Beauty exists on the inside, not the outside.
The first time I watched Beauty and the Beast in theaters was nothing short of an enchanting experience. It was absolutely magical. The bright colors, the wondrous music, the dizzying animation, the brilliant voiceover work and the creative characters all combined into an experience that is ethereal, passionate, and everlasting. This is truly a standout among the Disney films, one that clearly demonstrates why animated film should be considered on equal footing to live-action.
In even the opening moments of the picture, we understand the scope of this movie and where exactly it wants to lead us. Sweeping through valleys, trees, and rivers until it arrives at a lone castle, we are told the story of an arrogant prince who refused to shelter an old woman from the cold. That woman, as it turns out, was an enchantress, and she placed a curse on this prince for his cruelty and his ego. The nails on his hands turned into claws like a lion. His smooth skin turned hairy like a wolf. And his human face was erased and replaced with the horns, teeth, and fur of an oxen. This prince was no longer royalty. He was now a Beast.
Enter Belle (Paige O’Hara), a village girl that lived a few miles away from the Beast and his castle. Belle isn’t seen as normal by her fellow villagers. She’s not dainty like the other girls are. She’s not interested in looking for a man, birthing children, or settling down to have a family. She’s more than content in living at home with her father the inventor and the occasional book she checks out from the local library. Her independence is seen as strange, even dangerous by her fellow villagers. But that’s the time that she lives in.
One day, her father ventures too far into the woods and is attacked by a pack of wolves. As Belle races to rescue her father, she runs into a creature that looks like an animal but talks like a human. That creature is the Beast, and thus begins their adventure as old as time.
One of the most prolific elements in any Disney movie is always the music. “When You Wish Upon A Star” in Pinnocchio. “Part of Your World” in The Little Mermaid. “Circle of Life” in Lion King. In most movies, the characters, the dialogue, and the action all make up the tone and feel of the film, while the music more or less rests in the background.
Not with Disney though. In their films, the music is elevated to the forefront as a form of expression for character’s moods and feelings, the lyrics expressing meaning and language much like the dialogue does. That rhythm and aesthetic is repeated masterfully here in Beauty and the Beast as composer Alan Menken takes us through an epic journey filled with upbeat melodies, climactic staccato, ominous foreshadowing, and beautiful voices that fill us with wonder and joy. This material would make for great opera if it hasn’t already in its animated form.
Seriously, the next time you watch Beauty and the Beast, close your eyes during one of the musical numbers and see if you can still follow what’s going on. I’m betting a 20 that you can. The conversation that characters carry while in movement, singing, and dancing carries the story in a way that flows just right while just slightly resisting the urge to be on-the-nose. Most musicals have that problem, in that they have to spell everything out like we’re second graders and can’t tell what’s going on unless it’s read to us like a bedtime story.
But Beauty and the Beast doesn’t ever fall into this mundane repetition of obviousness. Not once. Mostly because every scene comes alive with movement and energy, always moving on to the next scene, not slowing down to pause unless a scene calls for it. That’s because directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise have a clear understanding of pacing and build up, and how to make these elements work to escalate emotions in a film. Watch, for instance, how long they delay the reveal of the Beast. It’s at about the 30-minute mark when the Beast finally emerges from the shadows, and he doesn’t pop out like a Jack-in-the-box. His reveal is instead slow and ominous, ashamed by his ugly, animalistic appearance.
I find it interesting how the story parallels outward looks to inward personality, just like The Phantom of the Opera or Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. In many ways, Belle and the Beast are outsiders, their differences shamed by the people around them. Beast is an aggressive, angry individual who is just seeking love, but doesn’t know how to pursue it or even where to start. Belle is a compassionate and intelligent woman who is proud of her independence, but secretly yearns for something more. Both of these are character archetypes definitely, but they’re done with an energy and honesty here that feels original and vivid.
I was reminded of Pinocchio while watching this movie. They’re very similar in many ways, mostly because they pose the same questions. How do you define someone’s humanity? Where does real strength come from? And where does the concept of love fit into all of this? They go about these questions in different ways, but they arrive to the same conclusions. Humanity is honesty, strength comes from within, and love is the source to both of these.
It’s also interesting how screenwriter Linda Woolverton confronts gender stereotypes while defining concepts of masculinity and femininity. There’s a character in here named Gaston (Richard White), who’s filled with so much hot air that his character would make more sense if he were a balloon. Gaston embodies all of the characteristics in how society perceives masculinity. His muscles are bulging and his bones are strong. He loves to get into fights and show off in front of cute girls. He is cocky and arrogant. He lacks humility and humbleness. And he doesn’t have a willingness to learn or admit when he is wrong. If these characters existed in a woman, she would be shamed for being selfish and egotistical. Yet when they’re in a man, people shrug their shoulders and say “Eh, boys will be boys.”
Gaston is seen as a hero by the townspeople, when really he’s only interested in serving his own self interests. I find it interesting how in the more pressured moments, Gaston cowers in fear, whereas Belle and the Beast persevere through the struggles. Yet, Gaston is celebrated as the bravest man in town. Could anyone ever see the Beast as masculine, or would they be too scared by his appearance and call him a monster instead? And what about Belle? She’s braver than Gaston, yet she’s a woman. Do you call that masculine strength, or feminine strength?
As the first woman to write a script for Disney, I’m assuming Woolverton comes from a personal space while writing this. She shows very clearly that people don’t exist inside stereotypes even though we create them. We are our own person, unique and irreplaceable in our own ways. This is a movie that celebrates individuality, diversity, and gender equality. While men and women exhibit different strengths from one another, they are strengths nonetheless. Woolverton has done a masterful job in making this film immediately relevant to her audience. I presume that’s why she would continue a long writing relationship with Disney that includes credits such as The Lion King, Maleficent, and Alice in Wonderland.
I could go on and on about all the amazing things about this picture. The animation is crisp and clear and brings detail and life into every person, every scene, and every setting that it paints in our minds. The characters come alive and dance to the beat and tune of every exciting moment in this picture. And at the center of it all are these two star-crossed strangers, who have every reason to be afraid of each other, yet fall in love despite all the odds.
I’m trying to levy where exactly I would rank Beauty and the Beast in comparison to its fellow Disney companions. Pinocchio is definitely first for me, then Bambi. I think Beauty and the Beast would rank third for me, but that’s still no small feat to achieve. With generations of different characters, stories, and mythology at their fingertips, how does Disney keep improving upon their franchise? This is a film that is so well made that you could see it being translated into live-action, although I almost don’t want it to. There really isn’t another film quite like Beauty and the Beast, and I seriously doubt there will be another one like it in the future.