Beauty and the Beast was released 25 years ago, and the movie quickly went on to become one of Disney’s biggest successes. It still remains a favorite movie of many, animated or otherwise. In fact, Beauty and the Beast was such a strong film that it became the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The movie won the Academy Award for Best Original Score and was nominated three times in the Best Original Song category, with the titular theme, “Beauty and the Beast,” emerging triumphant.
While it’s not rare for an animated film to capture the imagination of an audience (just take a look at Frozen’s box office performance), it is surprising to see an animated movie have such longevity in its success. This is evidenced in people’s anticipation for the live-action Beauty and the Beast which will be released in March, 2017. So why was Beauty and the Beast such a hit?
In 1989, Disney released The Little Mermaid, and the movie heralded the start of the Disney renaissance era. The House of Mouse were anxious to make sure the movie was a hit, and they decided to make it a musical in the hope that would resonate well with an audience. Broadway composers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were brought on board to write the score for the movie, having previously worked together on the Great White Way on shows such as Little Shop of Horrors. The Little Mermaid became a critical and commercial smash for Disney, and won Academy Awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Score.
Suddenly, audiences knew what they wanted from an animated feature, and it was exactly what Disney had given them. Catchy songs, bright, vivid animation, and characters that were lovable and relatable. Disney followed this up with The Rescuers Down Under and, though it performed moderately well in theaters, it did not find the same success as The Little Mermaid had enjoyed. This was in part due to it being a sequel, but the characters also lacked substance and audiences failed to connect to them on the most basic emotional level.
Then, Beauty and the Beast arrived, firmly re-establishing Disney as the leaders of animated movies. Menken and Ashman were once again brought in to write the score and original songs for the movie. The story was simple enough: a local village girl becomes imprisoned in the Beast’s castle in order to save her father. While being held captive, she gradually falls in love with her captor, who also begins to mend his ways, and eventually the curse on him is lifted and he is revealed to be a handsome prince. It’s a classic fairytale, told in a classic Disney style, but Beauty and the Beast also tapped into the mindset, attitudes and expectations that an audience held in 1991, and blew them all out of the water.
One of the biggest contributing factors to Beauty and the Beast’s success is undeniably the strength of its soundtrack. The movie sounds like a Broadway musical right from the very first note. The songs are catchy and upbeat, or slow and emotive, and, most importantly, the story progresses through the medium of music; a hallmark of any good musical. The opening number, “Belle”, introduces us to our heroine and tells us all about her village life. Watching for the first time, audiences were amazed as a multi-layered, intricate and lively musical number was born. Even watching now, after many, many views, “Belle” still stands the test of time and draws viewers right into the heart of the action.
At the end of the number, we meet Gaston. He needs his own number to tell us all of his physical prowess, his luck with ladies, and his breakfasting habits. The song is tremendous fun, but it’s not the only light-hearted number. “Be Our Guest” is an extravagant, energetic number with a mind-boggling parade of cutlery, crockery, and other kitchen implements. Performed by Lumiere, a singing candelabra, the song is a visual and aural feast from beginning to end. In order to capture a raw energy, the songs were all mostly recorded live, with the orchestra and voice cast performing simultaneously.
It is perhaps, “Beauty and the Beast” that is the most renowned of Menken and Ashman’s songs, from this movie or otherwise. The charming vocals of Angela Lansbury fit the scene to perfection, though she reportedly felt as though her voice wouldn’t be the right fit. Menken and Ashman asked her to just try one take, and that was all that was needed for Lansbury to nail it. When she recently performed it again at a gala, the reception was, unsurprisingly, very warm; not only in the room, but across the whole internet, where the video quickly went viral. The lyrics are simple, but effective and in fact, that’s the essence of all the songs in a nutshell; simple, yet memorable, and who doesn’t love to sing along with their favorite musical?
Coupled with the brilliant music, is the superb animation. Though nowadays we expect a little more from our CGI films, for its time, Beauty and the Beast was exceptional. New technology allowed the animators to add far more depth to each scene by shading and multi camera angles, and the computer animated ballroom scene remains one of the most iconic cinematic moments of all time. When it was first seen by audiences 25 years ago, it amazed people, and it’s little surprise that Disney chose to recreate that scene almost exactly for its live-action version. The quality of the animation was noted in many critic’s reviews of the time, and the quality of the movie (especially the ballroom scene) convinced Disney to invest more money in computer animation.
As the central character, Belle also contributes massively to Beauty and the Beast’s success. If Ariel broke the traditional Princess mould, then Belle absolutely smashed it. Though she has her flaws by today’s standards, in 1991, Belle was far more of a feisty princess than we were used to, a trend that continued with Jasmine in Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan and so on. Belle isn’t afraid to declare her love of books, and she deems clever conversation far more important than the attentions of any man, especially one as odious as Gaston. In fact, she doesn’t take his misogyny at all, and her message is clear to girls everywhere; don’t settle. You are worth more than a guy who only cares about looks. Even today, young girls admire Belle for having dreams and aspirations that she’s not afraid to talk about. Yes, she falls for her captor, and there’s a lot to be said there, but it’s his efforts to understand and talk to Belle that have her falling in love.
Beauty and the Beast managed to pull together a classic story, top notch animation, interesting and mutli-faceted characters, and wrap it all up in a big, bouncing musical package that worked to utter perfection. It was fresh, exciting, and exactly what the world wanted. A 1991 review by the NYT states that “It is a surprise, in a time of sequels and retreads, that the new film is so fresh and altogether triumphant in its own right.”
The landscape is much the same now. 25 years later, we find ourselves wading in remakes, reboots, reimaginings and sequels, but the live-action Beauty and the Beast has a massive buzz around it already, months prior to its release. Trailers and posters hint that the movie has remained entirely faithful to its animated counterpart, and yet it’s also managed to add some new, modern twists.
Some of these are simple, such as the inclusion of new songs by Menken and extra lyrics from the late Ashman, but some are more complex, such as the alterations to Emma Watson’s Belle. Much to Watson’s delight, Belle will be even stronger and determined than ever. She is an inventor, more than capable of standing on her own two feet, and still not in any need of a man. She has a fire in her belly that makes her a force to be reckoned with, and looks to be, once again, a great role model for young girls.
There are concerns from fans, primarily over the use of CGI, but overall there is an air of excitement over what’s to come. Ian McKellen, who plays Cogsworth, says there is more buzz over Beauty and the Beast than there was over any of The Lord of the Rings installments. The release of this movie is very timely; a lot of the world seems in need of some comfort right now, and Beauty and the Beast is like a warm hug; comforting, familiar, and above all, magical.