Friday, July 31, 2020

Green Phoenix - Beauty and the Beast (1991) Review

I want to apologize to everyone for the two-week delay in releasing this review. Two weeks ago was TrotCon, a convention that I regularly participate in as a guest, and due to the fallout of COVID-19, I needed to dedicate a great deal of my time and focus to the convention and couldn't finish this article with the level of quality that I expect of myself. As to why I had to delay last week, well...

...Accidentally deleting an entire article the night before you have to publish it fucking sucks.

But all that aside, I am happy to finally present a review of one of the most well-regarded Disney films in cinematic history.

In 1991, Disney found themselves at a crossroads in terms of their Renaissance. 1989's The Little Mermaid had been a massive success that seemed to revitalize public interest in Disney animation, while 1990's The Rescuers Down Under was largely ignored in terms of public interest, due to lack of interest from Disney marketing (though the film would maintain a strong public interest and fanbase on VHS). It was in this environment that Disney released Beauty and the Beast.

To say that this film has a prodigious legacy and reputation is the greatest of understatements. The New York Film Festival gave an unfinished rough-cut of the film a standing ovation. And the film would go on to be the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

But does the film still deserve that indelible reputation? Let's take a look at Walt Disney Pictures' Beauty and the Beast and find out.

***
  • Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
  • Produced by Walt Disney Pictures
  • MPAA Rating: G
  • Running Time: 84 Minutes
***

SUMMARY

In a small village in France, a beautiful young woman named Belle is considered an outcast by her community, due to her own bookishness and the reputation of her eccentric father. While Belle dreams of adventure and magic outside of her ordinary life, her life is changed forever after her father is kidnapped while visiting a magical castle.

In order to free her father, Belle agrees to exchange herself for her father, becoming a "guest" of the castle's cold-hearted master, The Beast. While the two initially have their disagreements, a strange friendship, even romance, is formed between the two. And The Beast needs her to fall in love with him, as he and all of the other residents of the castle have been cursed to take their current shapes. Only when The Beast falls in love and has that love reciprocated will the spell be broken.

But The Beast is not the only one who is seeking Belle's affections, as the town hero, Gaston, a handsome but vain and cruel hunter, has also set his on her. Will the curse be broken and true love win in the end?

Well...this is a Disney film, so maybe the answer to that question is obvious.

***

REVIEW

Not going to beat around the bush here. Beauty and the Beast easily remains among Disney's greatest masterpieces. The film really does stand out among its peers, even among the Renaissance films that have since attained legendary status alongside it. The films stunning animation, soundtrack and sound design, lovable and iconic characters and moving story make it peerless among the Disney classics.

And yet, in many ways it represented the culmination of the best and brightest that Disney had to offer. While Disney would continue to make fantastic films that succeeded both critically and commercially, Beauty and the Beast would be the film that solidified that trend and set the tone and patterns that Disney would repeat for the rest of the decade.

Even today, when Disney is arguably in the middle of their second Renaissance, the shadow of Beauty and the Beast looms large.

VISUALS - 9/10

When analyzing Disney animation, one can either categorize the eras of Disney animation by the leadership of the department (Walt Disney, Michael Eisner, Bob Iger, etc.), or you can define it in terms of the prevailing visual style of the animated films of the time period in question.

The Walt era of Disney animation detailed the period between Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937 and Sleeping Beauty in 1959 and this covered the time period that mostly revolved around the experimental and clean-cut era of Disney animation, giving us the first animated films. This period was followed by the "Dark age" of Disney animation, where Walt focused more on the theme parks and live action films, transitioning Disney animation to the rougher more pencil-dominant era of Disney films. This era runs from One Hundred and One Dalmatians in 1961 until The Black Cauldron almost tanked the entire department in 1985.

While The Great Mouse Detective (1986) and Oliver and Company (1988) would still utilize that same rough pencil style of animation, there visual storytelling and strength of narrative would represent a proto-Renaissance mindset that would finally result in The Little Mermaid in 1989.

Released in 1991, Beauty and the Beast is firmly established in that new Renaissance-style of animation, utilizing the same clean-line cel animation that hearkens back to the Walt era but still possesses many of the animation styling that was born in the Dark era. Add in the advent of computer animation to speed up and smooth out processes that use to take weeks of work, and the sort of fast paced, clean traditional animation that would become the standard for Disney until the rise of widespread CGI animation with Tangled in 2010.

35 Questions I Still Have About 'Beauty & The Beast'

While not a pioneer of that Renaissance era animation style (that glory belongs to The Little Mermaid alone); in many ways, Beauty and the Beast represents the full capabilities of that style and process and would serve as the inspirational model for nearly every future Disney film.

It is in this opinion that I rank the visual score so high. Beauty and the Beast's stellar camera work and scale had never really been seen in animation before that point, with the ballroom scene and the final battle on the castle roof being particularly memorable. This coupled with the wonderfully iconic character animations (which I will discuss a little bit more in the CHARACTERS section of the review) makes a high score for Beauty and the Beast all but inevitable. The castle is, in so many ways, a unique character in its own right and that is due largely to the intricacy and scale of the design. Beauty and the Beast's animation is the perfect representation of the fantasy behind a "tale as old as time".

SOUNDTRACK - 10/10

Talking about the soundtrack and sound design for Beauty and the Beast is an exercise in both wonderment and severe sadness, as this soundtrack marks the final collaboration between composer Alan Menkin and lyricist Howard Ashman. Howard Ashman was, in many ways, the heart of the Disney Renaissance and it was his lyrical influence that would color the decade's cinematic experience. The mind behind the musical genius of The Little Mermaid and from which the passion project of Aladdin would be born, Beauty and the Beast represented the last full hurrah for Ashman, who passed away due to complications of AIDS before the film was ever released. The film is even dedicated to the man...

HowardAshman.jpg
"To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful."

And what a glorious film to go out on. Beauty and the Beast's music is awe-inspiring. At some level, it is the nostalgia talking and I fully recognize that fact. But I really don't care.

The music, much like most from the Renaissance era, is just incredible. "Be Our Guest" and "Tale as Old As Time" have long since been placed in the annals of Disney history, and the opening theme is so moving that I am sitting here listening to it as I write. The dictionary lacks words to properly convey the breadth at which I enjoy the musical design of Beauty and the Beast, so I earnestly say just take a good long listen and you will not be disappointed.

Just don't listen to the live action version. It's like going to watch Hamilton and then watching your seven-year old nephews rendition of the same play.

CHARACTERS - 8/10

Iconic.

I have been using this word almost religiously when discussing this film and there is a reason for this. Beauty and the Beast may not be my favorite animated Disney film (that title belongs to The Lion King) but it is easily the most critically memorable and flawless. And the characters play a massive role in this memorability. After all, its quite likely that if you grew up with any degree of Disney film, you remember the characters from Beauty and the Beast.

This is due in no small part to the wonderfully distinct designs that Disney animators used when bringing this classic Fairy tale to life. No two characters look exactly alike (with the exception of the Village Triplets) and the character designs all play exactly in their overarching archetypes. Belle is very beautifully design but is kept relatively simple and plain in her garb and hair (highlighting her internal and external beauty). Gaston is traditionally masculine and portrayed in a very heroic light (a direct contrast to his actual narrative purpose). And the various servants of the castle are, of course, each unique with eccentric personalities. They provide the lion share of the comedic relief, yet still manage to balance that humor with a genuine charm that future comedic reliefs would often struggle to properly balance out.

La Belle et la BĂȘte film.jpg

But of all the characters, the real heart of this film is derived from the Beast. In most interpretations of the original fairy tale, the Beast can have any myriad of appearances. From very porcine in the original storybook to looking like an extra from the Cats musical in Jean Cocteau's adaptation (from which this version was heavily inspired). The unique capabilities of animation allowed Disney to truly create a creature that defied any classification, to make the Beast singular in its presentation and a visage that is equal parts imposing and tragic.

The Beast really forms the narrative heart of the film, as it is his arc that we follow throughout the film. Belle doesn't really need to learn all that much, rather she acts as a narrative instrument through which the Beast is motivated to become better and her friendship, and ultimately love.

The characters have become an iconic piece of Disney history, favorites of adults and children alike.

STORY - 9/10

Like most Disney films, Beauty and the Beast is based on a prior fairy tale, specifically La Belle et la Bete by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve. Though the released film takes many liberties with the original source material, drawing much more inspiration from Jean Cocteau's 1946 La Belle et la Bete, the first drafts were surprisingly unrecognizable. I highly recommend checking out Kyle Kallgren's review of Beauty and the Beast to learn more about the production and comparisons between the two films.

The film is, much like later films like Tangled and Frozen, a critique of the traditional fairy tale formula. Gaston is given all the hallmarks of your traditional heroic protagonist, where the Beast is very much framed initially in the "Ugly is evil" trope. The film carries an overall message of inner beauty vs. outer beauty but is quite unique in making it the responsibility of the Beast to achieve his own inner beauty.

While there is a degree of passiveness in some scenes with Belle and the fallacious criticism of "Stockholm Syndrome" from those who don't really understand the power dynamic at play in the story, the truth is that Belle has a surprising degree of power and influence throughout the castle, rapidly changing everything around her even before the curse is lifted.

The Way We Loved Beauty and the Beast | Disney beauty and the ...
The Beast transformed

Beauty and the Beast is powerfully moving story of the transformative power of self-improvement and the strength that healthy relationships can have on a person. The Beast is transformed long before his curse is broken and it is through the influence of Belle and, more importantly, his own desire to better himself that this is achieved.

As someone who strives for perpetual self-improvement and betterment, it is a powerful message and one that is surprisingly underappreciated in our society.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Beauty and the Beast truly stands as peak Disney Renaissance. The film transformed the company and solidified the position that The Little Mermaid began only a few years before. The film was proof that Disney quality wasn't a fluke and that animation truly had a financial future for the company. The film's animation, soundtrack, characters and story all became a benchmark for the company's future, a model they have brought into the present to become the ever present juggernaut that it now is.

Next week, we take a break from cinematic reviews as we begin another countdown. This one will be a little lighter in text, but a lot more fun with fantastic discussions of anime intros.

VISUALS
  • 9/10
SOUNDTRACK
  • 10/10
CHARACTERS
  • 8/10
STORY
  • 9/10

 FINAL SCORE - 9/10

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