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MMYIF: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Directed by: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise
Starring: Paige O'Hara, Robby Benson, Jessi Corti
Released: November 22, 1991

A prince cursed to spend his days as a hideous monster sets out to regain his humanity by earning a young woman's love.

What I Thought Then

It was my favorite of the Disney Renaissance era when it came out. I loved the music, the joyfulness of the finale, and felt like it was just an incredibly well-told story with some genuinely impressive technical accomplishments behind it. Also, Lumière was a great character.

What I Think Now

Boy, Disney's animation department was on a hot streak! They could do no wrong. The vibe was similar to what we felt in the early days of Pixar. And Beauty and the Beast is arguably the best to come out of that entire era, and yet it does so while still sitting firmly in the Disney-animated-musical mold. This is still the era of villains who revel in their villainy, musicals with maybe five songs in them, casting vocal talent over marquis-value names, and hand-drawn cell animation. In that way, it's kind of a time capsule of a movie. But for all I've learned about storytelling, animation, filmmaking, and musicals over the last three decades, I've gotta say... it still works really well.

Let's start with the story. This is a movie with zero surprises. The audience knows from the first frame how the film is going to end, so the job of the filmmakers is to sell that ending--to make the audience absolutely believe Belle when she makes her confession of love to a talking animal and to not be creeped out about it. And there are a lot of subtle tricks at play. We see Beast's human face in a painting long before we ever see his beastly one. Over the course of the movie he is progressively humanized. He goes from crawling like a wolf to walking upright. He goes from wearing only a cape and trousers to wearing more clothing that covers most of his hair. The only internal monolog we get from him is in a human voice, and it happens during the will-they-won't-they plot beat in Act II. For Belle's part, she is framed from the beginning as feeling like a bit of an outcast herself, and one who clearly desires a fairy tale ending: her Act I "I want" song is about not living "this provincial life" and in it she explicitly name-checks Prince Charming. And her profession of love happens when she thinks Beast is dead, a moment where an extra outpouring of affection would be understandable.

The other important tactic here is that the story is explicitly framed as a character arc for the Beast. He's the one who goes on a hero's journey, not Belle--although her character does change over the course of the story, she's primarily the perspective character rather than the actual protagonist. Gaston, the antagonist of the story, is Beast's antagonist, positioned as a negative version of him. He's selfish and preening, but he's also presented as a masculine ideal. In fact, if you gave him blond hair, he could be the Beast pre-transformation. When Belle rejects him during the opening song, she's actually rejecting the Beast as he used to be. At the end of the day, it's really his story, we're just not seeing it through his eyes. And, in the Disney tradition, it's a musical with only a small handful of phenomenal musical numbers and nothing else. There's not a dud on the soundtrack, and Be Our Guest is an absolute banger, as the kids say, but really there are only five-and-a-half songs and three-and-a-half reprises (if you're questioning my math, Something There is half reprise). It's interesting to compare this to stage musical, which adds a lot of songs and fills out the story to two-and-a-half hours and, mah gawd, is it flabby. The film version is taut. There's not a wasted frame.

Of course, all of this is buoyed by excellent casting. The biggest name in the film is Angela Lansbury, and she's also the most recognizable voice, as my cohort grew up watching reruns of Murder, She Wrote. Lumière and Cogsworth are voiced by character actors playing against type and speaking outside their usual registers: Jerry Orbach (Oh, hey, Detective Briscoe's in this!) and David Ogden Stiers (Oh, hey, Major Winchester's in this!). The other notable casting is Paige O'Hara as Belle. O'Hara started her career on Broadway and her credits include Fantine in Les Misérables. She has an incredibly strong singing voice and you can hear it in the finished product.

Speaking of finished product, let's talk about the animation. It's top-notch 2D hand-drawn, but it still has the warts of 2D hand-drawn cell animation: occasional inconsistencies in character proportions and line weight, background extras who appear frozen in time, that sort of thing. It's very minimal, though. And it helps that so many of the characters are anthropomorphized objects. The big technical set-piece is the ballroom sequence set to the song Beauty and the Beast, in which Belle and the Beast dance through a 3-dimensional environment. At the time, it was jaw-dropping. Now it's clearly recognizable as a CG environment, but it still looks really good. It's a large space with an elaborate but muted projection map on it. Since there's not a lot of light dynamic there--nor should there be, as Belle and Beast are the focal points of the shot--it doesn't look obviously CG or polygonal.

As for things that have aged well, apart from 2D animation being out of vogue, there are a couple of gender-specific things that probably wouldn't be there in a modern version of the film. A man is defeated in the end by being dressed up in women's clothes. Any mention of love in the film is purely heteronormative. None of these are big deals, but they reflect the cultural mood of thirty years ago. I suppose I could watch the 2017 remake and see if they survived... but I'm not gonna.

Recommendation?

Definitely. It holds up really well.

Tune in next week to find out who needs a mother very, very badly...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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