A Tale as Old as Time
Beast and Belle hand puppets. THF342892, THF342891
When Walt Disney Pictures released its animated film Beauty and the Beast in 1991, the company received its best movie reviews in almost 50 years. Film critic Roger Ebert gave the movie four stars out of four, saying that, “Beauty and the Beast reaches back to an older and healthier Hollywood tradition in which the best writers, musicians, and filmmakers are gathered for a project on the assumption that a family audience deserves great entertainment, too.” Movie-goers of all ages agreed—this film was a winner.
Lesser known is the fact that this movie broke new ground in ways that we often take for granted with animated films today. On the eve of Disney’s soon-to-be-released live-action version of this classic film, we take the opportunity to reflect upon the many breakthrough—even revolutionary—aspects of the original film.
1. It was the first animated film in history to use a screenplay in addition to the usual storyboards. This made the resulting story more akin to a live-action movie than to the extended cartoon quality of other animated films produced up to that time.
2. The screenplay was written by a woman! In a field dominated by men, Linda Woolverton—whose primary experience had been writing scripts for children’s television shows—was the first woman to write an animated feature for Disney. Woolverton, who claimed that she possessed some of Belle’s characteristics and that Gaston had “tinges of guys I used to date,” brought a believable quality to the characters as she worked with the film’s changing stable of story writers.
Belle Burger King figure. THF 101187
3. Belle was a new kind of princess, ushering in a whole new generation of more free-thinking, dynamic princesses like Mulan, Rapunzel in Tangled, and Merida in Brave. In writing the screenplay, Woolverton said, “I wanted a woman of the 90’s, someone who wanted to do something other than wait for her prince to come.” The casting of Paige O’Hara (a Broadway actress and singer) as the voice of Belle was a purposeful attempt to add a unique, more grown-up quality to Belle’s personality.
4. The other main characters also broke traditional molds. Full of depth and complexity, Beast and Gaston turned the role of the classic, stereotypical Disney prince inside out. Beast, who was “mean and coarse and unrefined” during most of the film, turned out to be the prince, while Gaston—whose dashing looks make him a more likely hero—turned out to be the villain.
5. The music was stunning. When Walt Disney Studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg insisted that the film have a Broadway musical quality, he brought in songwriters Alan Mencken (music) and Howard Ashman (lyrics) fresh from their success with The Little Mermaid. Mencken and Ashman outdid themselves, creating the emotionally complex songs that moved the narrative forward and furthered our understanding of the characters and themes. Mencken and Ashman received Academy Awards that year for best original song (Beauty and the Beast) and best original score.
Songwriters Alan Mencken and Howard Ashman turned their talents to Beauty and the Beast after completing The Little Mermaid. THF 308964
6. It helped kick movie studios’ use of computer animation into high gear. Beauty and the Beast was produced using a blend of traditional hand-drawn animation and CAPS, a computer-animated production system. While not the first movie to use computer animation, the success of such effects in this film—especially in the stunning ballroom scene—convinced Disney and other film studios to invest further in this technology.
7. It brought The Walt Disney Company back to being a force to be reckoned with. After a string of minor box-office releases, Disney’s animation department started turning things around with Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1986) and The Little Mermaid (1989). Beauty and the Beast was an even bigger hit, ushering in a wave of successive hits from Aladdin to Tarzan.
Aladdin and Magic Carpet Burger King figure. THF 311312
This era, sometimes referred to as the “Disney Renaissance,” also saw a constant barrage of marketing tie-ins with each new film—related merchandise, Broadway musical adaptations, and Disney theme park attractions—laying the foundation for present-day cross-marketing techniques.
Chip and Cogsworth from Pizza Hut. THF342889, THF342890
8. It brought prestige to animated films. Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to pull in more than $100 million at the box office. It was also the first animated film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture at a time when the nominations were limited to five choices rather than today’s ten. The Academy’s later addition of a Best Animated Feature category can trace its lineage directly back to the success of Beauty and the Beast. In 2002, the National Film Registry selected Beauty and Beast for preservation by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
9. It inspired a new generation of movie-goers, especially young girls who identified with Belle and saw her as a role model. In a recent interview, Emma Watson (who plays Belle in the new live-action film) described how taken she was with this character as a young girl:
I just fell in love with Belle. She was this feisty young woman who spoke her mind and had all these ambitions and was incredibly independent and wanted to see the world and was so smart. And I loved how she had this relationship with Beast that was just toe to toe and that seemed to me to be such a dynamic and interesting kind of relationship that I’d never seen before in a fairy tale. I was just enamored of the whole thing.
Today, Ms. Watson is an activist for women’s rights. A coincidence? Perhaps, but just possibly a direct connection back to her early identification with Belle.
10. The film’s messages are still relevant. The themes of tolerance, acceptance, and beauty being in the eye of the beholder not only continue to resonate today but can provide important lessons for future generations of young movie-goers.
So, if you haven’t seen the 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast in a while, dust off that old video or DVD or watch the movie online, and see for yourself why this “tale as old as time” is still timeless.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
20th century, 1990s, women's history, technology, popular culture, music, movies, Disney, childhood, by Donna R. Braden