July 9, 2013
The Disney Renaissance was underpinned by two major shifts in Disney thinking. One was a move back to the fairy tale and fantasy territory that had underpinned the Golden Age, and the other was a more confident and forthright approach to production and promotion. Disney spent muc... h of the 1980s figuring out exactly what kind of stories they wanted to tell and how they wanted to sell them, and after many failed but interesting attempts, they finally hit lucky with The Little Mermaid.
But even with Mermaid's critical acclaim and box office success, Disney's return was by no means solidified. Their tactics of releasing films in quick succession suffered a setback when The Rescuers Down Under slipped under the radar, where it has remained somewhat ever since. It would take something really special to finally convince critics that Disney was well and truly back - and that special something was Beauty and the Beast. Even after 22 years, it still stands proud and untarnished as the perfect jewel in Disney's second crown.
In my review of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, I spoke about Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise being far more accomplished dealing with adaptations than they are with original stories. They are masters of taking a pre-existing, often reputable source, and channelling its darkness in a way that younger audiences can appreciate. The version presented here is hardly the most faithful to the original fairy tale (though such terms are problematic, considering the many different versions of all the classic stories). But it is extremely faithful to the spirit of the story and plays it straight, taking all the magical elements at face value.
This new-found confidence of Disney is plain to see throughout Beauty and the Beast. There are numerous scenes which draw on the company's back catalogue and invoke past glories, but unlike the wilderness years these references are driven by a desire to celebrate the past and integrate the present, rather than just film up the frame. There are big nods to Snow White in the opening scenes, with Belle's interaction with the animals mirroring that of her historical counterparts. The montages in 'Be Our Guest' look back to Fantasia, as do the dancing mops in 'Human Again' (which was cut from the original release). More esoterically, Gaston's character design owes a fair deal to that of Brom Bones in The Adventures of Ichabod & Mr. Toad.
The big question that's always raised regarding Beauty and the Beast is whether or not the film promotes Stockholm syndrome - the psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy, sympathy or affection towards their kidnappers over a prolonged period. The line of argument goes something like this. Belle is initially repulsed by the Beast, as any sensible person would be, and only falls in love with him as a result of being imprisoned by him. What seems like a genuine unlikely romance that succeeds against all odds is in fact an unfortunate psychological trauma, to which our heroine is condemned forever.
It may be fashionable and convenient to invoke, but in terms of the plot this argument holds no water. While it is true that Belle chooses to stay in the castle, she does so out of devotion to her father rather than affection for her captor. Her relationship with the Beast is strained at first and she continues to exercise authority, even when it will put her at opposition to him - in contrast to those with Stockholm syndrome, who end up fawning over their captors.
When the Beast rescues her in the forest (having allowed her to flee), she is genuinely thankful and repays kindness with kindness, not because she feels psychologically bound to, but because that was always in her nature. Finally, when the Beast allows her to go and save her father, she leaves freely of her own accord, and as before the Beast makes no effort to stop her or beg her to return - much to the amazement and despair of his loyal servants.
This line of defence also hints at another success of the film: its heroine. Belle is a far more rounded character and a far better role model than Cinderella, and the film has very different emphases compared to other Disney princess films before or since. A lot more time and care is given towards her intelligence, resourcefulness, independence and morality, setting her up as a genuinely likeable character who is more grown-up and worldly than, say, Aurora. Yes, she may be beautiful on the outside, but there's so much more to her than that.
Beyond Belle, the characterisation throughout Beauty and the Beast betrays immense care and attention to detail. The vast majority of the supporting cast don't appear in the original story, but genuine thought has gone into every last one of them, and many of the character decisions are both creative and imaginative. The physical characterisations match up beautifully with the personalities - Lumiere is light and greasy, Cosworth obsesses over punctuality and order, Mrs. Potts is warm and homely, and Chip is impish and precocious. If nothing else these decisions bring real character and coherence to this world, grounding the audience in their logic while always preserving the magic.
The visuals of Beauty and the Beast reflect the desire to find the magic and ethereal in the potentially ordinary. The whole colour palette has a blue tinge to it, extending to the dark shadows of the Beast's cloak in one direction and to the uninviting snow in the other. The film captures all the visual ingredients of the European fairy tale (forbidding castles, dark woods, close-knit villages, etc.) and presents them in the most ravishing way possible. It's as though Disney were attempting to justify its entire iconography through the strength of its animation, and suffice to say it works wonders.
The film runs a whole gamut of emotions and is masterful in shifting from and balancing different tones. Linda Woolverton, who also worked on The Lion King, understands the horror underpinnings of fairy tales, and neither she nor the directors pull any punches in the moments that need to be scary. The Beast's entrance is deeply intimidating, and the film makes excellent use of shadows and sounds to ramp up the terror through suggestion. Equally scary are the scenes in the West Wing, beginning slowly with Belle's face in the cracked mirror and then letting lose when the Beast discovers her and flies into a blinding rage.
Equally, Beauty and the Beast is an incredibly funny and heart-warming experience. Since the central relationship is so intense, much of the comic relief has to come from the supporting cast, and each character shines in their own way. Cogsworth is a hilarious fall guy, bringing endless merriment from his pomposity and cowardice. Certainly his antics rival those of Archimedes in The Sword in the Stone for pure unmitigated hilarity, and the glossier animation allows more of the physical humour to be fully realised.
Most of the heart-warming moments in the film are brought to life through Alan Menken's score. I've been hard on Jeffrey Katzenberg in the past (and with good reason, regarding The Black Cauldron), but his decision to make the film a musical was the right one. The songs are all stand-outs, combining catchy melodies and clever lyrics without ever sounding like the singers or writers are showing off. The first few notes of the title song are enough to make your heart sing and quiver, while 'Be Our Guest' remains completely irresistible.
Not only is the film tonally perfect, but the script understands the emotional depth and subtleties of the story. Its overarching themes about inner beauty and not judging by appearances are expertly conveyed through the strong character writing and development. Even the most cartoonish figures, like Gaston and Lefou, are written like believable human beings capable of rational decisions. Not only is the film's message a brilliant one for children, it's delivered in a manner that encourages them to think rather than just accept the events that they see.
Beauty and the Beast is the crowning glory of the Disney Renaissance and the company's best work since Sleeping Beauty. The respectful and intelligent treatment of the original story is married to beautiful visuals, fantastic character writing and a soundtrack that remains one of the best in any 1990s film. Even after all these years its power still remains, to wow your senses and above all win your heart.