In retrospect, my sister and her then-boyfriend were going to see this on a date, and they didn’t need me tagging along. But my desire to see it outweighed any such thought on my part. It wasn’t the first Disney animated movie I saw in the theatre, but it was the first one I saw when I was old enough to buy my own tickets. I was enraptured. Shockingly, I’ve always been a Disney fan, and in my mind this remains the height of the Renaissance, though I’ll accept that there are arguments for other movies in it. But the animation is superb, the voicework is exceptional, and the songs are outstanding.
You don’t need me to summarize the plot. Frankly, you likely didn’t need me to summarize the plot in 1991. Disney had been trying to adapt it for so long that literally Disney had—Walt had suggested repeatedly that it would make a good subject for a cartoon, and they’d tried before. This version had bits and pieces drawn from various other adaptations and dropped the heroine’s wicked sisters while adding a wicked suitor, drawn in part from the Cocteau version. It also added a deadline, with the Beast (Robby Benson) needing to win Belle (Paige O’Hara) by his twenty-first year.
The worst take I’ve seen on the internet is that Belle should’ve ended up with Gaston (Richard White) instead. We can talk all we want about Stockholm Syndrome—a condition that some psychologists argue doesn’t even exist—but even if you assume she shouldn’t end up with the Beast, that doesn’t mean that Gaston is a better choice. He’s interested in her not because of her personality—which is diametrically opposed to hers—but because she’s pretty. He expects her to have six or seven boys, and you know he’s the sort who would blame her if they were girls instead, much less if there were fertility issues. And he puts his feet on her book.
Honestly the thing I’m more worried about is the idea that this film feeds into the idea that you can change an abusive partner. Gaston’s abuse at least starts as more insidious and not actually physical, but it’s not in doubt that the physical will start, at least so far as I’m concerned. The first time she doesn’t have his latest kill roasting over the fire in time, she’s getting smacked around. But after all, the Beast starts out violent. She’s able to hold her own and doesn’t put up with it, but for the moment, that’s not the point. The point is that he does change, and he changes in part because of her.
Now, the film plays with the idea that he was slowly become more, well, bestial as the rose came closer to wilting. Walking on all fours, roaring, and so forth. And as he falls for Belle, he regains his humanity. Sure, canonically he wasn’t great before becoming a beast, but we’ve no reason to think he was already physically dangerous. Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if pre-transformation Beast was much closer to Gaston in personality, and it’s all the years of being ugly that helped him see that you can’t base your personality on looks. But either way there’s the old joke that you have to want to change, and most abusers don’t.
I was one of the people who recognized the references to Robin McKinley’s novel of the story, Beauty. It’s not one-for-one; there are only a handful of similarities and quite a lot of differences. But Philippe the Horse is just Beauty’s Greatheart but not as well developed, and the Beauty of that book is a great reader who happily spends her time in the Beast’s castle in scholarship. And while the Cocteau had the household implements as servants, the McKinley had personalities behind the enchanted servants. McKinley later became dissatisfied with some of her own choices and wrote Rose Daughter to balance them out, but I’ve always liked Beauty better.
The idea that the Beast was cursed at age eleven has weighed on fans of the movie for some time. As the parent of a ten-year-old, I can confirm that children his age are not reliably the most charitable people going, and to curse a kid for life because they were stupid at eleven is Not Great. The live-action remake decided to throw out the idea of how old he was and so forth entirely, but I’m partial to the idea that they simply don’t age and that it’s twenty-one years of the curse. I mean, it sucks for Chip (Bradley Pierce) to be a kid for twenty-one years, but better than nothing, I suppose. And we definitely know he existed when the curse was set, so it makes internal sense. Better than the idea that the slashed portrait of the Beast ages to show his current age and what he’d look like as a human, a sort of “picture of Dorian Beast.”
Apparently the plan had long been to have Broadway stars in various of the lead roles to encourage the idea of a stage adaptation. Hence Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts and Jerry Orbach as Lumiere, though I don’t know that it explains David Ogden Stiers as Cogsworth—a role apparently written for John Cleese, come to that. Still, it helps that it kept anyone from worrying too much over things that were “stagey,” because they wanted it on the stage eventually anyway.
Angela Lansbury was, it seems, initially sent a tape of the pop remake version of “Beauty and the Beast” and was hesitant about singing the song. Her version of it is better, and that’s not exactly a hot take. This was the first Disney movie with the pop remake, and it’s an unfortunate trend. There’s never been a single one that I preferred over the original; when we listened to the Moana soundtrack in my car, the kids and I always skipped the two pop remakes.
This is the first Disney animated feature to have had a full written script, not just storyboards. And because storyboards were the rule for so long, animated writers aren’t covered by the WGA. Everything that was taken for the remake, even if it was word-for-word, was owned by Disney and not by the writers, who didn’t get residuals from it. It’s on the long, long list of reasons I don’t watch the remakes and one of the many problems I have with Disney as a studio, even if I love their output enough so that I’m frankly shocked to have taken this long to cover this movie for the column.