“The Most Beautiful Love Story Ever Told”
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Starring Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Rex Everhart, Jesse Corti, Jerry Orbach, Jo Anne Worley, Bradley Michael Pierce, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury
A spoiled prince disrespects a beggar woman, who reveals herself as a beautiful enchantress pulling shenanigans and turns him into a Beast, so to remain unless he can find and share true love before his twenty-first year. Ten years later, in a nearby provincial town that is entirely ignorant of the existence of said prince, his family and his castle, we meet Belle (O’Hara), a high-minded, intellectual dreamer who isn’t like all the other girls. She is pursued by local bravo Gaston (White), but uninterested in a life in the village, remaining largely to protect her ageing and eccentric father, Maurice (Everhart).
When Maurice stumbles on the castle after getting lost on the way to compete in the apparently prestigious inventors competition at the local market, he is captured by the Beast (Benson). Belle trades herself for him, due to his ill health, and while the scorned Gaston plots with his lickspittle Lefou (Corti), Maurice tries to form a posse to rescue Belle. The girl in question is welcomed into the castle by the staff, cursed into the form of talking, singing and dancing household objects, including footman/candlestick Lumiere (Orbach), majordomo/clock Cogsworth (Stiers), housekeeper/teapot Mrs Potts (Lansbury) and her son/teacup Chip (Pierce), and the wardrobe (Worley).
After a rocky start, Belle and the Beast warm to each other, culminating in a barnstorming musical number, but when Belle asks for one last sight of her father and sees him lost in a storm, the Beast encourages her to save him, despite leaving the curse unbroken. The ensuing collision of Gaston’s despicable scheme and Belle’s good intentions reveals the Beast and leads to a deadly rooftop showdown.
What’s wrong with it?
Back in 1991, the Disney Renaissance was in full swing, after the massive success of The Little Mermaid and in spite of the lukewarm reception of The Rescuers Down Under, and the world was still reeling from the stunning new animation style the studio was favouring. Looking back… well, Beauty and the Beast holds up better than some of the weird gurning in Mermaid, but it has dated. In particular, the Prince’s post-Beast face looks kind of as if the production saved a buck or two.
The timing of the movie is all over the place. Maurice takes all day to reach the castle, then Belle reaches it in a few hours and Maurice is brought home on the same night. He immediately begins planning his rescue, leaving just ahead of Gaston’s hired asylum quack, and is still wandering, yet only beginning to suffer from exposure after Belle and the Beast have been doing the growing closer thing for what looks like weeks, if not months.
It’s been mentioned a lot, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the two big problems, one inherited from the source and the other a common problem with Disney Princesses: Stockholm Syndrome, and ‘not like other girls’. Belle falls in love with the Beast essentially because, as jailors go, he’s not shit. Yes, the film claims that the actual falling in love is after he’s released her and she comes back, but that’s legal niceties. Now, it bears saying – and, to own my mistakes, I’m editing this in after some thought and explication from others – that Belle does not suffer from Stockholm Syndrome; she’s never forced into a submissive attitude, always calls the Beast on his shit, and doesn’t excuse his bad behaviour even when she understands it. The narrative as a whole is more at fault than the character.
On the other issue, Belle’s differences make her special, make her better, make ‘all of the other girls’ shit by implication. You’d better be a dreamy, intellectual or you’re surely an airheaded bimbette (which is literally the name given to every other speaking female character in the village.) Again, the fault is less with the character than with a world that exists partly to justify her specialness.
Belle is also fearfully snobbish, calling her neighbours ‘little people’ in song and barely speaking to any except the bookseller, who allows her to borrow books and even gives them away, perhaps in the hope that one day she’ll take a hint from the sign and just buy something.
Lumiere is a terrifying French stereotype.
Gaston is… well, he’s just such a cartoonishly diabolical villain, and yet fundamentally ineffectual.
What’s right with it?
And yet… And yet Gaston is kind of awesome, and has the Disney patented kick-ass patter song working for him.
Belle was one of the first really bookish heroines, not just a dreamer, but someone who cared about ideas. The truth, slightly wearying as it is to look back on, is that despite its flaws in the area, the film was actually progressive for the time in portraying a heroine whose first priority wasn’t marriage to A. Handsome Prince. Belle might not be a twenty-first century heroine, but she was the role model for the generation who are creating them (including everyone involved in the remake, if you believe the press.)
The getting to know you stuff is very sweet, if you put aside the slightly creepy surrounding stuff.
How bad is it really?
Beauty and the Beast was the shining light of the Disney Renaissance, and the truth is that it hasn’t entirely held up. On the other hand, it would be churlish to ignore the fact that, at the time, it was hugely successful, progressive and influential. It’s a film that absolutely does not suck, for all its historical eccentricities.
Best bit (if such there is)?
At the age of 90, Angela Lansbury performed the song ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at the celebration of the 25th anniversary and basically destroyed the internet. At 65 she just owned the movie.
What’s up with…?
- The names of the staff? What happened to anyone without a furniture-appropriate name? God help any poor bastard called John.
- Gaston’s kit? He sharpshoots with a blunderbus, and carries a quiver of arrows but no bow until the denouement.
Production values – By modern standards, the animation is a little rocky, but this was the height of the Renaissance and Disney knocked it out of the park. 6
Dialogue and performances – The script for a Disney film undergoes a lot of work, and Beauty and the Beast is typically polished, with only a few lines that lack the sparkle. The performances are excellent, both in dialogue and in song. 5
Plot and execution – The plot has definite problems, in particular the rocky timing and the failure to really address the Beast’s outbursts as more than excusable moments of temper. 8
Randomness – The timing. The furniture names. Gaston’s marksman blunderbuss. 6
Waste of potential – Disney revived its fortunes with The Little Mermaid, and this frankly could have been another Mermaid. The fact that it isn’t, and instead features a vastly progressive heroine, albeit one with similar entitlement issues to Ariel. 5