THE LITTLE MERMAID presented us with a Princess we could care about. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST added added a prince we could care about even more, and perfected MERMAID's Broadway style story construction. The result was the first animated feature ever to be nominated for a Best Picture award. Sadly, the Oscar that year went to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, the story of a different beauty and beast.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST may be the best of the Disney "princess" movies. even if Belle is not technically a princess at all. But she falls in love with a prince, whom she doesn't know is a prince since, in his current state, he is a beast. From such confusion grows one of Disney's sweetest love stories.
Feminists would consider Belle an advancement over Ariel from MERMAID, who, despite an independent streak, had a main purpose throughout the film in attracting the boy she loved. Belle, on the other hand, is more interested in books (and by extension, learning and advancement) than boys, although, strangely enough, there is only one boy in town chasing her, the insufferable braggart Gaston. Belle is considered an outsider in town because they consider it strange for a girl to read. This mild after-school special message doesn't get much play, thankfully, outside of Belle's opening production number, the appropriately named "Belle". While Belle is a fine creation and ranks among the most beautiful Disney heroines (yes, always a weird area of discussion but Disney heroines are usually meant to be beautiful, so...), there is a curious lack of consistency in her character design. Perhaps coming off the more cartoony LITTLE MERMAID, the animators found it more difficult to draw a more realistic human female, but her facial features sometimes change from shot to shot.
Nevertheless, this is not Belle's story, it is the Beast's. And it is the Beast and his quest for redemption which forms the heart of this movie and carries its emotional weight. Once a spoiled prince who was turned into an animal, the Beast must get somebody to love him before the final pedal of a magical rose falls off (hey, it's a fairy tale, what do you want?). Belle, whom he has trapped in his castle forever, turns out to be the answer to his problems, but not before he is forced by circumstances, and by love, to learn such niceties as controlling his temper and eating with cutlery. He even learns that famous lesson "If you love someone, let them go...". There is little suspense in the story - we know Gaston is going to eventually attack the Beast, and that Belle is going to say the words "I love you" just in time to break the spell, but the Beast is such a wonderful character, and perfectly voiced by Robbie Benson (with the help of some audio effects), that it is difficult not to give in to the love story anyway.
Most of the music, written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, is performed by the Beast's enchanted objects, such as Lumiere the Candle, Cogsworth the Clock and Mrs. Potts the Tea Pot. Much of the charm of the film comes from how easily and memorably the animators turned ordinary objects into living characters (a human girl they have trouble with, but a dancing candle with three separate flames is no problem) and how such stars as Jerry Orbach, David Odgen Stiers and Angela Lansbury bring their own considerable personalities to the characters. The songs themselves are all bouncy and catchy, though I do have a complaint about how so many follow a similar musical style. Even as a musician, I'm not about to try to explain the technical differences among "Belle", "Gaston", "Be Our Guest" and "Kill the Beast". All wordy and witty with clever rhymes, but the only melody I can actually recall after this recent viewing is "Be Our Guest". The requisite slow ballad, "Beauty and the Beast", has more to offer musically and is handled beautifully by Angela Lansbury and was a big hit for Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson.
A massively successful movie - taking in 145 million dollars, it outgrossed THE LITTLE MERMAID and THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER combined - BEAUTY AND THE BEAST went on to become a massively successful Broadway musical, running for more than five thousand performances. ½ - JB