Tale as Old as Time

Last year’s high-grossing release of the 3D version of The Lion King opened the way for other re-issues in the new format.  Now the process has been done to 1991’s Beauty and the Beast.  While some may wonder about trying to improve on what is arguably the greatest classic animation movie ever made, in other ways it’s appropriate.  Beauty was one of the first animated movies to incorporate computer graphics (the background in the ballroom scene).  The movie is also being shown in its 2D form, so regardless whether you like new technology or are a traditionalist, you have a chance to once again experience the magic of this story on the large screen.

The creation of this masterpiece was an amazing accomplishment, especially when you realize it was almost 60 years in the making.  Walt Disney had wanted to do Beauty as a follow-up to Snow White but wasn’t able to get the story to work.  Translating the written word into the visual medium of animation is not easy.  Disney tried again in the 1950’s, but the same problem arose.  How could the story be adapted?

(There was La Belle et la Bete, a live action version of the story made in France by Jean Cocteau in 1946.  Interestingly, it has a villain who tries to kill the Beast, but who dies in the process.)

By the 1970’s, Walt Disney Studios was in a rut of making inoffensive G-rated live action comedies like Herbie Rides Again and The Apple Dumpling Gang.  There were only 4 animated movies released in that decade: The AristoCats, the very forgettable Robin Hood, The Rescuers, and the small gem, The Fox and the Hound.  In 1977, Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, had quit the company because of its direction, though he remained on the board.  Seven years later he engineered a revolt by the board that brought in a triumvirate of movie men to remake the studio – Michael Eisner, Frank Wells, and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

To reinvigorate the movie making at Disney, Katzenberg made a series of low-budget comedies under the Touchstone label, such as Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Ruthless People.  He was not an animation person, though he was given the responsibility for that department by Eisner.  At that time the department was lodged in a beautiful, large building on the Disney lot.  Katzenberg needed the space for his live-action movies, so he moved the animators to a warehouse in Glendale.

It was the best thing that could happen, for it gave the new generation of animators a fresh start, freed from the history that permeated the building.  Starting with The Black Caldron, they began producing better and better films: The Great Mouse Detective; Oliver & Co.; the animation/live action hybrid classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit; The Rescuers Down Under; and the first of the modern Disney classics, The Little Mermaid.

The decision was made to once again have a shot at adapting Beauty.  Katzenberg hired English animator Richard Purdum to direct when he couldn’t get his first choice, Roger Rabbit’s Richard Williams.  Several Disney animators moved to England and began work.  After 6 months they showed what they had to Katzenberg – a darker, non-musical version of the story.  It didn’t work for Katzenberg, and the footage was scrapped.  (This had happened before; the first 6 months of work on Pinocchio was tossed out by Walt Disney when he didn’t like its design.)

Instead of shelving the project again, Katzenberg decided to make it a musical and brought in the team that had done Little Mermaid, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.  They were veterans of the New York stage world, having written Little Shop of Horrors together.  Ashman was made the executive producer of the film.  For direction, the job was given to a team, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, doing their first feature film.

Howard Ashman changed the casting process.  They went to New York and held auditions, like a Broadway musical.  Paige O’Hara, who played Belle, was a Broadway veteran.  The young animators didn’t know that Jerry Orbach was a song-and-dance man.  His most recent role had been as the father in Dirty Dancing.  Ashman, though, had Angela Lansbury in mind for Mrs. Potts right from the start.  The surprise casting was Robby Benson as the Beast.  He’d been a heartthrob when younger (Ode to Billy Joe, Ice Castles), but his talent as a voice actor and singer was unknown.

Ashman was responsible for the crucial breakthrough in adapting the story.  He knew they had to decide if the primary character was Belle or the Beast.  To him, the Beast made the greatest changes as a character, so he had to be the primary focus.  That gave him the idea of the opening backstory of the hard-hearted young prince who has a spell cast over him by an enchantress.  From that came the idea that everyone in the prince’s castle had also been enchanted, so we have Cogsworth the clock and Lumiere the candle holder.

Eisner insisted the movie have an actual screenwriter.  Previously, the Disney creative process was to storyboard the animation and work from that.  Linda Woolverton was given the assignment, though she clashed with the animators when they changed her script in the storyboarding process.  To give her greater understanding, she began working directly with the animators.  That was when everything began to click.  There was still a place for play: Cogsworth’s suggestion of the last thing guys usually gave girls – “Promises you don’t intend to keep” – was an adlib by David Ogden Stiers.

By the time some color animation was finished, it was clear to the animators they were creating something special.  Katzenberg decided to show the movie as a work-in-process at the New York Film Festival.  The animation was about 70 percent done but some of the scenes were pencil sketches.  It gave the audience an idea of all the work that went into an animated feature.  The audience got caught up in the movie just as if it were a Broadway play, applauding after the songs and laughing.  (The special edition DVD has this version of the movie available for viewing.)

Beauty and the Beast was originally released in November, 1991, to critical acclaim and strong box office returns.  It made almost $350 Million worldwide in its initial release, and was second at the box office for its 3D release twenty years later.  But it accomplished two things that no animated movie had ever done before.  It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical) and it was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.  It lost out to Silence of the Lambs, but it did win Oscars for Best Animated Feature, Best Score, and Best Song.  Actually, it had three songs nominated – Belle, Be Our Guest, and Beauty and the Beast, though the final song was helped to its win by the Grammy-winning single, a duet between Phebo Bryson and an unknown new singer from Quebec by the name of Celine Dion.  The Academy selection process has now been changed so that no more than two nominated songs can come from the same movie.

Beauty and the Beast has more emotional depth than any other Disney animated movie.  About the closest in impact would be the death of Bambi’s mother.  Here you have a hero struggling under the weight of a curse, trying to make amends for his earlier actions.  You also have a pro-active heroine.  With the classic stories, the Disney princesses weren’t really in control of their fate.  They were waiting for their Prince Charmings to rescue them.  Belle doesn’t have any time for such nonsense.  To save her father she’ll give up her liberty, but even then she doesn’t surrender.  And then there’s Gaston – how many fairy tales have a handsome, strong villain?  When the curse is reversed and the Beast becomes a handsome prince again, Belle doesn’t really believe what has happened, until she looks into his blue eyes, the same eyes that the Beast had.  She must see that his soul is the same as it was, before she believes the miracle and the whole curse is reversed.

For all of us who view ourselves as ugly ducklings or beasts, this movie was a tonic for our hearts.  My reaction the first time I saw it was tears at the climax and joy at the end.  When I watched it again this week, if anything I started blubbering earlier in the movie.

Sadly, one person was not there to share the movie’s success.  Howard Ashman was ill with AIDS from before the production started, though no one knew it at first.  As the production went along, though, it became clear that Howard was racing against time.  He lived just long enough to complete the music and know the movie was well on its way to completion.  He died March 14, 1991, at the age of 40.  The dedication at the end of Beauty and the Beast reads:

 To our friend, Howard,

Who gave a Mermaid her voice,

And a Beast his soul,

We will be forever grateful

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One thought on “Tale as Old as Time

  1. Pingback: The Newest Tale As Old As Time | omnivorous cinephile

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