Format: DVD from Moline Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.
It’s fair to say that I missed a good portion of the Disney renaissance. For a lot of the classic Disney films, I was in my 20s and married and didn’t have kids, so I didn’t care that much about animated movies. Beauty and the Beast was one that I saw not because of my kids but because of a niece who loved it. So, I knew exactly what I was getting when I revisited it. It’s widely considered one of Disney’s best animated films, one that is frequently thought of as representative of this area, and for a good reason. It’s also the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, which is a clear indication of just how good it is.
So look, this is a story that you already know. Belle (Paige O’Hara) is the beautiful but oddball daughter of Maurice (Rex Everhart), an inventor in a small French town. Belle doesn’t really care that people think she is odd, but she wants a great deal more out of her life. In fact, aside from her father, the only person in town who has any interest in her is Gaston (Richard White), the hunting-obsessed, most eligible bachelor in the area.
One night while coming home, Maurice gets lost and wanders into an old, presumably haunted castle. The castle isn’t abandoned; it’s the home of the Beast (Robby Benson), who is living under a curse. When he turned away an old beggar woman, she cursed him to become a beast while all of the members of his household became animated objects. Chief among these are the animated candelabra Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), the clock Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), teapot Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury), her teacup son Chip (Bradley Pierce), and the wardrobe (Jo Anne Worley). Maurice is held captive until Belle comes to rescue him. The Beast’s price is that Belle must take her father’s place as his captive.
She agrees, not knowing that the Beast’s only hope of breaking the curse is to find love and be loved in turn before he turns 21, and the deadline is rapidly approaching. The Beast isn’t sure of how to go about this, but his various animated servants are only too willing to help, since breaking his curse breaks theirs as well. Meanwhile, Maurice returns to town raving about the monster in the abandoned castle. The townspeople think he’s crazy, but eventually, they all march on the castle so that Gaston can kill the Beast and “rescue” the townspeople.
So let’s get to the guts of this. For starters, Beauty and the Beast is notable for having some of Disney’s best songs. The title song is legendarily good, of course, but Gaston’s villain song is also easily memorable. For my money, while the title song did win for Best Original Song, I’d give the title of the best song in the film to “Be Our Guest,” which is equally memorable and iconic.
The characters are really just as good. I’m not usually someone who is a big fan of many of the side, comic relief characters in Disney films, but I make a genuine exception in this case. Beauty and the Beast is yet another place where the idea of a Best Vocal Performance category is warranted come Oscar-time. Jerry Orbach’s Lumiere is one of the great Disney voice performance across decades of animated Disney films, creating a completely original and unique character with a voice that really doesn’t sound a great deal like the man doing the voice. Sure, I like the others as well—Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Potts and David Ogden Stiers’s Cogsworth are also memorable and notable. But if there were an award for voiceover work, Orbach would win in a heartbeat, and would be on the top of the list were this movie released in pretty much any other year.
The problems with Beauty and the Beast come not so much from the film itself but from the way that many people interpret it. On the surface, this is a film about not judging on appearance for looking for value below the surface. That’s a great message. But it’s just as easy to see that the Beast begins the film as a horrifying monster who is a tyrant and terrible but, once he suddenly learns to love, he becomes attractive and human again, which essentially overthrows the entire point of the proposed plot. I get that. It’s really possible to see terrible lessons in the film if you dig hard enough.
And? Is there subtext here that can perhaps make this filled with bad messages? Sure, but that’s true of just about any movie. Hell, about half of the critics who reviewed Fight Club thought it was pro-fascist while the other half thought it was anti-fascist. People often see what they want to.
The truth is this—I think the story might have been better if the Beast character hadn’t been kind of a raging asshole for the first part of the film, something that the non-animated version from 1946 didn’t include. Sure, it would cause a reworking of some of the story, but it would certainly improve some of the potential readings of this version. But it’s all okay. The animation is great, the story is good, and at least three of the songs rank with Disney’s best ever. I don’t say this often, but maybe this is one of those films best enjoyed for what it is and not for what meaning we can dredge out of it.
Why to watch Beauty and the Beast (1991): It’s considered a Disney classic for a reason.
Why not to watch: It’s very possible to read the subtext in an uncharitable fashion.