Sunday, May 6, 2012

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Starring Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, and Richard White

Not sure how it happened, but I somehow grew up in the Nineties without ever seeing Beauty and the Beast.  Similar to how George Lucas’ cash-grab 3D conversion got me to revisit The Phantom Menace a few months back, Disney’s release of its Beauty and the Beast in 3D got me interested in finally checking this film out (though I just borrowed the DVD from the library rather than dole out $13 to see the film’s shapes slightly jump out at me in dimmed colors).  I’m not sure what was holding me back; it was a sensation during the midst of my childhood, it was the first animated feature to get a Best Picture nomination, I’ve only heard and read good things about it, and I love animated films (when done artfully).  With all these criteria in line, one would assume that it would’ve crossed my path at some point during the last 20 plus years.  However, that moment didn’t come until this past week.  Better to see a classic of my childhood at 23 than never at all, I suppose.

First of all, Beauty and the Beast lived up to it to my lofty expectations, placing it right alongside the other Disney classics of the 1990s, Aladdin and The Lion King (two films that did find a consistent home in our VCR when I was a kid).  It definitely has all the ingredients that make an effective animated family feature:  an interesting story, appealing characters, excellent visuals, and the extra ingredient necessary for most Disney fare, a good score with memorable songs.  Great care was taken into making this film, and there is consistent proof on the screen.  I think this care is often what separates the films that become timeless family features that are loved equally by kids and adults, from those disposal kids movies that may hold the attention of little ones decently but offer nothing to anyone older than 10.

Beauty and the Beast is Disney’s take on a classic fairy tale about love overcoming superficial judgments.  Belle, the beauty, is an uncommon character in her small 19th century French town.  She is an independent thinker who loves to read, cherishes her idiosyncratic father, and is not smitten by the town heartthrob, Gaston.  With his rippling muscles and dozens of hunting trophies, Gaston is under the assumption that he has the right to any woman he chooses, and his sights are set on Belle.  I have a feeling that, if not for the curse caused by his shallowness, the Beast would have developed into a man of similar morals to Gaston.  However, having been turned into a hideous beast, he has been given years of seclusion to brood over where his poor choices have led him.  And of course, the curse is reversible.

A certain set of circumstances eventually leads Belle to the Beast’s castle, leaving behind a furious Gaston (he's not used to not getting what he wants) but entering a prison sentence of sorts where she will become the Beast’s permanent guest.  Luckily, Belle is not one to judge people on first impressions and the Beast is not evil like he initially appears.  Given time, and assistance from his devoted (and similarly cursed) servants, the Beast and Belle develop a relationship based on love, and not solely upon appearances.  My favorite part of this film was how under his rough exterior, the Beast reveals himself to be nothing more than a confused and awkward individual.  Without the coaching by his servants, the anthropomorphized household objects such as a candlestick (Lumiére), clock (Cogsworth), and teapot (Mrs. Potts), the Beast would be a lost cause with no charm and the curse would become permanent.  Throughout the course of the film, the Beast can learn the lesson that his curse was intended to teach.   However, circumstances back in the town involving Gaston and Belle’s father may prevent that lesson from being fully realized.

Before, I move on to the catchy tunes and outstanding visuals, I want to expound a bit on the side characters I briefly mentioned before.   I was taken by just how clever the artists who created Beauty and the Beast were in bringing all these household objects to life.  First of all, they are functionally convincing; the filmmakers did not simply slap faces on the front and have them magically glide across the floors.  There is a logic to the way they move that adds depth to the story overall.  Also, their personalities are smartly reflected in the objects they embody.  Lumiére, the candlestick is a suave romantic who would find himself at home on top of a table for two.  Cogsworth is the tightly wound control freak who is always fretting that order be upheld, perfect qualities for a clock.  And Mrs. Potts is that warm motherly figure that will always be there to pick you up when you’re feeling down (perhaps over tea?).  The thoughtfulness behind these characters are handled across the board.  The enchanted objects are also given the juiciest bits of comic relief and provide the most memorable songs (though Belle and Gaston each have their own strong pieces).

As I embrace more and more films, I have become less judgmental based on genre.  The belief that a film should be written off because of a certain tag it is given like cartoon, romance, or musical (all of which can be applied to Beauty and the Beast) has dissolved.  Films of any genre can be excellent when made with care.  That can be said about Beauty and the Beast, an excellent musical.   Each song is memorable with a catchy tune and clever lyrics.  “Be Our Guest,” the household objects’ huge song and dance number was still in my head the next day, and the titular track, “Beauty and the Beast,” deservingly took home the Best Song Oscar.  Reading about the film afterward (as I always do), it was quite moving to learn that the chief songwriter, Howard Ashman, was losing his battle with AIDS while writing these songs.  It is poignant to think that while he never could see the finished product, his songs will be around for generations to come.

I’ve discussed in detail how Beauty and the Beast is a success in storytelling, but it is an impressive visual achievement.  The Beast’s castle is quite the creation.  It is both cold and foreboding but also magnificent and expansive.  These powerful images, in both the castle and beyond, are achieved by many of the film's solid artistic choices.  Backgrounds in animated features are often filled with hard lines and bright colors that give it an artificial feel.  However, Beauty and the Beast approaches the scene setting with a painterly touch.  You feel as if you are weaving with the camera through an old Renaissance painting as the story is told.  This approach culminates perfectly during the film’s big ballroom sequence, with the camera gliding through the huge space and circling Belle and the Beast.  Kids can be amazed by the film’s sheer entertainment value while the adults can also marvel at its artistic achievements.

My prolonged wait to catch up with Beauty and the Beast was rewarded generously.  With its hype, I assumed that I would be in for a good film and it definitely lived up to that hype.  When the time comes to start a family film collection, the Beauty and the Beast blu-ray (or whatever technology is king at the time) would comfortably sit beside the other Disney classics (The Jungle Book, Aladdin, The Lion King, etc) and the gems from Pixar (Toy Story, WALL-E, Up, etc.) and Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Ponyo, etc.).  It’s really cool that the 3D re-release introduced this great film to a new generation of little kids.  It’s just too bad they’ll be introduced to it through a gimmick and a pair of dark glasses; but that topic is for another day.

Mark it 8.

Note:  Glancing at the great titles I have mentioned in this review, it is clear that animated film is a genre just as valid as any.  One who cannot look beyond the “family film” label is really preventing themselves from enjoying a plethora of excellent movies.  I hope more will expand their horizons because there are great films made in every genre.  You just have to seek it out (and I'll be happy to help).


  1. Been a while Z$... What's next?

  2. There's a couple in the works.... don't worry.

    but I should have a new proper review up soon - was just so busy the last couple weeks with the Beloit people in town and some Public Allies projects I had to work on before that.