by Dennis Polifroni and Sam Juliano
When Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast opened in November of 1991, the New York Times’ famed theatre critic Frank Rich called it “the best Broadway musical of the year” even though the object of his praise was not a play, but a movie. Fully stocked with melodic music and Busby Berkeley-styled show stopping tunes, the film did indeed invite comparison with the Broadway shows of old and musically eclipsed anything that was being done on the Great White Way at that time and several years hence. The second release in the ‘Disney Renaissance’ that began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, and ended in 1999 with Tarzan, the Gary Trousdale-Kirk Wise-directed feature was a major triumph of traditional animation and computer-generated imagery. The celebrated score by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken is the most vital ingredient in the film’s success, as it represents the high water mark of their musical collaboration, wedding energy and audacity with lyrical felicity and melodic invention. Rising to the demands of the story’s emotional underpinnings, composer Menken wrote some of his most ravishing melodies, and lyricist Ashman responded with his own measure of poetry. Ashman, who died from AIDS complications eight months before the film released, never got to see the resurrection of a genre that had in large measure laid dormant for decades. Ashman, who wrote the lyrics for The Little Mermaid, also provided the words for four songs that were used in the final cut of Aladdin, releasing in 1992. But while the interest in musicals were beginning to take hold with those films, Ashman never could have imagined where he would be taking the genre with Beauty and the Beast. By many critics’ accounts, Beauty and the Beast is the musical by which all modern musicals are now measured.
Though it follows the 1946 French classic of the same title by Jean Cocteau, it’s as far removed from that brooding tale as it is from the original French source, a 1740 story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve that was abridged several times before being adapted for the stage and film. Numerous books have been published with slightly altered story lines through the years, and this includes lavishly illustrated hardcovers through Classics Illustrated comic editions (I have myself collected several of these, maintaining ownership of two. -SJ) Yet, since Cocteau’s version, and the altered versions that preceded it (not to mention a wildly-successful decade long CBS television series) it is this incarnation that stands second only to Cocteau’s original film. While it is undeniable that the Cocteau film is the first point of visual reference for the filmmakers, it’s clear enough that several homages came through, including the sequence when Belle runs across a grassy hill near her village singing the opening of ‘Belle,’ in a way that immediately recalls Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. Of course when the mob lays siege on the Beast’s castle, one is reminded of Universal’s Frankenstein, and the opening look at that gothic structure brings Citizen Kane into focus.
Lost in the woods, Belle’s father (in the film an inventor rather than a merchant he is seen as in other versions) stumbles into what appears to be a deserted castle. But the castle is inhabited by the Beast, once a prince, now under a spell that will last forever unless he finds love before he turns 21, who locks Belle’s father in the dungeon. Belle comes after him and offers to stay in his place. At first antagonistic, she soon finds the Beast appealingly gentle and kind, wounded in spirit, rather than cruel. Gaston (Belle’s blustery boyfriend) tries to get the father committed, saying that his talk of the Beast shows he is delusional. When Belle proves that the Beast exists, the townspeople form a mob to kill him, and she is helpless to interfere. In a fight with Gaston, the Beast is badly wounded. Belle tells him she loves him, which ends the spell. He becomes once again the handsome prince, and they live happily ever after.
The story’s romance, which inspired King Kong and The Elephant Man, is one that tests the true essence of love, and attracts an intense level of audience empathy. Belle is one of the most detailed and well-rounded characters Disney has ever presented. She’s strong-willed, intelligent and fiercely independent, and as drawn by the animators she’s probably more flexible than any other previous Disney heroine, running the full gamut of emotions including fear, sadness, skeptism, sarcasm and wonder, which are woven into her animated conteur. Far from being one of the cliquish blonde bimbos who have nothing better to do than to let Gaston bench-press them, she outwits Gaston’s unwanted advances and stands up fearlessly to the Beast’s unchecked temper. She is no Snow White, deciding it is fun to clean little men’s houses and take apples from strangers, or Cinderella, who can do nothing but cry about the ball. But Belle is no rampant feminist either. Unlike sword-weilding Mulan or Jasmine’s “I am not a prize to be won” attitude, Belle wears her femininity with grace. She wears dresses and let’s the Beast pull out her chair for her. She allows him to grow into the part of a gentleman, and not insisting on always having the leadership. She is capable of caring for herself, but does not dominate those around her. She is smart, but not remotely arrogant, brave but not masculine, beautiful but not vain. Of course what ultimately makes Belle a true heroine, however, is her attitude of self-sacrifice. She is more concerned for her father than for herself. She faithfully supports him in his eccentric inventing and leaves her budding romance with the Beast to tend to him at his bedside. She even offers herself to the Beast in her father’s place, one of the most beautiful gestures in all of Disney. Her character is the integral aspect of the movie’s exploration of the meaning of beauty. Gaston has the good looks of a story book prince, but these conceal a rotten heart. This role reversal is one of the film’s narrative innovations. The Beast has fangs and lives in a gloomy castle, but has a kind and sacrificial nature. His own act of self-sacrifice of course defines the depth of his own love and devotion.
What sets Beauty and the Beast apart from other love stories is that it proposes that love is grown and not “fallen into.” The early stage of the beauty-beast relationship is wrought with argument, temper and mutual obstinance. And the concept of ‘beauty in the eye of the beholder’ is one that’s been part of the simplest philosophies practically since the beginning of time. The story reaches it’s emotional climax with the superb use of the ‘rose’ devise, where the falling of pedals signify fleeting love.
The score is at turns rollicking, exhilarating, spectacular and deeply moving. It fuses pop with show tunes, but it reaches operatic heights, especially in what is arguably it’s best song, “Belle” where our heroine sings:
Oh, isn’t this amazing?…
It’s my fav’rite part because you’ll see,
Here’s where she meets Prince Charming.
But she won’t discover that it’s him ’til chapter three.
The film’s stylistic centerpiece, the song “Be My Guest” is the real Ziegfeldian show stopper, sung by “ze” very French candlelabra Lumiere (voiced by Jerry Orbach) who has said in an interview that he wanted to sound like a cross between Maurice Chevalier and Pepe Le Pew. The other teacups and candlesticks (formerly the house servants) join in a spectacular welcome, with the animation reaching design and choreographic bliss. The boisterous “Gaston” establishes the boastful demeanor of the hefty villain in a spirited song, while Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts, the motherly teapot, renders the lovely title song “Beauty and the Beast.” Both Orbach and Lansbury were Broadway veterans who knew how to deliver a song. The score’s immense popularity was the catalyst to inspire a Broadway musical based the film, and on April 18, 1994 Beauty and the Beast opened at the Palace Theatre. Five years later it moved to the Lunt-Fontaine, continuing until July 29th, 2007, when it closed after 5,464 performances, the eighth-highest total in Broadway history.
In conclusion, no matter how many people have seen the stage version, the film is really the key to this this property. On a personal level it’s not simply one element of the film that has buoyed the entire production, (although the justly-lauded song score is a major highlight) but in fact a flawless fusion of both the score and the intricately-detailed character animation that, combined, reveal a tenderness between the two protagonists that is rarely seen even in today’s live action films. It was, is, and will always remain not only the key musical on film in the past thirty years, but it is also one of the most affecting examples of true romance on screen.
Note: This is the first time at WitD where two writers collaborated on an essay. It was a great experience for both Dennis and Sam.
How Beauty and the Beast made the ‘Elite 70′:
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 14 choice
Allan Fish’s No. 22 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 26 choice
Pat Perry’s No. 27 choice
Judy Geater’s No. 75 choice