Tale as Old as Time

This week’s film, 1991′s Beauty and the Beast, is probably my favorite of the Disney Renaissance-era films and is a very close second behind my personal triumvirate for best Disney film ever. The voice cast is awesome, the animation is fabulous, and the music is just beautiful. And then there is a story that is as old and as well told as Cinderella. Like Cinderella, Disney opted to use the French version of the original fairy tale, as it is probably the most famous and more family-friendly.

This film features not only a great cast but great characters in general. Gaston is just so full of himself that he has no idea why anyone would turn him down. Beast mostly just needs to learn some manners and to count to ten when he’s angry and he’d be fine. The household objects have their own idiosyncrasies but wouldn’t you after 10 years as a wardrobe or a mantle clock? But of all these, my favorite is Belle. She is probably my favorite of the Disney Princesses (shocking, I know): mostly kind, loves to read, wants to take care of her family, and is a little bit out of the social “norm.”

Library from Beauty and the Beast

"Forests of books, cascades, mountains of books"

As I said earlier, the voice cast is just phenomenal. Almost the entire cast had serious Broadway credits, which was actually part of the idea because the music was written with a Broadway show style in mind. What’s interesting (to me, anyway) is that the three lead actors (Paige O’Hara—Belle, Robby Benson—Beast, and Richard White—Gaston) are still not all that well known except for these signature roles, while three of the supporting actors have been household names in various TV and film roles for years:

David Odgen StiersDavid Ogden Stiers was probably best known to audiences at the time of the release for playing Major Charles Winchester on the TV show M*A*S*H but would go on to do more voices for Disney including Ratcliffe in Pocahontas and the Archdeacon in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Stiers actually originally auditioned for the role of Lumiere, but thankfully someone there asked him to try Cogsworth as well, and that’s the role he ended up with. He also provides the wonderful narration at the beginning of the film.

Jerry OrbachJerry Orbach actually started his career on Broadway and starred as Billy Flynn in the original production of Chicago (who knew!), but he had trouble breaking into more serious roles because of that musical background. Eventually, though, he did get those serious roles that we know him best for: Dr. Jake Houseman (Baby’s father) in Dirty Dancing and Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order and its various spinoffs–he was actually one of only four actors to appear in all four L&O series, playing the same character.

Angela LansburyAnd then there is one of my all-time favorite actresses ever and, for a long time, the only person I could point out when watching this movie: Angela Lansbury. Longtime film and Broadway actress, she was in such movies as Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Manchurian Candidate, Gaslight (her first movie and Oscar nomination), Anastasia, and Nanny McPhee. But she is, of course, best known as Cabot Cove’s favorite mystery writer, Jessica Fletcher, on Murder, She Wrote—on which, interestingly enough, both Jerry Orbach and David Ogden Stiers made guest appearances (Orbach as recurring character Harry McGraw and Stiers in various roles).

Just like in The Rescuers Down Under, Disney used a hybrid system of hand drawings and digital postproduction effects to complete the film. One thing that really sets this movie apart was it was the first use of CGI in an animated film. While Beast and Belle’s dancing figures were hand-drawn, the ballroom backgrounds, camera angles, and chandelier were all done by computer. It was a huge risk because they were running a little low on time and weren’t sure if they could get it to work, but they did, and it is one of the best animated scenes ever.

You cannot talk about this film and not talk about the music. Among the many firsts for this film is that “Beauty and the Beast” was the first Disney song to have a pop version recorded for the ending credits (sung by Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson). Also of note is that Angela Lansbury really did not want to be the one to sing the movie version of “Beauty and the Beast” because she did not feel her voice was right for it, but eventually they talked her into doing one take just to see how it went and that one take is the one that’s in the film.

Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were, in some ways, much like the Sherman Brothers of the 50s and 60s in terms of using music to tell the story and collaborating with the rest of the creative team on story, animation, casting, etc. It was Howard Ashman who suggested that household objects should have dialogue and individual personalities. Along with a Best Picture Oscar nomination (the first animated film to ever be nominated in that category), Beauty and the Beast won Oscars for the score and the song “Beauty and the Beast.” But Ashman would sadly not live to see it. He died on March 14, 1991 from AIDS, eight months before the film premiered. Beauty and the Beast is dedicated to his memory—at the end of the credits, a tribute reads: “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.” So I would also like to add my thanks, some twenty years later, for his help—along with that of so many others—in bringing Disney back to its former glory.

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