Disney Animated Features
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Release Date: 15 November 1991
Depending on one's own preferences, any one of several recent Disney Animated Features could be pegged as the pinnacle of Disney's achievements in that realm. Would it be The Little Mermaid, for re-inventing the genre? The Lion King for being so financially successful? The Hunchback of Notre Dame for its stunning artwork? Aladdin for its comedy?
Or Beauty and the Beast, for being the first (of, to date, only three) animated film to be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award?
Arguments can be made on all sides, and I would argue that it doesn't really matter. All of the movies are high-points, to be sure, but Beauty and the Beast stands out for the critical acclaim it won, like no traditionally animated film has since.
Whatever the case, it was now clear that The Little Mermaid was no fluke. Disney took the winning formula from that film (comedy + romance + music + suspense) and improved upon it in every way they could. The result has something for everyone (a cliche, but true) -- not a children's movie, but a family movie.
The plot is well known, being adapted from a popular old fairy tale. An arrogant young prince is cursed by a witch after he is unkind to her. He is turned into a horrible beast, and his castle and its servants are enchanted. To break the spell, a woman must learn to love him despite his appearance, within 10 years.
As the time approaches, an inventor from the nearby village takes a wrong turn and is captured by the Beast. The man's daughter, Belle, the most beautiful young woman in the town, offers to take her father's place as the Beast's prisoner. Dissatisfied with her "poor provincial town," where she is ridiculed for her love of books, she grows to enjoy her time at the Beast's castle. Eventually she discovers a softer side to the Beast, and she finds herself falling in love. But the narcissistic and jealous Gaston, who wants to marry Belle himself, has other ideas...
As it was for The Little Mermaid, the music was masterfully composed by Alan Menken and lyricized by Howard Ashman. Nearly every song in the film is a treat, from the expository opening number "Belle," to the hilarious barroom sing-a-long "Gaston," to the gigantic production number "Be Our Guest," to the sweetly romantic title song. Ashman and Menken were in top form here, and the music is a large part of the film's success.
"Beauty and the Beast" was recorded as a pop arrangement by Peabo Bryson and Celine Dion; the duet was played over the end credits. This was the start of a tradition for Disney's animated films.
The voice work was typically excellent (a long-standing Disney tradition). Famed stage actress Angela Lansbury provided the voice of Mrs. Potts and sang the title song. Also notable are Robby Benson as the Beast and David Odgen Stiers (in the first of several Disney animated roles) as Cogsworth.
Beauty and the Beast was showered with awards. Of course, there was the Best Picture nomination (it lost out to The Silence of the Lambs). It received Academy Awards for Best Music, Original Score and Best Music, Song ("Beauty and the Beast"), and nominations for Best Music, Song for "Be Our Guest" and "Belle" (that's three, folks! -- only The Lion King has matched that feat), and for Best Sound. The film also garnered Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture - Comedy/Musical; Best Original Score - Motion Picture; and Best Original Song - Motion Picutre ("Beauty and the Beast", with a nomination for "Be Our Guest"). "Beauty and the Beast" and the score won Grammy awards. The film was nominated for a Hugo award (Best Dramatic Presentation, losing to Terminator 2: Judgment Day). Numerous other awards were added to the Disney display case that year.
In 1992, encouraged by the success of the film, Disney decided to branch out into an entirely new entertainment medium. Well not entirely new; one of the trademarks of the Disney theme parks is their ability to put on great stage shows. But Broadway... that's a different story. Disney called up Tim Rice to work with Alan Menken to create several new songs (Howard Ashman had since died), and Beauty and the Beast premiered on Broadway in 1994 to great success and acclaim. Its success allowed Disney to go ahead with a Broadway adaptation of The Lion King and to produce Elton John and Tim Rice's Aida; all three are still running today.
Beauty and the Beast has had one follow-up film, released only on video, called Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas. It's neither a sequel or a prequel, as it takes place in the middle of the movie, as Belle prepares for spending Christmas as a "guest" in the castle. This second film introduces Angelique (Bernadette Peters), Fife (Paul Ruebens), and the evil Forte (Tim Curry) to the cast of enchanted servants.
Disney re-released Beauty and the Beast on 1 January 2002 (surprisingly close to the February release of Return to Never Land) in IMAX format. The re-release included, for the first time, the "Human Again" scene. This was a song written for the film by Ashman and Menken, but eventually cut, wherein the enchanted servants dream about becoming human again. It re-appeared in the Broadway musical version and now has been restored to the film. The film is planned for release in Disney Digital 3-D in 2011, to coincide with its 20th anniversary.
All in all, this film is clearly one of the best ever created by Disney. Its nomination for Best Picture is notable enough (it probably would have won the previous year, when Dances With Wolves took home the statuette), but even without that, it stands as a benchmark by which all subsequent features would be judged. Many have risen to that challenge, but in no way does that diminish the remarkable achievements of this film.
Next up for Disney: letting Robin Williams run wild...
Information for the Disney Animated Features series of nodes comes from the IMDb (www.imdb.com), Frank's Disney Page (http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/), and the dark recesses of my own memory.
12 January 2002: Updated paragraph on re-release.
2 February 2010: Updated paragraph on re-release, include info on 2011 3-D release, adjust wording based on Up's Best Picture nomination.
25 January 2011: Adjusted wording based on Toy Story 3's Best Picture nomination.