Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

You can expect this review to be very long and gushing because Beauty and the Beast isn't just my favourite Disney film, it's one of my all-time favourite films full stop. Beauty and the Beast was a film that people adored from the moment it came out. The critics loved it, audiences loved it, and it was highly successful. Beauty and the Beast even had the honour of becoming the first ever animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. This was completely unheard of at the time! The film's success also led to a stage musical adaptation and two made-for-DVD "midquels". So why is this film a masterpiece? Why is it so well-loved? Well, one of the reasons why this film is so brilliant is down to the story.

The film takes place in 18th century France and begins with a narrated backstory that makes clever use of stained glass windows. A handsome but cold, unkind and selfish prince denies an ugly, old beggar woman shelter in his castle but the woman then reveals herself to be a beautiful and powerful enchantress. On the grounds that the prince has no love in his heart, she punishes him by turning him into a monstrous beast. The enchantress even turns the prince's servants into household objects. That's harsh isn't it?! What did the servants ever do to her?! But before the enchantress leaves the castle she gives the Beast a magical rose. The only way for the Beast to break the spell and become human again is if he can fall in love and be loved in return before the rose withers away. At this point the film's heroine is then introduced, Belle.


Belle and Gaston
Belle lives in a small, provincial town and is widely considered to be the town's most beautiful woman by its inhabitants. However all of the townspeople, apart from her father, also think that she's weird. This is because Belle spends her time reading books and dreaming of having adventures. This confuses the banal, gossipy town in which Belle lives. Another thing that makes Belle stand out from the crowd is that she's the only woman in the town who doesn't pine after Gaston, the town's most handsome and popular man. She's the only one who sees him for the arrogant, vain, stupid chauvinist that he really is. However, Gaston is interested in Belle. He thinks that since he's the best-looking man in town and Belle is the best-looking woman in town that it would make perfect sense for him and Belle to get married. Don't you just love that logic? Gaston proposes to Belle but she unsurprisingly turns him down.

Maurice and the Beast
Meanwhile, Belle's father Maurice gets lost in a forest and comes across the enchanted castle in which the Beast lives. He goes inside to seek shelter but the Beast accuses Maurice of trespassing and throws him into the castle dungeon. Belle is able to track her father down and then offers the Beast her freedom in exchange for letting her father go. The Beast does so because he sees this as the perfect opportunity for love and for breaking the spell. But Belle is made so unhappy by the Beast's nasty temper and bad decisions that she runs away and gets attacked by a pack of wolves. The Beast saves Belle's life. Belle forgives the Beast and they start to become more tolerant of one another. They begin to see the good in each other and become close friends. After that we get action, magic, love, sacrifice and freedom.

It was actually Walt Disney himself who first considered the possibility of adapting the Beauty and the Beast fairytale into a Disney film. After the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs he considered adapting other fairy tales and Beauty and the Beast was one of them. He made attempts to make the story into a film in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s, but both times the project was abandoned because he and his creative team found it too challenging. They felt that the Belle of the original fairytale (who had two nasty sisters) was too similar to the character of Cinderella. But in the 1980s Disney Studios decided to make another attempt. They hired Linda Woolverton as the film's screenwriter and decided to base their version of the Beauty and the Beast story on the most well-known fairytale version, which was written by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1757. However, the Disney film takes liberties with its source material and it isn't exactly like the French fairytale. The changes that the Disney film made are creative and interesting and in my opinion actually improve the story. In the French fairytale the prince isn't turned into a beast for being selfish and unloving. It's because he refuses to sleep with an evil fairy who's trying to seduce him. Perhaps not all that appropriate for a family film! The Beast is actually quite friendly towards Belle right from the start in the fairytale as well - and because of that I think the film pushes the idea of inner beauty harder than the fairytale does. Before the Beast can become beautiful on the outside he has to become beautiful on the inside. Belle's father is an eccentric inventor who's just as mocked by the townspeople as Belle is, whereas in the fairytale Belle's father is a merchant who's fallen on hard times. The Disney film removes Belle's sisters and makes her an only child. Another major source of inspiration for the Disney film was the classic 1946 French film La Belle et La Bête (which I really want to see at some point). One idea that Disney took from that film was in giving Belle two suitors. Gaston's character isn't in the original fairytale and was inspired by the character of Avenant from the 1946 film. Disney also took the idea of having enchanted objects in the Beast's castle from the 1946 film but it was the lyricist Howard Ashman's idea to give the enchanted objects their own unique, individual personalities.

One of the things that I love most about Beauty and the Beast is that its romance is just so believable and moving. Unlike a lot of the earlier Disney films (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, CinderellaSleeping Beauty, etc) the main characters in this don't fall in love at first sight. The love between Belle and the Beast takes time which is so much more realistic. In fact the film is actually quite clever in not revealing exactly how long Belle is at the Beast's castle for. It could be anything from a few days to a few weeks to a few months. Another thing that's very realistic and modern about the film is its villain Gaston. You can usually rely on Disney films for having a good villain but, for me, Gaston is one of the best because his character actually develops. He isn't evil right from the start, or at least he isn't obviously evil in the way that Cruella De Vil or Maleficent are. At first Gaston is just an arrogant idiot and is used as comic relief at first. But as the character goes without getting his own way for longer and longer, he shows his cunning side and becomes aggressive and threatening. He tries to throw Maurice into an insane asylum, tries to force Belle into becoming his wife, and attempts to kill the Beast. Gaston does have a great singing voice though! His voice is provided by Richard White who played the Phantom of the Opera in the criminally underrated Yeston and Kopit musical.

My favourite character in this film is Belle. It would be truly remiss of me if I didn't mention just how great her character is. She's a fantastic heroine is just such a likeable character. She's clever. She takes cares of her father and encourages him to invent things. She's beautiful but she isn't vain. She's kind but she has her limits. She's not obsessed with finding a husband. She has ambitions and she stands up for herself. She's mocked by her town but she doesn't seem to care about that too much. She's independent and happy to do her own thing. Belle has much more of a personality than the bland, Barbie doll princesses of the early Disney films and I love how her character is written.

Another thing that adds to this film's brilliance is its music. It's packed with fantastic songs: Belle, Be Our Guest, Gaston, Mob Song, Something There, Beauty and the Beast. They're witty, catchy and beautiful. Even the instrumental music that Alan Menken provides is absolutely gorgeous. The songs were written by Menken and his lyricist partner Howard Ashman. This song-writing partnership had previously written the stage musical Little Shop of Horrors together and had already worked with Disney on the film The Little Mermaid. Menken and Ashman are both geniuses in my eyes. Alan Menken has won eight Oscars over the course of his career - Eight! - and Howard Ashman was an amazing lyricist. He tragically died of AIDS at the age of 40 not long after Beauty and the Beast was completed. So, so sad : ( He knew he was dying when he was working on Beauty and the Beast but was so committed to his art that he was even doing work on the film on his deathbed. The film was rightly dedicated to Ashman and at the end of the final credits you can read: "To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman: 1950-1991". All of Ashman's lyrics in this film are sheer brilliance but my personal favourites are:

"We don't like
what we don't
Understand, in fact it scares us,
And this monster is mysterious at least"
From The Mob Song
It's true, it's funny and it's got great rhythm!

"Screw your courage to the sticking place!"
From The Mob Song
A reference to Shakespeare's Macbeth!

"Here we come, we're fifty strong
and fifty Frenchmen can't be wrong"
From The Mob Song
It's funny, it rhymes and it's got great alliteration.

"As a specimen, yes, I'm in-
From Gaston
For rhyming "Specimen" with "Yes, I'm in"

"No one plots like Gaston
takes cheap shots like Gaston
plans to persecute harmless crackpots like Gaston!"
From Gaston (Reprise)
Because it's funny and I just love the rhyming that's going on here.

"Oh! Isn't this amazing?
It's my favourite part
because, you'll see!
Here's where she meets
Prince Charming,
but she won't discover that
it's him till chapter three!"
From Belle
Because it's witty and it foreshadows what actually happens to Belle!

The whole of the Beauty and the Beast song
Because it's so moving, heartfelt and sincere.

The singers deserve mention in this film as well especially White, Jerry Orbach, Paige O'Hara and Angela Lansbury. I love Lansbury's version of the title song. In fact I even quite like the Celine Dion-Peabo Bryson version that's played over the final credits!

Finally, since Beauty and the Beast is an animated film I'll comment on the animation. It's beautiful and I especially love the castle. It's very dark, eerie and sinister to start off but - as Belle's relationship with the Beast begins to develop - we get to see the brighter and more beautiful parts of the castle. We see the library, the gardens, the dining room and finally the ballroom. The final image of the is especially beautiful as well.

I feel I should also mention what the Beast looks like in his human form though because it attracted some controversy. The animators have said that no matter how the human prince had been drawn that people wouldn't have been happy because people fell in love with him as a Beast and not as a man. Now I suppose that's might be true but... hmm, I don't know. I can't see many people complaining if the human Beast had looked similar to Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid. As for me, I think the prince is almost attractive but there's just something missing. He looks quite attractive from the side but when you see his face full-on ... hmm.

Another thing that bothers me is that we never get to learn the Beast's real name. Did Belle still keep calling him "Beast" after he transformed?! I should point out that this is something that bothered me when I was little, this isn't a case of me becoming more critical now I'm older! I think that the animators gave the human Beast the name "Adam" after the film was completed but I'm not satisfied with that name. No offence meant to any Adams out there but the name just doesn't sound very prince-like. Prince Adam? It just doesn't sound right. And Adam isn't even a French name! But I'm just nitpicking really. This film is a pure Disney fairy tale done to the absolute best and is a fantastic film. I'd recommend seeing it but I'm sure you already have : )

Rating: 5/5
Film Certificate Rating: U

Finally, before I finish my review I thought I'd give the stage version a mention. It opened on Broadway in 1994 and starred Susan Egan as Belle and Terrence Mann as the Beast. Terrence Mann originated the role of Javert in the Broadway production of Les Miserables and Susan Egan eventually went on to play Megara in Disney's film Hercules. The stage musical was a big success and ran for 13 years before it eventually closed in 2007. I haven't seen Beauty and the Beast live myself but I would love to! From what I've heard it's full of spectacle, is very true to the film, and I think it sounds like a better Disney adaptation than The Lion King stage musical. The stage version features more songs than the film in order to pad the show out and the lyrics were written by Tim Rice. Most of these songs aren't brilliant I have to admit. On the whole Tim Rice's lyrics lack the passion, wit and intelligence of Howard Ashman's lyrics from the film. The lyrics in Home make Belle seem whiny, which she definitely isn't in the film, and there's a rhyme in No Matter What which I really dislike: "And every daughter tends to say her father's tops! She pulls out all the stops..." However, the songs are still pleasant to listen to because of Menken's music and they're better than most of the added songs that were written for The Lion King. Also, there are a couple of songs in the stage version in which Rice's lyrics are great. I love Gaston's line in his solo song Me: "We shall be the perfect pair, rather like my thighs!" I really love the Beast's solo song If I Can't Love Her too. It's a beautiful song and is very heartfelt and moving. 

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