With today’s release of Walt Disney Picture’s live-action version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, this is the ideal time to revisit the groundbreaking 1991 animated film.
Disney’s 1991 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST Groundbreaker
I don’t use the term “groundbreaking” lightly. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was the first animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards!
(Just for funsies, want to venture a guess as to the other four films nominated for the 1991 Best Picture? I’ll post the answer at the end of my post. No peeking.)
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is indeed a tale as old as time, having been the basis of motion picture and television productions for decades, one of the earliest being the 1946 French film LA BELLE ET LA BETE. Many of you may also remember the late 1980s television series starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton, which owed just a little to author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s original source material. We’ve even seen spoofs such as 1987’s THE BEAUTICIAN AND THE BEAST with Fran Drescher from TV’s THE NANNY.
I doubt in our lifetime we will find a version that will ever come close to Disney’s 1991 classic. I hope I’m wrong, because that would be one of the most extraordinary pieces of visual art one could possibly experience. I’ve been very vocal about my love and appreciation for this adaptation and have called it the best animated motion picture ever made. Having recently enjoyed another viewing, I am happy to say my opinion hasn’t changed.
The Art of Animated Movies
I think animation is frowned upon in many elitist circles, which I think is totally unfair.
Let’s face it, when many of us think of animation or cartoons, our minds typically conjure up visions of Spongebob Squarepants, South Park, and Family Guy. Older generations may think of The Smurfs, Scooby Doo, and The Flintstones. While those examples are just fine and in some cases more than just fine, they only scratch the tip of the surface as far as what animation can do.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a remarkable combination of childhood wonderment and adulthood wisdom. We are watching animated characters onscreen but we are feeling human emotions. The animation allows the characters to move, dance and transform in ways that human actors are unable to do (except maybe Meryl Streep), but the root of who they are, their foibles and eccentricities, their passions and schemes are relatable to any of us who draw breath.
Belle is a young woman whose goals and interests far outreach the limitations of the time and society in which she finds herself. One of the first lyrics she sings at the beginning of the film are “there must be more than this provincial life”. In many ways she is like the protagonist of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”, a young woman so intent on wanting to learn and experience more than what was allowed for women at that time that she went to the lengths of passing herself off as a member of the opposite sex so she could enjoy the privileges allotted only to men.
How many of us have felt restrained or held back in our lives? How many of us have thought about what more is out there if we only we broke the rules of convention? These are universal feelings, folks, and just because Belle is in cartoon form doesn’t make her plight any less riveting or relatable.
The Beautiful Music of BEAUTY
Upon revisiting this film once again, I can’t help but make special note of the incredible songs and musical score that I would place among the very best of any motion picture or Broadway musical in recent memory. From the haunting piano interlude as the film opens to the Oscar-winning title song as the credits roll, there is nary a false note throughout the 110 minute running time. I mean, come on, any lyricist who can use “expectorating” in a song has my undying respect.
It’s virtually impossible for me to pick a favorite song. Angela Lansbury’s version of the main theme while Belle and Beast are dancing in the ballroom has become an all-time great movie moment. The opening number “Belle” makes me reminiscent of musicals ranging from THE SOUND OF MUSIC to LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. “Gaston” is the greatest drinking song ever filled with hilarious lyrics and blessed with a a rousing and memorable tune. “Be Our Guest” is worthy of the best Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s. And the list goes on.
Credit must be given to composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman who can largely be credited for creating Disney songs that go beyond composition and into true art.
A True Family Film
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is not only a crowning achievement in animated cinema and one of the great films of the last 30 years but, maybe most importantly, it is a true family film in every sense of the word. Young children will be enthralled by the unforgettable characters and visual splendor, older kids and adults will be entertained by the clever dialogue and moved by the universality of the story itself.
This movie could be the catalyst for all kinds of family discussion like the importance of not judging others by outward appearances and the sacrifices we often find ourselves making for those we love.
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