REVIEW: It’s the animated film that nearly won Oscar’s Best Picture.
Now, as Disney’s “tale as old as time” turns 30, I’m reminded why the 1991 original (available to stream on Disney+) is still my favourite animated adventure of all time.
It is hard to believe now, but once upon a time animated films came without celebrity voices and songwriting, weren’t littered with pop-culture references and were hand-drawn rather than computer designed.
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Inspired by the 18th century fairytale, it’s the story of Belle (Paige O’Hara), a bookish outcast who dreams of life beyond her quiet village. However, she gets more than she bargained for when her inventor father gets lost in the nearby woods and winds up captive at a castle owned by the hideous, yet mysterious Beast (Robbie Benson). When Belle eventually tracks him down, she agrees to trade places with her father in order to secure his freedom.
Part of the Disney animation renaissance, started by The Little Mermaid and continued through Aladdin to The Lion King, the film is a showcase not only for the deep, lush visuals, anthropomorphic qualities and rich characters that hand-drawn animation could engender, but also an at-the-time jaw-dropping experiment in what computer-animation had to offer. On its original release, many viewers were left stunned by the ballroom backdrop that suddenly surrounded the main characters.
But, in this year of In the Heights, Everybody Loves Jamie, Encanto, Tick, Tick…Boom and a West Side Story remake, it’s also worth remembering that Beauty is also one of the best movie musicals ever committed to celluloid.
While it didn’t have a stand out pop hit like The Lion King’s Circle of Life or Aladdin’s A Whole New World, it has a clutch of fantastic songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, from the scene-setting Belle, to the battle cry Kill the Beast (which rivals anything in Les Miserables) and the showstopping Busby Berkeley-esque Be Our Guest. Lyrically they are outstanding, with the humourous Gaston a standout (“No one plots like Gaston, Takes cheaps shot like Gaston, tries to persecute harmless crackpots like Gaston”). It’s easy to why the film became one of Broadway’s longest running shows.
And that is another masterstroke by the film’s creators. Rather than populating it with known actors, M.A.S.H.’s David Ogden Stiers and Murder She Wrote‘s Angela Landsbury are the only names, the cast is instead dominated by Broadway singers like the honey-toned O’Hara (who makes Belle Disney’s finest “princess”, both winsome and strong-willed) and the gravel-voiced Benson.
Incredibly the work of 12 writers (usually a bad sign), the story mixes visual and verbal humour (“If it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it”) with some genuine scares that hark back to Disney’s first golden era of Pinocchio and Snow White. You can guarantee there will be tears before bedtime (for adults and children alike), no matter how many times you watch it. Plus, it has one of the best last lines in cinema history. “Do I still have to sleep in cupboard?”
The movie that restored animation’s, and in particular Disney’s, fortunes, Beauty is an endearing and enduring classic and a rare beast – an animated film that can be enjoyed by the whole family.
Beauty and the Beast (G) is now available to stream on Disney+. A modified version of this article first appeared in March 2017.