Disney confirmed its return to relevance with this follow-up to The Little Mermaid, another exquisitely animated musical adaptation of a beloved fairy tale. At once enchanting and emboldening, the studio found new inspiration by returning to its princess roots.
Key was the envisioning of Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara), the bookworm who finds herself trapped in the castle of the Beast (Robby Benson). Rather than pining to be saved, she ends up saving him.
The princess debate isn’t the only lens through which to view Disney’s animated films, but it is an important one – and Beauty and the Beast is a key movie in that discussion. Belle’s independence and refusal to bow to conventional romance is established in the amusing opening number, during which her longing for more than “this provincial life” is juxtaposed with the buffoonish Gaston’s (Richard White) cocksure plan to marry her.
Throughout, the animators give Belle a skeptical intelligence. Imprisoned by the Beast, she immediately senses something more than his gruffness and isn’t afraid to challenge his bravado. Later, after he transforms into a human prince, we get one of my favorite little details: her squinting eye and raised eyebrow, as if she’s not quite sure she believes what she’s seeing. (I also like to think she’s lamenting the disappearance of the big, hairy beast.)
If many of us prefer the Beast to the Ken doll who emerges at the end, it’s because the animators have given him a personhood as full as Belle’s.
If many of us prefer the Beast to the Ken doll who emerges at the end, it’s because the animators have given him a personhood as full as Belle’s. Even when he’s prowling on all fours, pacing back and forth in front of a fireplace, the Beast’s eyes hint at a longing for his lost humanity. And as he woos Belle, he does so not via manly accomplishments but by becoming a kinder, gentler person.
In terms of animation, there are a handful of times in which Beauty and the Beast pulls out all the stops. The famous ballroom dance sequence was an early experiment in computer animation, with the camera swooping in and around to provide an expansive sense of space that 3-D still isn’t able to capture. Meanwhile, the showstopper “Be Our Guest,” with its multiplying lines of living dishes, is nothing short of psychedelic.
For those who feel those sequences are too effusive for what is mostly a tragic fairy tale, it’s worth noting that Beauty and the Beast pauses more than once for scenes of deep sadness. I’m thinking of Belle’s father (Rex Everhart) wandering the snowy town square alone, lamenting the loss of his daughter, or the Beast murmuring “It’s hopeless” as another petal drops from the enchanted rose. There’s a haunting quality to Beauty and the Beast, one that’s less inspired by the classic Disney princess movies than something like the ethereal 1946 version of this tale from director Jean Cocteau. The difference, of course, is that there we get creepy wall sconces made of moving human arms. Here, the anthropomorphic candle Lumiere (Jerry Orbach) is a song and dance man. The wonderful thing about fairy tales is that they can encompass both.