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beauty and the beast

I did not think I would write this review for a long time. In fact, lately, I thought that perhaps I have written too many reviews on my favorite movies and my masterpiece collection. That was before I read the art book for Beauty and the Beast, written by Charles Solomon, and did the project with my students. Directed by two young and inexperienced director’s Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, Disney released Beauty and the Beast during the Disney Renaissance. Animators restarted and redrafted this film’s story many times and producers pressured the animators and story boarders to finish the film within a tight schedule. Most of this pressure understandably came from the acclaimed success of The Little Mermaid (1989) and the equally unsuccessful screening of Rescuers Down Under (1990).

anne anderson (Beauty and the Beast illustration, Anne Anderson, 1874-1931)

Disney had, before his death and midst his work on theme parks and live action films, expressed that if he focused on animated films again he would like most to adapt the memorable French fairy tale Belle et la Bêt, written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1756), into an animated film. His death in 1966 and his brother Roy Oliver Disney‘s death in 1971 crushed any immediate plans for such a film. Sadly, with their deaths much of the magic of previous films like Pinocchio (1940) dissipated under new management as animators, while transitioning from the Nine Old Men to a new generation, only completed average films until the end of the 1980’s. However, in 1984 Roy Edward Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew, took over Walt Disney Studios and set out to save the animated films department, which he believed was the heart of the company. Luckily, his and many others work was not in vain.

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Another obstacle was actually a previous film adaptation directed by Jean Cocteau named La Belle et la Bête (1946). This surreal French film captured the darker undertone of the original fairy tale and was very Freudian in how the character’s emotions always fought to be recognized.

Naturally, such a tone would never have fit a Disney film such as this. Although the writers played with such ideas, they decided to focus on a lighter theme and more colorful approach. Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, in its final stages of development, was not a typical 18th century French romance. Nonetheless, at its heart, the film managed to retain and even exemplify the essential message of the original fairy-tale: that it is within the soul that beauty is found and true love bypasses physical appearances.

Disney’s decision to make Beauty and the Beast into a musical was brilliant. When the film unintentionally evolved into another musical, Disney called in Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to write the incredible musical score and lyrics. Ashman and Menken were obvious choices for the job, especially after their overwhelming success writing the soundtrack for The Little Mermaid. Music conveys emotions, plot elements and profundity simply and effectively in ways that talking and writing cannot. Don Hahn quoted Howard Ashman saying, “. . . when the characters can’t speak anymore, when they are simply so emotional because their life is changing under their feet, that’s where you put the song.” All of the songs enhance the movie’s incredible story and depth and move the plot naturally and emotionally. Whenever the story turns, the songs act as guides, taking the audience gracefully to the next important moment in the plot. For example, one of the story artists Roger Allens noted after they heard “Belle”,

I was so knocked out by ‘Belle’ because in the course of one song Howard and Alan had painted a whole scene. All I had to do was listen to the song and I could see this whole film unreeling. . . The song has the points of view of so many different characters , and it gives Belle background and what her wishes are. It was incredible.

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My favorite song in this film has always been “Beauty and the Beast” because of its unassuming complexity. It encompasses the story’s main message told from the perspective of Mrs. Potts, played by Angela Lansbury, “. . . an older woman who has experienced love and is now looking at the young lovers.”(Charles Solomon) Roger Allens also commented,

Because of the wisdom in Angela’s voice, when she says ‘Tale as old as time,’ you feel she’s not just singing about this love affair- she’s singing that love is eternal, that this happens over and over. Love is a constant throughout history. It is so beautiful and so profound and so simple.

Every time I watch Belle and Beast’s love fully blossom through their dance and this song I slightly choke up. The song’s lyrics alone are powerful and emotional, yet when they were put to music they became even more so. Truly the songs are timeless.

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Despite the stress of the overall project, Beauty and the Beast has become one of the most remembered and beloved of the Disney classics. Numerous critics praised it at its initial release and many still recognize it for its emotional depth, magnetic characters and innovative story. Roger Ebert noted in his review in 1991, “. . . it’s a reminder that animation is the ideal medium for fantasy, because all of its fears and dreams can be made literal.” I remember watching Couteau’s film and though it is brilliant, I do not think it enhances the emotions and characters nor does it reach a wide scale audience as well as Disney’s film.

What exactly makes this movie and story so captivating? I think it is the idea that love has an overwhelming transformative and liberating power. This idea is so simple, yet, incredibly beautiful. How many times have books and movies depicted a hard, course man altering his character for love? As it says in Cocteau’s film, “Love can turn a man into a beast. . . (and also) make an ugly man beautiful.” Is it hard to believe that love can transform a beast back into a man? Hayao Miyazaki, in describing his film Princess Mononoke (1998), stated, “We depict the bondage of a curse in order to show the joy of liberation”. There is something special and eternal about this story, especially told through this film. Time always seems to stop when I watch Beast lay dying with Belle leaning over him. When he conveys his feelings and seemingly dies, my breath catches when Belle, heartbroken, tells him that she loves him. How many of us been almost moved to tears during Beast’s transformation and kiss with Belle? It is triumphant, inspiring and passionate, the epitome of true love.

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imagesDDKHI6Z3 (Concept Art)

An important question the film tries to answer, similar to The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), is how to define a monster, or in this case a “beast”, and an admirable man. Who is the villain? A perfect, handsome “paragon” (ideal model) admired by all in Belle’s community. All aspired to be him or foolishly obsessed over him, simply because he was the strongest and most handsome. Nonetheless, beneath his physical appearance, he was selfish, prideful, and extremely self-centered, a true narcissist. I have always thought that at the beginning of the film he was not capable of murder. It was after Belle’s rejection shattered his pride that he subsequently planned the incarceration of her father, raised an entire town against them, and went on a quest to murder Beast out of jealousy. Essentially, the movie showed the monster Gaston became and the incredible man Beast changed into.

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Rather than having the Beast and castle under a terrible curse cast by a witch/pixy, Disney decided to switch the curse to one the Beast/ Prince Adam had brought upon himself out of selfishness and cruelty.  Breaking the curse required not only for Belle to accept him despite his monstrous appearance but also for him to change and learn to love her as well. As it says in the opening of the movie, narrated by David Ogden Stier,

If he could learn to love another, and earn her love in return by the time the last petal fell, then the spell would be broken. If not, he would be doomed to remain a beast for all time. As the years passed, he fell into despair and lost all hope. For who could ever learn to love a beast?

Of all the characters in the film, Beast is the one who changed the most drastically. He is eye-catching, not only for his size and terrifying appearance, but because of his overpowering personality. Glen Keane, whom I have expressed many times as one of my favorite animators, headed Beast’s design. In my opinion, Beast’s design is Glen Keane’s triumph. He not only created a character that was visually stunning (his appearance is monstrous yet still aesthetically pleasing)  but also triumphantly showed the young man trapped inside Beast’s body. For example, subtle movements in his face, hands and body language remarkably conveyed his uncomfortable response to Belle’s grief at losing her father, just like a young man unused to and perhaps insensitive to a young woman’s emotional outburst.

It was through Beast’s eyes, however, that Keane captured his character and depth most intensely. His eyes mirrored the discouraged young man hidden behind Beast’s terrifying exterior. Near the beginning, his eyes flashed with anger and hopelessness. Then, as the film progressed and his relationship with Belle deepened, they softened and showed rather than frustration deep abiding love.

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One painful yet powerful scene was when Beast released Belle to find her father and finally proclaimed his love for her. What was so remarkable about it? Within a ten second stretch of film Keane illustrated both how much Beast had changed and the breadth of his anguish. At one moment it seemed wonderful, since he finally learned to love, yet it was also heartbreaking. This was not because without her lifting the curse was impossible. It was because he felt that he would never see her again.

My favorite scene though is without a doubt Beast’s transformation. Don Bluth remarked “Beast’s transformation went beyond what anybody else would have done; then Glen took it to the next level. . . it begins as a great story on paper. . . then Glen makes it still better through his animation.” Hand drawn-animation is a remarkable medium because it can flawlessly show a child’s growth or in this case a Beast’s transformation into a man without seeming strange or unrealistic. For the scene, he studied Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais and Michelangelo’s Slave sculptures and slaved over hundreds of drawings to bring it to life. {You can watch the raw clip of the scene here —-> CLICK}

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Glen Keane also internalized Beast’s transformation on a spiritual level, placing the quote “If any man is in Christ he’s a new creation” on one of his palette’s as a token of inspiration. Beast’s physical transformation was important but his inward change was what really mattered. In the beginning of the film the narrator described him as selfish, spoiled and unkind, later consumed with despair and rage because of his cursed body. But, oh how he changed. He loved Belle so deeply that he sacrificed his own happiness so she could save her father. He let go of his anger and sparred Gaston’s life, though Gaston had just tried to kill him. Overall, Beast transformed on a physical and spiritual level, in the end a man changed and humbled by his experiences.

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Belle is the character that I identify with best out of all of Disney’s heroines. Unlike other Disney heroines, she was sophisticated and had grown into herself. I understand her frustration when she proclaimed in the song “Belle, Reprise”, “I want adventure in the great wide somewhere. I want it more than I can tell. And for once it might be grand to have someone understand I want so much more than they got planned”. What strikes me most about her is her selfless character and love for her father. She made many sacrifices, the most important one being when she took her father’s place as Beast’s prisoner, and was incredibly observant of people’s characters. This showed best in her less than amiable view of Gaston. Because she was so gentle, independent and intelligent, a marriage to a self-centered man like Gaston would have been torturous. She saw him for who he was and knew he would never appreciate her interests and dreams.

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Her flight from and return to the castle portrayed her mature character best. In it, she fled from the Castle, terrified and shaken by Beast’s furious outburst, into a blizzard. Attacked by wolves, she almost died but miraculously the Beast saved her life and drove them away. Overcome by exhaustion and his injuries he fell into the snow unconscious. This was a pivotal moment. The minute he fell, she turned to the saddle to continue her flight. However, she did not leave. Why? Was it guilt? A strange obligatory feeling? I think it was something much deeper than that. I believe in those few moments she perceived that there was something good in him, something perhaps that separated his spirit from his bestial appearance. She knew it would be wrong to leave him there to die because he really was not a monster. Therefore, out of compassion, she in turn saved his life and nursed his wounds. It is at that moment I think they finally made a connection, for it was when Beast finally did something for someone else and Belle accepted him as a person.

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Beauty and the Beast‘s visuals are just as captivating as the story. Every time I watch the film, I notice something new and beautiful in the background. For example, recently as I viewed the film with my students, I noticed the pillars leading to the West Wing. I realized they reminded me of those I had seen in Vienna, Austria outside one of the palaces, which showed multiple Greek Gods crushed as they held up the foundation of the entrance. Seeing simple things like that, is it any wonder why this film has so much depth? Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is more than just another Disney musical or animated film. One moment comedic, the next emotionally stirring, it appeals to a wide scale audience because its story visually and audibly has so many layers. The animation is also breathtaking in places (as I indicated with Beast’s Transformation Scene) and a masterpiece of hand drawn animation and storytelling.

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My review does not come close to expressing my utmost admiration for this film and those who participated in it. Luckily, audiences still recognize it for its brilliance (though at times I think people become too obsessive). Mark Walsh, and animator and director for Pixar, remarked,

Beauty and the Beast was that movie that made me want to get into animation when I was in high school. In Glen’s scene of the Beast holding Gaston out over the ledge, as the Beast’s face changed from furious to pensive, my face changed too. I was so emotionally hooked by the character’s story. . . That scene shows a person deciding to live his life differently: Realizing that animation could do that is why I’m in the business.

If you have not seen this film, you need to. Many of my students did not want to watch it because they thought it was childish, boring and annoying (even though they had never seen it before . . . they have a thing against musicals). They assumed that because Disney made it, it would be a painful experience. It was incredible how their complaints vanished and how engrossed they became with the story. There are moments in history when everything comes together and true art is created. Though many do not view film making, let along animation, as an art form I believe that if done right it is more powerful than any of the singular arts. Beauty and the Beast stands as a testament that it is through animation that the enchanting ambiance of dreams and storybooks comes to life. It will stand the tests of time for it is truly one of the greatest love stories ever told.

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{For those who want to know, Beast had beard and head of a buffalo, the main of a lion, a bearlike body, a gorilla’s brow, the tusks of a boar, and the tail and hind legs of a wolf}

Favorite Quote(s):

1. Beast: [pounds on Belle’s door yelling] I thought I told you to come down to dinner!

Belle: I’m not hungry!

Beast: [yelling to Belle] You’ll come out, or I’ll-I’ll-I’ll break down the door!

Lumiere: Master, I could be wrong, but that might not be the best way to win the girl’s affections.

Cogsworth: Please. Attempt to be a gentlemen.

Beast: But, she’s being so *difficult*!

Mrs. Potts: Gently… gently…

Beast: [calmly] Will you come down to dinner?

Belle: No!

Beast: [points at door] Hmm?

Cogsworth: Ah-ah-ah, suave, genteel.

Beast: [suavely] It would give me great pleasure…

[tries to hold in his anger]

Beast: if you would join me for dinner.

Cogsworth: [clears throat and mutters] We say please.

Beast: Please?

Belle: No, thank you!

Beast: [yells] You can’t stay in there forever!

Belle: Yes, I can!

Beast: [yells] Fine! Then go ahead and *starve!* If she doesn’t eat with me, then she doesn’t eat at all!

[storms down through the hallway and slams the door behind him]

Mrs. Potts: Oh dear. That didn’t go very well at all, did it?

2. Cogsworth: Well Your Highness, I must say everything is going just swimmingly. I knew you had it in you, ha ha!

Beast: [sadly] I let her go.

Cogsworth: Yes, yes, splen – You what? How could you do that?

Beast: I had to.

Cogsworth: Yes, but, but, but but why?

Beast: Because I love her.

3.Beast: [Struggling] You – You came back.

Belle: Of course I came back. I couldn’t let them… Oh this is all my fault. If only I had gotten here sooner.

Beast: Maybe… Maybe – it’s better… it’s better this way.

Belle: Don’t talk like that. You’ll be alright. We’re together now; everything’s going to be fine, you’ll see.

Beast: And at least – I got to see you – one last time.

[the Beast dies]

Belle: No, No! Please. Please… Please don’t leave me.

[Belle sobs]

Belle: I love you.

[the last rose petal falls]

4. Feather duster: Oh No. . .

Lumiere: Oh Yes. . .

Feather duster: Oh No. . .

Lumiere: Oh Yes. . .

Feather duster: I’ve been burnt by you before.

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