beast.  Ashman had only told a handful of people in his inner circle that he was ill, and he only broke the news to his collaborator Alan Menken the night they won their Oscars for the music of The Little Mermaid.  But, even as he was in and out of the hospital in those final years, Ashman continued to work adamantly on this score that meant so much to him.  Both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were deeply personal stories to him, given their messages of tolerance, compassion, and understanding.  As an out and proud gay man working in a medium that wasn’t always accepting of outsiders, Ashman gravitated towards stories that spoke to the oddballs and so-called “freaks” in our society and asked the audience to see the good inside and not just go along with what society considers to be normal and beautiful.  That’s certainly true with the portrayal of the Beast and his antithesis Gaston, but it was also important for Ashman that Belle was also a bit of an outsider in the story; looked down upon by the rest of her “poor provincial town” because she is such a bookworm.  That’s where Ashman found the heart of the story and he reflected that into the many memorable songs that have since gone on to become all time classics.  Of course the song “Be Our Guest” is a show-stopping hit, as are the character defining ones of “Belle” and “Gaston,” but it’s the Oscar-winning title song “Beauty and the Beast” that many point out as Ashman and Menken’s finest work.  Even more remarkable is the story behind the song’s recording.   Angela Lansbury believed initially that she couldn’t perform it, because she listed to Alan Menken’s more pop sounding demo tape.  When she gave a listen to Howard Ashman’s more subtle, spoken word demo, then it clicked for her, and she went into the booth and nailed it in one take.  I’m sure a couple more recordings were done for safety, but it’s that first take that we hear in the final film, which just shows how well the brilliance of Ashman’s writing, the music of Menken, and the voice Lansbury can be captured in one beautiful moment.  Sadly, Ashman didn’t live to see the finished film.  He succumbed to his fight with AIDS in March of 1991; seven months before the premiere.  And even while he was on his death bed, he continued to dictate notes for the crew of Beauty and the Beast, devoting his final days to his last great work.  To memorialize Ashman’s memory, an epitaph was added to the credits of Beauty and the Beast, honoring the man as it says “gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul.”

Releasing Beauty and the Beast in theaters not long after The Little Mermaid still was not without some risk.  But, with a forceful marketing push behind it thanks to Jeffrey Katzenberg, Beauty was set to carry on the momentum that Mermaid had started.  What was especially surprising was that Katzenberg was wanted to push the film beyond it’s acceptability as family entertainment.  He wanted this movie to be taken seriously by the whole Hollywood establishment.  One way he did this was by having the film premiere at the prestigious New York Film Festival.  There was only one problem; the movie wasn’t complete yet.  So, Katzenberg and Co., in order to generate some extra buzz for the movie, decided to still premiere the film as a special “Work in Progress” state, displaying an animated film for the first time publicly in a version that only those at the studio would’ve seen, completely with rough, incomplete animation.  It was rolling back the curtain in a way and showing an audience what goes into making an animated film.  The only question was would the usually elitist New York film crowd go for it.  Not only did it work, but the Work in Progress version of Beauty and the Beast received a standing ovation and immense praise at it’s premiere.  That good fortune would extend further once the movie made it’s wide debut Thanksgiving weekend.  It received almost universal praise from critics and audiences alike, and even surpassed the lofty box office of The Little Mermaid, becoming the first ever animated film to cross the $100 million mark in it’s first run.  And it didn’t stop there.  Beauty and the Beast would go on to become the first ever animated nominee for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  It ultimately would lose to The Silence of the Lambs, but Beauty still managed to break through that barrier and help to legitimize the animated film as a force to be taken seriously in Hollywood.  The movie of course did pick up awards for it’s music and Best Song, with Howard Ashman’s posthumous win shedding a much needed spotlight on recognizing the victims of HIV and AIDS in both the industry and society at large.  And after Beauty and the Beast’s success, Disney Animation was not only safe from annihilation, but was in fact thriving, cementing an era that would come to be known as the Disney Renaissance, which would also help elevate the medium of animation across the world as well.  That in itself is the greatest impact that it left behind; it made animation respectable, and not just stuff for the kids.

I can’t tell you how crucial this movie was for me as a kid.  I was 9 years old when Beauty and the Beast was released in theaters and it was such an interesting period of time that in some ways broadened my perspective of cinema.  For the first time, I remember taking note of what the film community was saying about this movie that I myself became fascinated with.  I think the year that Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture was the first time I ever watched the Academy Awards, because it was the first time something that I had seen was up for the top award.  I think I expressed disappointment when Silence of the Lambs won instead, but of course as an adult I’ve learned to appreciate that masterpiece as well, and overall generally agree with that pick in the long run.  Still, after Beauty and the Beast‘s trip to the Oscars, I began taking more interest in the critical reception of animated movies from then out, including following critics like Siskel and Ebert and Leonard Maltin, as they often opened up discussion of animated movies that I found fascinating.  Probably without movies like Beauty and the Beast hitting at the right time, who knows if I would’ve become the movie buff that I am today.  Strangely enough, of the Disney movies of the Renaissance era, Beauty and the Beast is the one that I return to the least.  I find The Little Mermaid to be the more revolutionary launching point, and Aladdin and The Lion King to be more generally exciting.  That’s not to say that I have grown to dislike Beauty and the Beast; far from it.  It’s just a movie that is more noteworthy to me because of what it accomplished over the years more than how it captivates me as a viewer.  It’s still a fantastic movie overall and still holds up 30 years later.  Even today, it’s still celebrated as a high water mark in the history of animation.  A live action remake of it even made Disney over a billion dollars globally, though of course I made my thoughts pretty clear here how I thoroughly disliked that version.  What made the original special is the way it perfectly encapsulated the best work of the artists involved working tirelessly on a short schedule, and capturing lightning in a bottle that has since gone on legitimize the artform as a part of cinema as a whole.  That is the beauty behind Beauty and the Beast, a movie that transcends the limitations of of it’s medium and demands to be seen for the true work of art that it represents.  The tale as old as time became the foundation on which the art of animation would enjoy a prosperous future well into the new millennium.  And for Disney, the animators, writers and executives who worked tirelessly on it, and the audiences that have embraced it over the years, the long legacy of Beauty and the Beast is a time old tale that has gone on to live happily ever after.