“As the years passed, he fell into despair and lost all hope. For who could ever learn to love a beast?” – Narrator
With New Fantasyland open, and with Beauty and the Beast being such a large part of it, and, of course, with the Christmas Season upon us as well, I don’t think there is a better time to get into our 6th film, Beauty and the Beast!
Beauty and the Beast marked a distinct change in Animation history. As many of you probably know, Beauty and the Beast was the first animated feature to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and with that nomination, in my opinion, animation changed. No longer was it a separate section of Hollywood, a “genre” to be enjoyed by the masses but not the elite. But with that nomination, Hollywood fully accepted the animated feature, and I feel that Beauty and the Beast did as much as Who Framed Roger Rabbit did for the rediscovery and reanalysis of many of the classic animation of the past.
Of course, now, with the creation of the Animated Feature award, there is still debate over Hollywood’s view of animation, so, who knows.
The story of Beauty and the Beast is a familiar one, but we’ll go through it anyways, as we have with all of our stories. Beauty and the Beast stars a girl named Belle, who loves to get lost in the worlds of her books, and dreams of something more than just her life defending her father and rejecting the advances and marriage proposals of Gaston, the hottest guy in town. When her inventing father, Maurice, goes missing on his way to a fair, Belle goes to find him, and runs into the mysterious Beast, actually a Prince cursed to have this hideous, animalistic form unless he finds true love by his 21st Birthday, when the final pedal on his cursed rose will fall. Belle gives herself up to the Beast in exchange for her father’s freedom. As Maurice tries to get help, and as Gaston schemes to force Belle into marriage, Belle grows closer to the Beast, as the race to the final pedal fall quickens.
The biggest reason that Beauty and the Best makes it this far up the list is the fact that this film has the strongest romance in the history of Disney Animation. We’ve seen some fantastic relationships in the past couple of films, and with five films to go, we’ll see some amazing relationships of all kinds coming up soon. But to me, the romantic relationship between Belle and the Beast is far and away the best we’ll see on this list.
And the main reason for that is similar to a reason I gave for the strong relationship between Rapunzel and Flynn all the way back in my review of Tangled. This is among the few films in the Animated Canon to have the two romantic interests constantly interacting with each other. Belle and The Beast spend a long time together, slowly growing closer and closer together through all the activities and arguments they share. And we see their growth from antagonistic to lovers, allowing us to fully and honestly see them as partners.
And that’s important for this film because the main thrust of the story is the romance. Sure, the romance is the main thrust in Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella as well, but those work because of the almost mythical quality of those romances, the star-crossed lovers aspect, the idea that inner beauty can be seen on the glowing faces of Cinderella and Aurora. While those romances are classic, particularly in Sleeping Beauty, we don’t need to see the full extent of the romance.
But for this film, we do, because the whole point is that inner beauty can’t be seen right away within The Beast. We judge the book by its cover here. The Beast looks scary, because he is scary. (Note: I couldn’t watch this film as a kid because The Beast scared me too much.) Unlike Prince Charming and Prince Philip, we need to spend time with The Beast, and see that through his fury, clawed, fanged exterior pumps the heart of a human being. The Beast is human, despite his appearance, and the build up of that humanity helps to put The Beast on the list of great Disney characters.
Of course, what’s great about The Beast is that he doesn’t start out as a human being in the heart. On the contrary, the film’s prologue and The Beast’s early actions towards Maurice and Belle indicate how far removed he is from humanity, even at the point in his life where he was cursed. The Beast at the beginning of the movie, honestly, deserves his curse. If he weren’t a Beast, he’d be pompous, arrogant, and probably always still a bit angry. The Beast has an extremely strong character arc in this film, and it starts with a well established character introduction.
Small decisions can really make a difference in character development and audience emotions, and one of the decisions that really plays out to the advantage of the film is how The Beast is first shown to the audience. In his first scene, where he confronts Maurice about entering his house, he is constantly hidden in shadow, the audience not knowing at all what he looks like. This gives not only a sense of mystery for the moment, even if we’ve seen the film a million times, but it also perfectly establishes the emotion of what The Beast is supposed to be. He is scary, and this scene makes him scary.
And this scariness continues over to The Beast’s first meeting with Belle. Even though in this scene, we can see The Beast’s form better even in the shadow, the true extent of his appearance and actions are still hidden to the audience, and more importantly, to Belle. And that moment where he finally steps into the light at Belle’s request, to me, is breathtaking. It’s gold. It so perfectly establishes who The Beast is and what he thinks Belle is supposed to think of him. It may seem like a small moment, but it is honestly, to me, one of the film’s best.
And a huge reason for that is The Beast’s design. Through various interviews, commentaries, and released production work, we know that The Beast went through a ton, and I mean a TON, of possible designs during the production of Beauty and the Beast. It took hundreds of drawings and hundreds of hours, and who knows how many people to find the perfect balance of animal qualities versus human qualities, the types of animals present within The Beast, his height, weight, scariness, warmness, and everything in between.
Man, did that work pay off in spades, and then some. The Beast is among the most iconic and well designed characters of the Renaissance era, and quite possible among Disney’s best designed characters of all time. And it is one of those cases where I just why describe detail by detail why it is so good, but everything I mentioned above is just perfection. The animal qualities are perfectly terrifying, yet the right amount of humanity remains so that we remain sympathetic. A huge amount of animals, which is so long I won’t list them here, contribute to the design, making The Beast a little bit of everything. It’s real and it’s fantastical at the same time. It’s just… wordlessly awesome. The design is just so appealing, and is so much fun to see in animation.
The animation in this film is consistently superb, but The Beast’s animation, supervised by the legendary Glen Keane, is a real highlight. Just look at the scene where The Beast is pacing back and forth after locking Belle in her room, trying to figure out how to woo her into love. The way the four-legged pace of The Beast is animated is just so wonderful and so well done, especially considering this is a made up creature we talking about, as based in reality as he can be. But it is really the facial expressions of The Beast that stand out to me, and that same scene truly runs the Gambit. From angry to sad to happy, and all around the circle (of emotions, not life), The Beast is a treat to watch in action, as scary as he can be.
Of course, a great vocal performance must go along with great design, great script, and great animation if we are truly to create a memorable character. Luckily, Robby Benson is up to the task and then some. Although Robby’s voice is somewhat altered to include animal growls in the back of every line (one of the many examples of why an animated voice performance will never be considered for an Oscar), Robby still one of the best performances of the 1990s as The Beast. Just like with the facial expressions, Benson gives the perfect amount of passion to each of the emotions The Beast has. Of course, with the nature of the early Beast, Benson must have an angry voice, and the shouting he does while The Beast is arguing with Belle is perfect. And yet, the warmth is always still there, and that’s what makes the casting of Robby Benson so good. Even in The Beast’s angriest and saddest moments, his soul can still be heard through Benson’s voice. Benson has the perfect amount of everything to transform The Beast into a perfect character.
But what truly drives a character to the top of the amazing character pile is the arc, the journey of the character, and The Beast elevates this as well. The journey from rough, arrogant, well, beast, to a true man can be a classic film transformation, so to speak, but The Beast’s arc is so good because the specific he takes is just perfection. From making the deal with Belle, to arguing with her and kicking her out, to saving her from the wilderness, to bonding with her, to letting her go, The Beast’s arc makes perfect sense, and the audience is with him the entire way. It is such a heart warming story, a journey you cheer for, and it pushes the character, and the film as a whole, up towards perfection.
So we’ve talked about The Beast a ton already, but it takes to tango, or waltz, in this case, and The Beast needs a perfect partner to make this romance live up to its legend. Luckily, we have that perfect match in the character of Belle. I mentioned back in the Cinderella review that the fight for best Disney Princess would always come down to Cinderella and Belle, so you can see that I have high praise for the character.
From the moment we see her walking into the village, Belle is such a beautiful character, and part of what makes her great is the mix between how she connects with the Disney Princesses of the past, yet is still very unique and different that most of the Disney females around her. Like Cinderella, Snow White, Aurora, and Ariel before her, Belle yearns for something greater than the small little world she knows too well. She wants something new, something bigger, but doesn’t completely know how to get there. And yet, unlike those other Princesses, Belle has found a deeper passion in her love for books, stories, and imagination.
Belle’s love for books keeps the tradition of Disney protagonists with a child like wonder for the world around them, but Belle takes it to the next level. Belle is defined by books as Cinderella is defined by her singing and Ariel is defined by her thing-a-ma-bobs, but Belle’s interests in stories defines the traditional Princess yern in a whole new way, at least to me. Belle truly strives to be something bigger than herself, than her town, to find that perfect fairy tale in that castle far, far away. Though I don’t think any of the Disney Princess’s wants is particularly a man, Belle’s vision through her books is one of the stronger Disney Princess traits.
But what pushes Belle even beyond that is that she never loses perspective on what is most important in this world: family. Belle’s relationship with her father is another great example of the Disney theme of the importance of parents and family, and the dynamic between the two of them, with Belle constantly giving her father support about his “crazy” work, is wonderful, and the two have such a great father-daughter chemistry.
The relationship between Father and Daughter is so good, in fact, that it actually drives most of the plot. Belle arrives at the castle of The Beast after realizing her father is missing, trying to save him. She gives herself up to The Beast to save her father. She leaves the Beast to save her father, and she shows the town that The Beast exist to, you guessed it, save her father. Belle’s continual sacrifice for her father is a fantastic character trait, and sets her apart from the other Princesses more than the books do.
But what defines Belle most as a character is hr kindness, and her motherly charm. This not only comes clear in her relationship with her father, but most especially as part of her relationship with The Beast. Despite the way he had treated her before she escaped and got attacked by the wolves, she still appreciates the fact that he saved her, and she tends to his wounds like a mother would a child. And in the scenes after that, after their relationship begins to grow, you see Belle continue her sweetness all around the castle, as she connects with everyone from The Beast to the servants, and builds wonderful, lasting relationships through her kindness.
Belle uses her kindness to help The Beast regain the humanity he lost in the years he wallowed away his sorrow believing that nobody could ever love a beast. This is where the meat of what makes the movie good lies. The relationship between Belle and The Beast is superb, perfection, amazing words that don’t exist. And yes, you can joke and call it Stockholm Syndrome and all that jazz, but to me, the reason that this relationship is so good is that is makes sure to avoid that trap.
The gradual build of the relationship is absolutely astounding, and the budding relationship between Belle and The Beast is paced beautifully. The arguments for coming out to dinner and for Belle messing around in the forbidden West Wing are awesome in context. The attack of the wolves and the tending to Beast’s wounds is a perfect first bond. The giving of Belle the library, the teaching of human manners to The Beast, and the snowball fight are all wonderful friendship moments that hint at romantic undertones, but don’t really explicitly state it.
And then we get to the Ballroom scene. You all the ballroom scene. It is among the most iconic scenes in not just modern Disney History, but the history of the entire company. One of the first real major uses of CG in animated film history, everything comes together for the scene. The shots, the music, the animation, the wonderful, wonderful design of Belle’s yellow dress and The Beast’s Blue Tux, it all comes together to create a truly magical scene.
But what’s most amazing to me about the ballroom scene is, while the romance is extremely strong, there’s no indication that Belle would have said yes at that moment in time to The Beast’s advances. The scene is certainly a romance classic, sure, but I feel that the brilliance of their relationship is Belle not truly realizing her feelings for The Beast until she puts The Beast in danger of Death.
That brings me to the final piece of the puzzle that turns this relationship into the all time greatest. A rarity for the Disney Canon, our villain is actually another romantic “interest” for our main character, even is she is not particularly interested in him. This squarely puts the focus on the romance as the main plot of the story, and it gives us one of the greatest and most fun Disney villains: Gaston. (And LeFou, of course.)
Gaston is a revelation. Similar to Mother Gothel in Tangled so many years later, I love Gaston for the sole fact that he doesn’t want to take over the world or open up some dark, evil power. He just want’s Belle’s hand in marriage to finish making his life as perfect as can be. It’s always refreshing to see a villain like this in animated features, and yet still have the stakes high.
Gaston may be hilarious, but what makes him so good is that he is the perfect foil for The Beast. Gaston is an unchangeable Beast, probably something similar to what The Beast might have become had he stayed human. Gaston is the villain you love to hate, and that gives us even more investment in seeing Belle get with the Beast. Gaston not only makes the film more entertaining, but gives us a better relationship for our main characters as well.
But when push comes to shove, Gaston is still a serious threat, as his character given a good amount of intelligence despite his brutish nature. The end of the film is a masterpiece of investment, making us fear Gaston, root for the Beast to defend himself, and putting us on the edge of our seats as we hope Belle can make it to him in time. I think the ending gets a little underrated, and should be up there with the final moments of Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, The Lion King, and Dumbo as the greatest Disney endings of all time. (Hey, all those films are in the top 10! What a shock!)
And the final moments of the film, the final moment of pure greatness, is when Gaston falls, The Beast dies, and Belle finally says “I Love You.” That defines what their relationship is and was and always will be. Belle may have not been ready to say yes after that Ballroom scene, but the importance of The Beast to her is revealed in those moments. And really, that all it could be. I can’t imagine a perfect caper to their relationship than Page O’Hara’s heartbreaking read of the I love you line.
(Page O’Hara is another absolutely wonderful performance in this film, by the way.)
As you can probably tell from all the raving about the build and the pacing, the script is wonderful. The film is hilarious, heartbreaking, heartwarming, and just well paced. Not at lot else to say about the script, but special mention needed to be made of it.
And I just realized that there is actually another part of the puzzle after Gaston that elevates this film: The Music. Oh, the music in this film. This is the masterwork of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Every single song in this film is so catchy and so brilliant in lyric and tune. “Belle” is as great an introduction as any for the world of the story, and for Belle, and also has an astounding reprise. “Be Our Guest” is another iconic scene, and one of the most fun songs in Disney history. “Gaston” is one of the funniest songs in the Disney Canon as well, and “Beauty and the Beast” is, of course, a beautiful, Oscar-winning song. “Something There,” and “The Mob Song” round out a truly astounding soundtrack. Of course, all the soundtracks from here on out are astounding, and Beauty and the Beast starts it.
To take a quick aside from the review, I’d like to take a paragraph to honor the late-great Howard Ashman, who was taken from this Earth 8 months before the release of this film due to AIDS related complications. Ashman’s lyrics were nothing short of brilliant, and his sense for story was felt throughout the Walt Disney Company. His gifts were taken from us much to early, and we still miss him today. Though he may no longer be with us, his songs remain in our hearts. Thank you very much Howard. And Rest in Piece.
I think it’s about time we wrapped up this review, but not before we mention the rest of the cast of colorful characters. The objects of the castle are all well written, as to be expected. Lumiere and Cogsworth have a great buddy relationship, and Cogsworth has some of the films funniest moments. Mrs. Pots and Chip are sweet and charming as well, especially chip, who’s younger view on the world brings an interesting perspective on the romance. Belle’s Father, Maurice, is wonderfully eccentric, and is important to the film as mentioned above, and Lefou rounds out the cast as an awesome and hilarious, and underrated, sidekick to Gaston.
BEST MOMENT AND SONG
I contend the Best Song of the film is Be Our Guest, followed very closely by Beauty and the Beast and Belle. Be Our Guest is just too much of a good time, and is an animation classic.
The best scene in the film are the final moments, the charge on the castle, Gaston vs. Beast, and Belle’s tears of heartbreak. It’s a wonderful, wonderful ending.
I think you can tell by my review, but the title relationship is what defines this film. The Beast and Belle is the best romance in the Disney Canon, and also rank as two of the greatest characters in the canon. This film deserved its nomination for Best Picture, no doubt about it. The emotions run the gambit here, and that means there is nothing better. Except that Top 5.
So, see you in the top 5!