Animation was never my thing. It’s not like I didn’t get plenty of it: Growing up, I spent as much time as the average latchkey suburban kid watching after-school cartoons, tuning in to the annual holiday specials from the likes of Peanuts, Garfield, and Rankin-Bass, and making sure to absorb every episode of The Simpsons multiple times on my increasingly worn-out set of VHS cassettes. And I would see plenty of animated films in the theater, whether my parents were trying to get a few hours’ peace or some friend’s birthday party entailed a trip to the multiplex.
But I didn’t ever feel the need to seek out animated movies. Many films considered classics of the form passed right by me at the age I would’ve been the target demographic, perhaps because I was too busy saving up my dimes to buy the next issue of Avengers West Coast or Uncanny X-Men. It wasn’t until college that I started trying to remedy this gap in my pop-culture education, which is why I was nearly of legal drinking age before I ever saw Toy Story, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Princess Mononoke, and more. And it’s why every single film from the era now known as the Disney Renaissance, from 1989-’99, passed me by during my youth, with the exception of Aladdin. (My parents, like most Americans during that time, were big Robin Williams boosters.) I haven’t seen a single one, including The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, and every time I thought about rectifying the situation, other older films (read: not animated) ended up taking priority. For a while, my media blackout on the subject became a point of pride, in the same way that stupid people happily dismiss all superhero films, or some meat-eaters intentionally ignore terrible practices that enable their cheap burgers. It needed to stop.
The howls of disbelief that greeted my confession of ignorance at this realm of the cinematic landscape seem largely based in an affinity formed in childhood, the kind of bond people often form with the entertainments of their youth that carry through into adulthood based purely on nostalgia. (Not that I would know, because I definitely didn’t get into an argument with someone this weekend about the extent to which Chris Claremont’s X-Men books still hold up.) Put more plainly, people love their Disney movies, and that love is most often tied to the impressionable youthful period in which they first encountered it. But great children’s entertainment can be appreciated at any age, with the Pixar films arguably serving as exhibit A from the past 20 years for this particular claim. If this grown-ass thirtysomething can get choked up at an animated rabbit doing her job well (yes, I liked Zootopia), surely the much-vaunted greatness of Disney’s ’90s output should be no problem.
So when it came time to dip my toes into this widely beloved niche of entertainment, Beauty And The Beast was the obvious place to start. No less august a publication than this very site ran a piece late last year arguing the 1991 musical remains the high-water mark of the company. The first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture, Beauty And The Beast racked up critical and commercial success, including becoming the first animated feature adapted into a Broadway musical. (You’re welcome, The Lion King.) It’s the kind of legacy that adds the weight of expectation to a viewer coming to it for the first time, so when I sat down to view it this past weekend, I had little doubt I would come away impressed. And I did—sort of. The very factors that made the film a template for great fairy-tale entertainment have also rendered it more difficult to appreciate in light of everything that’s come after. Here’s A.V. Club contributor Josh Spiegel, making the point for me in the article I cited above:
The Disney Renaissance, despite encompassing so many different films, is best identified by a series of elements that now approach the level of cliché: a fairy-tale-inspired story, an epic romance, catchy songs, goofy comic-relief sidekicks, and a fearsome-yet-charming villain.
And those elements aren’t just the formula for films from the Disney Renaissance. They’re the building blocks for a huge swath of animated cinema, much of it from the Mouse House. Movies like Frozen are obvious continuations of this strategy, but it’s the tactic of Disney’s original golden age, too—Snow White, Cinderella, and more all pay fealty to this blend of romance and whimsy. And while Beauty And The Beast’s acclaim stems from the fact that it does all of this very well, that’s also all it does. It’s a superlative example of the form, yet it can’t help but come across as predictable, for good and ill.
Beauty And The Beast is never less than entertaining and visually appealing, as long as you’re not looking for originality in the story. The narrative is generic to the point of obvious, both because it’s drawn from an old fable and because it has served as the foundation for a thousand like-minded imitators. The elevator pitch—smart and plucky heroine slowly realizes the guy who initially seems like a monster is actually a big softie at heart, and wins her love—is the ultimate distillation of juvenile fantasy, stretched and adapted in everything from YA cheese like Twilight to adult rom-coms. In this iteration of the fairy tale, Belle, an attractive young woman whose entire small-town population finds her “odd” due to her penchant for reading books (what a weirdo!), agrees to become prisoner of the Beast in place of her inventor father, who stumbled into the creature’s castle one night seeking respite.
What she doesn’t know is that the Beast is actually under a curse placed upon him by a sorceress. When the arrogant and heartless young prince refused the mystic refuge at his home one night years prior, she placed a spell on him: The entire castle is under a curse, with the prince transformed into a monstrous beast, and his entire staff of servants turned into household objects like clocks, candlesticks, and more. If he can’t find someone to love (and fall in love with him) by his 21st birthday, the enchanted rose she left him will lose its last petal, and he’ll be stuck in animal form forever. The film renders this prelude in still images for the most part, and it’s as arbitrarily shitty an initial act as most fairy tales. What person blames a 10-year-old for being thoughtless, let alone screwing over an entire castle filled with good-hearted people, just to prove a point? That’s a sorceress with serious issues.
But prologue aside, the film’s infectious energy is conveyed mostly through its musical numbers. These are the strongest part of Beauty And The Beast, and the sequences where it’s easiest to understand how the film snagged a Best Picture nomination. The theater-aping appeal of opening number “Belle” is a low-key but charming introduction to the world of the story, even if it’s hard to hear now without being reminded of the similarly themed but much more uproarious derivation of the song that kicks off South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.
The musical numbers are where the film not only comes alive visually but emotionally, with catchy tunes that also do a better job conveying the beating heart of the narrative than the dialogue. Credit here goes to composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman: The latter was dying of complications related to AIDS when the duo composed the score, and it’s hard not to read that background knowledge into some of the songs, such as the various castle servants singing about what they’ll do if Beast falls in love with Belle and they return to their human forms, in the soaring “Human Again.”
Speaking of which, this is probably a good time to note that I watched the Special Edition of the film, a remastered version created for the film’s 2002 re-release. “Human Again,” which takes place around the movie’s midpoint, was initially cut from the script prior to animating it, reportedly because of lyrics that caused problems with the timeline of the narrative. However, Menken revised the song and added it to the Broadway stage show, before tweaking it again for inclusion in the re-release, paired with a new sequence that blends seamlessly with the film around it. I had no idea it wasn’t a part of the original Beauty And The Beast until I began research for this piece.
But the two musical high points are those numbers even I knew prior to watching the movie. One is “Be Our Guest,” one of two tracks nominated for Best Song from the film, and a classic Broadway showstopper with a refrain so infectiously catchy, it probably popped into your head the instant I mentioned it. It’s been parodied numerous times, but perhaps nowhere with such analogous giddy abandon as on The Simpsons. Having heard Mr. Burns’ take on it far more than the original, it’s impossible to not see it through the lens of that satire, which is testament to the strength of this debut version that it stills plays as well as it does.
And the real showstopper belongs to Angela Lansbury. In the context of the film, “Beauty And The Beast” is a perfectly serviceable number the first time you hear it, paired to a montage of swooning romantic moments between Belle and the Beast, and the fact that I’d heard it before (it was the second song nominated, and it won) contributes to the familiar sense of enjoyment. But once the movie ended, I found myself singing the chorus over and over, even humming it to myself while getting ready for bed. Will.i.am would kill for that kind of non-irritating earworm power. Reportedly, the song was originally meant to be upbeat, and when Menken and Ashman asked Lansbury to voice a ballad version, she didn’t think she was the right one to sing it. But they asked for one take, and she reduced everyone in the room to tears. Which sounds about right, as I don’t know if I’d be able to keep from tearing up if Lansbury just told me to have a lovely day, let alone sing a stirring love song.
However, this doesn’t mean everything is great. Seen in 2017, Beauty And The Beast suffers by comparison to the films made in the wake of Pixar revolutionizing the world of animated films. Not in terms of illustrations: This film is still gorgeous, the hand-drawn animation lush and vibrant, as good as any the studio has done. But the screenplay is targeted to kids, and it shows. There’s a sense of pandering to young minds, especially with much of the comic relief in the film. Lefou, sidekick to pompous blowhard Gaston, is a simpering dimwit of the “fall-down-go-boom” variety, a sop for the 8-and-under crowd who find that kind of thing amusing. Pratfalls can be funny in animation, but not when it’s the equivalent of a subpar Three Stooges bit.
Similarly, Gaston—who turns out to be the film’s main villain, after being established early as a vain moron who can literally be distracted by a mirror, even when he’s supposedly focused on marrying Belle—is a one-note stereotype who is all surface, no depth. Yes, that’s the joke, but it’s awfully thin gruel for a character meant to play a major role. This kind of shallow, cartoonish nemesis is exactly the sort of un-engaging cardboard cut-out bad guy Pixar did away with, instead making everyone who appears onscreen a well-rounded character. (Well, maybe not everyone, but as least anybody with more than a few lines.) We expect more from our animated films these days than mustache-twirling buffoons, which might be one of the reasons Gaston can fall off a castle to his horrifying death hundred of yards below, and no one really gives a shit. The moment doesn’t land, because there’s no weight to Gaston with which to hit the ground.
Still, it was rewarding to finally watch a film I’ve seen referenced and spoofed countless times. My fear was the the passage of time and evolution of animated cinema would render Beauty And The Beast toothless to someone who missed it during his most impressionable years, that it would be a monster who’s all bark and no bite. Happily, it still charmed, even if it doesn’t quite pack the emotional and artistic wallop it probably conveyed back in the early ’90s. It’s quite a good film, and has at least partially convinced me to overcome my inertia about The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, although we’ll see: Much like Belle, I’m pretty content for now to just stick with my Beast.