Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Starring: Paige 'O Hara, Robby Benson, Jerry Orbach, David Odgen Stiers, Angela Lansbury
Directed by: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Released by: Walt Disney Pictures
Synopsis: Once there was a spoiled prince who was turned into a horrendous beast by an enchantress due to the harshness that lied deep within his heart. The only way to turn back is to fall with a woman and be loved in return. But this proves to be emotionally distressing for the pressing as no one would fall in love with a hideous beast.
Review: Many Disney films are considered to be iconic by many generations of movie goers. For many children of the 80s and 90s like myself, Beauty and the Beast is that film. It was the second in what many like to call “The Fab Four”, a series of modern fairy tale films that became incredible successes at the box office and gave the Disney name even more presence in pop-culture. While the film isn't as perfect as some claim it is, Beauty and the Beast is nonetheless a very fine film.
Funny enough, many of its strengths and weaknesses lie in the story. Rather than fully adapting the classic fairy tale the writing team decided to borrow elements of said story and add many new elements that enhances its dramatic content. The title characters are fully present and they are quite wonderful and complex. Belle, voiced splendidly by Paige O'Hara, is a free spirited young woman that desires more out of her daily life. For many Belle defined the modern Disney princess by being a dreamer but at the same time being proactive in her affairs. Her main quirk is that she is a bookworm, a characteristic that many girls have identified with for many years. Another aspect is that she is indeed a beautiful leading lady, but what sticks out the most was her personality, shattering a bit of the misconception of the Disney Princess being more than just a beautiful being for the main characters to rescue. In many ways, she rescues the Beast from his fate.
Speaking of which, Beast, voiced by Robby Benson, is easily the best character in the entire film, for when you meet him he is terrifying. When he becomes the beast he embraces it, but mainly because he has lost faith in ever seeking redemption through the love of a significant other. But when he meets Belle and her spunk clashes with his short temper sparks really do fly, giving us one of the more complex relationships ever presented in a Disney film. In many of the movies the princess character quickly falls in love with the prince character, love at first sight as they like to call it. With Beauty and the Beast the relationship actually develops over time, which starts with fear, then hatred, followed by friendship, then true love. Belle changed her feelings towards the beast when he started to change his tune, and when he does he realizes that he has feelings that haven't been felt in years. This leads to an emotionally charged conclusion that is both satisfying and extremely heartbreaking, turning the fairy tale into one of one man's redemption.
Of course, for any relationship to succeed there needs to be an opposing factor threatening to destroy it. Beauty and the Beast's villain is none other than Gaston. Like the main characters, he too is interestingly complex. When we first meet him he is what we like to call “the likable jerk”. He flaunts his good looks and strength in a manner that you can't help but enjoy, and his constant antics to get Belle's approval are enjoyable. But as the plot develops and reaches darker areas of the human mind, Gaston completely changes. His change contrasts that of the beast. Just as the beast begins to transform into a human being Gaston reverses into a man that would kill and manipulate anyone just to get what he wants. It reveals his true nature, and any likability as a character goes down the drain when he begins to act this way.
The rest of the supporting characters do a fantastic job of creating a balance between humor and drama. Lumiere the enchanted candelabra, performed by Jerry Orbach, and Cogsworth the clock, voiced by David Odgen Stiers, are great characters with amazing chemistry in the classic buddy comedy routine Disney likes to display in their films. Mrs. Pots, voiced by Angela Lansbury, is the warmth of the movie and often the voice of reason when everybody else is too focused on accomplishing a mission. She teaches the beast that the way to Belle's heart is not by force but via sincere appreciation.
So with the film establishing a strong story and amazing characters what is exactly wrong with it? I admit very little, but there are a few notable quirks, mainly with the pacing. Problem is that at times it goes too fast, often failing to give us a realistic passage of time. We are told to believe that Belle has been a prisoner in Beast's castle for a while now, and this is shown through the changes of the seasons. And yet, the events feel like they happened one after the other. This makes the development of the relationship feel rushed. This was notable in the many sequels and spin-offs the Disney company released years later when the characters would jump back and forth between the personalities created in the first movie and the ones once it ended.
Fans have also argued a lot about Belle's true feelings towards the beast. It is shown that she does begin to care for him after a period of time, to the point where she doesn't see him as a threat but as a living, feeling being, and went out of her way to protect him when Gaston raided his castle. But there wasn't a physical expression of love (like a kiss) when the beast was still transformed. This has lead many fans to criticize the film for praising values about the beauty within the person, but at the same time not showing its lovers partake in any form of physical love.
Regardless, these are rather small issues that lie mainly in how the viewer interprets the film rather than actual comments about the quality of the film. It is in my honest opinion one of the more emotionally packed stories the studio has produced, Pocahontas being the best in that note.
But one element that has made Beauty and the Beast one of the more popular of the modern Disney films is the music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (who unfortunately passed away after the film was completed, the film was dedicated to his honor). The two men created a foundation for how modern Disney musicals should be made with their work on The Little Mermaid, and they manage to achieve the impossible, and that is to create an even better effort than the previous one. Nearly all of the songs give out a vibe of a grand production brought through life through the magic of animation. “Belle” quickly establishes the mood and feel of the character while at the same time gently mocking the conventional opening song where everyone sings the praises of the lead character. “Be Our Guest” is the show stopped created to give us a reason as to why the presence of Belle in the castle is one of great significance. Finally, we have the theme song “Beauty and the Beast”, which is the emotional climax of the character's relationship, and the crowning achievement of every sense available. These are the stand outs in a soundtrack with many high points, and I can't get enough of it.
Last but not least is the animation. Why did I decide to put this last? Because as pretty as the movie is it does have some tiny issues that bring it down a tad bit. The animation for Belle and Beast are astounding, despite some problems with keeping the characters on-model. Beast in particular is an achievement in itself due to his design being very a combination of many animals, and yet he is still able to convey human emotions. The supporting cast, especially in their enchanted form, look great as well thanks to a lot of imagination gone into their design and animation. You will believe that a metallic candelabra can do the can-can despite not having any legs and feet. Despite a few issues with the character animation the backgrounds are gorgeous, giving the film a warm yet classic feel that is basically the cherry atop a delicious ice cream. But easily the most amazing thing about the animation is the use of 3D animation to deepen the impact of a scene. Of course I am talking about the ballroom sequence where the characters are done in handdrawn animation but the camera is spinning around them in a third dimension. Simply it, the scene is breathtaking and one of the most romantic of all the Disney films released.
So there you have it, Beauty and the Beast in a nutshell. While countless repeat viewings have convinced me that this isn't a flawless masterpiece its status as a beloved film is undeniably. You have some very fascinating main characters whose relationship will ring true in the hearts of many, an enchating soundtrack whose songs have become synonimous with the Disney company, and a look that is striking on the viewer. The pacing could have been better, and many will ponder on the actual meaning behind the relationship, but those can be easily forgiven thanks to a film that is both enjoyable and emotionally stimulating.
Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5