Continuing my trek through the big 4 of the Disney Renaissance, we come to the first animated film to nab an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, Beauty and the Beast. God, I remember when this film came out in the holiday season of 1991. I was in junior high, and even though junior high boys are supposed to start getting out of animation, I remember really, really wanting to see it in theatres. "Why?" asked one classmate. "It looks so different from other Disney films." "I KNOW!" I said. "That's why I want to see it."
I didn't see it in theatres that Christmas, but my sister did. And she went 100% nuts for it. She was 10...the perfect age. I finally did get to see it in the theatre when it got its 10th anniversary IMAX special edition in the holiday season 2001. Took my niece and nephew to it...it was their first movie. The 2001 animated special edition had a musical number that was originally cut put back into the film. I remember reading an interview with the directors at the time over the genesis of the special edition. In 1997, when the Star Wars: Special Editions hit theatres, the directors were chatting about how they were raking in the dough at the box office. One of them sarcastically said, "Man, I betcha a special edition of Beauty and the Beast would do that kind of business." Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, was walking by their office and overheard that it. He stuck his head into their office and said, "Really? Then make it!"
So I guess I should mention then which version of the film I watched this afternoon. I own the Platinum Edition DVD released in the early 2000s, and the disc boasts three versions of the film: the original theatrical version, the 2001 special edition, and the "work in progress" edition. The work in progress edition was only ever screened at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 1991, and is made mostly of pencil test animation. But I watched the original theatrical version this afternoon.
Right away, from the opening scenes, you get the vibe that this is more...epic than the Disney films that have come before. That opening multiplane-esque shot, one of the first really big jobs for animation, as we slowly zoom in on the castle in the background. That great opening narration (done by Major Winchester from MASH of all people! David Ogden Stires, who also voiced Cogsworth), and then fading into those stained-glass windows. It's just a wonderful update of the "storybook opening up" opening that started many of Disney's classics.
And once again, I think that the songs are so beloved, that people kind of overlook Alan Menken's amazing score. For example, the music that accompanies the opening narration, which is revisited several times in the score as a theme for the Beast's humanity. Every time he remembers the man he was, that music plays, and it's a nice touch. I also love the music that plays when Belle roams the halls...it's great "descent into mystery" music. It always reminds me of Jerry Goldsmith's work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
It does show its age a little bit. I mean, CAPS was still new, and they were just starting to inject a lot more computer animation into these productions, so the ballroom, in the now very famous Beauty and the Beast musical number, does have that ultra-smooth, plastic look that CGI had at the time. But I remember how mindblowing it was at the time, and how cutting edge it was. Camera moves like that couldn't be done with earlier animation techniques.
Yeah, and we all know the controversies and the interpretations. The one that goes around these days is what Belle feels for the Beast isn't really love, it's just Stockholm Syndrome. Back in college, when me and my friends would sit around and discuss it, the popular one at the time was how it teaches that you should stay in abusive relationships, because it reinforces the myth that you can change him through love.
But...but...the movie is so good. The song Belle still has to stand as one of the greatest opening numbers in animation. And it's so effective, too, as it introduces our heroine and our villain and the universe. I used to know the whole song. I used to be able to sing it.
I remember reading all the "making of" stuff at the time, and all the work that went into the Beast's character design. In the end, he's kind of an amalgam of a lion, a gorilla, and a buffalo. But when the directors found some of the original designs "too conventional," they told the animators to just go nuts. And they started coming back with all these Beast designs that were insect-like and reptilian. So the directors said, "Uhh...maybe conventional is good in this case." I wish some of those designs were on the DVD.
But these is good stuff on the DVD. It's a great running commentary. There was a viral video going around a few years ago, showcasing all the instances Disney has recycled animation in their films. And yes, the ending scene of Belle and the human-again Beast waltzing was recycled from the end of Sleeping Beauty. The directors actually address this in the running commentary. "We know! We know we recycled this! But we were running out of time and money and...it worked," they say as an explanation.
The DVD is good. I wish I upgraded to Blu-Ray when it was released from the vault a few years ago, but I didn't have a Blu-Ray player yet.
If The Little Mermaid was the warm-up, Beauty and the Beast was truly the main event. It is still a remarkable film, some 25 years later.