Film Review: Beauty and the Beast (1991)

As Mrs. Potts once sang, it’s a “Tale as old as time,” but “True as it can be.” These simple phrases form the refrain of one of  Beauty and the Beast’s iconic songs and serve as a great summation of the film. Disney’s 1991 opus channels one of the most well-known and arguably tired themes in contemporary culture. Yet, the way the story is staged reinforces its timelessness. Moving, funny, brimming with a memorable supporting cast and tied together by great music, the film shakes the dust from the original French story that inspired it. It’s one of the great entries in the Disney canon.

Still, Beauty and the Beast isn’t perfect. While its protagonist claims that she wants more “than this provincial life” the film is remarkably light on characterization. Beauty and the Beast is emblematic of an era where Disney acted like they cared about their female characters but really didn’t. Oh sure, the women appearing in the films of the “Disney Renaissance” were more complicated than the blushing, titular simpleton from Snow White, or the drowsy blonde bombshell from Sleeping Beauty. Yet the period still left much to be desired.

The story revolves around Belle, a simple bookworm living in a small French community (where the only two French words uttered are “Bonjour” and “Monsieur”). Unsurprisingly, Belle is bored with her “little town” and distraught with the lack of possibilities open to her. The story is set in the 1700’s and Belle is a woman. So it’s not exactly a perfect combination for someone looking to expand their horizons.

Thus, Belle placates herself through ravenously consuming literature. Initially, she is blissfully unaware that she has come under the scrutinizing gaze of her town (cause she reads – duh) and that the local beefcake and hunter, the pompous and vapid Gaston, has taken a proverbial shine to her. Horrified by this notion, Belle retreats to her childhood home that she shares with her father, Maurice. Considered a brilliant inventor by Belle and a local fruitcake by everyone else, Maurice is preparing to take his invention to a fair across the mountains and through the woods, a simple decision that sets the film’s story in motion.

Belle’s introduction is strong but her motivations remain vague throughout the story. The script never fleshes out what she wants as an alternative to small town married life. She remains a somewhat lackluster Disney heroine because of this. Additionally, there is no real perceptible change in Belle’s character. She is the same damn woman at the end of the film as she was in the beginning.

She is at least thrust into action once her father disappears on the way to the fair. Her attempt to find him eventually leads her to The Beast, who unfortunately is only marginally more interesting than Belle. In the film’s opening we learn of Beast’s origins through illustrations done in the style of stain glass. Ten years before the events of the film Beast was transformed from a haughty aristocrat into a hulking half-wolf/half-bear thing by a vindictive witch. Doomed to remain permanently an animal unless he learns to love by his 21st birthday, the situation appears dire until Maurice wanders into Beast’s Gothic castle, looking for shelter after losing his road to the fair. Once Belle tracks down her Pop she trades her own freedom for his. The Beast is incredulous at this proposition, yet soon gives in and trades in the old crackpot for the nubile lass.

These early scenes at the castle illustrate the raging anger that initially defines The Beast. However, after this initially shocking introduction, there aren’t too many more surprises from the character. We do still root for him though as his demeanor towards Belle gradually softens and the two begin a tentative, unofficial courtship.

This section of the film introduces the film’s supporting cast, which speaks to Disney’s fondness for anthropomorphism. The secondary characters are Beast’s stalwart band of servants, transformed into household items by the same witch’s spell. This band consists of Lumiere the candelabra (a vocally unrecognizable Jerry Orbach), Cogsworth the clock (an effective David Ogden Stiers), and the great Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts, a tea kettle. These characters are miles ahead of the mind-numbing, utterly forgettable supporting characters from something like Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. They occupy just the right amount of screen time and aren’t always used for boorish, slap-stick humor. Lumiere and Mrs. Potts also anchor two of the film’s most memorable songs (Be Our Guest and Beauty and the Beast respectively).

Despite the strength of these characters it is ironically the villainous Gaston, not to mention his sidekick and punching bag Lefou, that are the most enjoyable characters to watch. Both characters are voiced brilliantly. Richard White imbues Gaston with a rich, illustrious baritone. You can hear the smugness and self-absorption in every word he says, but you still can’t help but like him. Nobody can play the villain like Gaston!

Equally effective is Jesse Corti as Lefou, who plays a great doofus. Yet, it is the interplay between the two characters that is the most fun to watch. This is particularly true during the terrifically written and hilarious song “Gaston,” where the subject states that he is “roughly the size of a barge” and is “especially good at expectorating” before letting Lefou get crushed underneath a massive chair. It’s a brilliant scene, one of the best songs in any Disney film.

In fact, most of Beauty and the Beast is like that. Belle’s stay and courtship at the castle includes several moments that stick with you long after seeing the film. The Beast’s gift to Belle is one of them: an impossibly tall library full of books from floor to ceiling. However, there is also a thrilling chase and fight scene in the woods, not to mention the immortal dance between Beauty and Beast to their title song (which features a lovely albeit imperfect blend of cel and CGI animation). Lastly, the pitched climax, which pits Gaston and the villagers against The Beast and his servants/household appliances is excellent; it’s an effective blend of action, humor and real pathos.

The animation, while not seamless and even appearing at times somewhat dated, is still beautiful. One can see a huge progression between something like this and something like The Great Mouse Detective, which was released just a few years earlier. The animation and the story are also bolstered strongly by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Oscar-winning music. Taken together, it’s understandable why Beauty and the Beast received all the acclaim it did, and why it was awarded the unprecedented (for its time) nomination for Best Picture. It’s just a great movie, and a reminder that sometimes a story doesn’t have to be the most novel or fresh, it just has to be told well.

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