This is going to be a love letter. I make no apologies for this, because there's no other way I was going to be able to write anything about this film. One as culturally and historically important as this deserves innumerable commemorations and celebrations, as it has received over the course of this year for its twenty-fifth anniversary, but if I were going to contribute something to that celebration, it was always going to be something from the heart. After all, that seems to have been where this film came from.
I was five years old when my parents took me to see Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast' back in 1991. I was suffering from some sort of tummy bug, and yet I was so determined to see it that I still insisted on going, even after I'd vomited all over the steps outside. I don't remember actually sitting in the cinema, but I know that afterwards I wasn't the same.
'Beauty and the Beast' isn't just my favourite Disney film, it's one of my favourite films of all time, up there with '2001: A Space Odyssey' and 'Lawrence of Arabia'. I could justify this by sighting its perfect construction, its breathtaking and cinematic animation, its flawless score, its remarkable characters, its sublime pacing and its genuinely romantic and affecting narrative - but the truth is, it's one of my favourite films of all time because of how it makes me feel. I've been watching 'Beauty and the Beast' for most of my natural life, and it still leaves me breathless and sobbing. That love and appreciation has only increased over time. When I was younger, I didn't have the language to articulate why I loved the film other than that I did, but when I started to properly revisit the film in my late teens and early twenties, I was shocked at how sophisticated it was. We talk a lot about how Pixar straddles the line between entertainment for children and adults, but I'd argue none of their films strike that balance as well as 'Beauty and the Beast'.
Adapted and expanded from the fairytale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, the film tells the story of Belle (Paige O'Hara), an intelligent and driven young woman who submits herself as prisoner to a hideous Beast (Robby Benson) in exchange for the freedom of her father Maurice (Rex Everhart). However, she discovers that the Beast's castle and its inhabitants are enchanted, all his servants transformed into household objects. We follow Belle and the Beast as their relationship grows and deepens, moving from initial hostility and judgement to affection and love, something that may be the key to breaking the enchantment and setting them all free.
The film is the highpoint of the Disney Renaissance on the 1990s, which began with 'The Little Mermaid' and features some of their best work. At the time, Disney Animation was in a seismic shift prompted by a change of administration at the studio. The animation department had never recovered from the death of Walt Disney in 1966, suffering from a lack of leadership and a long string of financial flops, and in a controversial move the department was moved out of the buildings constructed for them in the 1930s and to portables in a parking lot down the road. 'Beauty and the Beast' was crafted under extreme circumstances, leadership battles, creative risks and even the death of one of its key creatives. Perhaps it's that adversary that resulted in the film being as fine-tuned and immediate as it is.
They took many risks in order to bring the film to the screen, including handing the reigns to untested first-time directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousedale. They also employed Linda Wolverton as screenwriter, something they had never done before. Traditionally, the story and dialogue would be worked out by the story department collectively, but what Wolverton offered was a specificity of structure and character that had been lacking until that point. More importantly, it was the first time a major female voice had been so instrumental in the development of a Disney animated film, and as a result, Belle is still arguably their most complex and fully-realised female character. Belle is highly intelligent, resourceful and refuses to be defined by the men around her. What really makes her memorable though are her flaws - her quickness to judge, her impulsiveness and her disregard for rules. There hadn't been a female character like that before in a Disney film, and certainly not one that drove the story forward with the same energy. It was as if Belle had stepped out of a Jane Austen novel, and for a whole generation of girls, demonstrated that being bookish, intelligent, resourceful and driven were things to be celebrated.
That complexity extends to the Beast as well - a terrified young man trapped within this hideous form. What makes him such a breathtaking creation is not just his power and fury, but his immaturity and petulance. He responds as a confused and scared little kid would, losing his temper and throwing tantrums before dropping his guard and letting someone in to help him. By not basing the relationship between its romantic leads on physical attraction, the film is able to explore their connection through their hearts and minds, resulting in something far richer and more affecting. The maturity of this relationship is still surprising decades later because it feels palpable and real, and maybe that's why its climax still hits with such a punch. I remember talking with my boss about the film when I worked at Video Ezy. She hadn't seen it before but had thrown it on one morning while the shop was empty. She ended up watching it three times in a row and cried every time, saying how shocked she was that a cartoon could be this soulful and romantic.
I've been watching 'Beauty and the Beast' for most of my natural life, and it still leaves me breathless and sobbing.
There are big ideas at the heart of 'Beauty and the Beast', and its genius lies in its ability to impart those ideas to young audiences. I discovered what love meant from that film, the dangers of judging someone when you first meet them, that physical ugliness or beauty means nothing if you're the opposite on the inside. I learned about selflessness and honesty and hope, of the power of the mind and imagination and heart, and it does that all the while being a staggeringly entertaining film. The screenplay is pitch-perfect, delivering an endless succession of one-liners and fully-realised characters, all of whom add to its emotional power. It moves at a perfect pace, allowing each moment the space it needs to breathe and the relationships their time to develop, and the animation realises it all in rich and sumptuous detail. Driving it all though is the music, both the score by Alan Menken and the songs by Menken and Howard Ashman. Every single song in the film is a classic, the kind of sophisticated musical storytelling that has never been repeated in an animated film since. These songs still thrill me whenever I hear them, and Angela Lansbury's extraordinary performance of the title tune will never be better. The great tragedy of the film is that Ashman wrote the songs and contributed to the story and characters knowing he was dying of AIDS and unlikely to ever see the finished film. He was still working on the final recordings of the songs when he died, so determined was he to make sure it would be the best it could be.
And that's what I think what really made 'Beauty and the Beast' the extraordinary film that it is - the passion, dedication and belief that went into making it. The studio buckled under the weight of its legacy and its financial failures, but the young team were determined to make a legacy of their own, pouring their hearts and souls into this film. It's quietly uncompromising and extremely delicate, constantly bucking conventional wisdom and expectation to push itself and its medium forward in ways it had arguably never been. 'Beauty and the Beast' went on to become the first animated film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Really try and comprehend this. The film was counted as a peer to 'The Silence of the Lambs' and 'JFK'. Its nomination wasn't a token one or a novelty; in fact, it was considered a serious contender. It was (and still is) a remarkable achievement and a testimony to the power of this film that it was seen as something comparable to such mighty contemporaries.
There is no true way to express what this film has meant to me. It was there to inspire me and enchant me as a five year old discovering what cinema was capable of for the first time. It has been there at the hardest moments of my life, offering solace and strength when I needed it. I adore every frame, every word, every note, every beat. It taught me what love was, what acceptance was, what storytelling was and how powerful storytelling can be. I told you this would be a love letter! I think 'Beauty and the Beast' is a perfect film, a masterpiece, a work of art and one of the most beautiful pieces of cinema I've ever seen. It truly is a tale as old as time, because I can conceive of no reason why it would lose any of its power.
In March 2017, Disney will release their live-action remake of 'Beauty and the Beast'. I hope they understand just how enormous the legacy is they have to honour.