ACCA 1991: Tale as old as time. Song as old as rhyme. “Beauty and the Beast” remains a timeless high mark of Disney animation. Revisiting the 1991 landmark animated film for ACCA 1991 proves once and for all the film is a defining piece of art that represents the year. The animation still pops. Each song lodges itself in your brain. The imagination jumps off the page. Most importantly, Belle and Beast’s love story inspires swoons and tears. The film made history for being the first animated feature nominated in Best Picture. It still holds the distinction of being the only animated film nominated for Best Picture in a five-wide field. It’s even more impressive when one considers this was before the Animated Feature category was created. One thing is clear, “Beauty and the Beast” is a strong enough film to hold these records.
Little introduction is necessary for the film that was a fixture for so many childhoods. Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara) dreams of a larger life than her small provincial town allows. She sees her father, Maurice (voiced by Rex Everhart), off to his inventor’s fair. On his way out of town, Maurice is attacked by wolves and abandoned in the woods. He seeks shelter in a nearby castle, only to become the prisoner of the castle’s owner, a Beast (voiced by Robby Benson). Belle searches for her Father and winds up at the Beast’s castle. She pleads with the Beast to let her Father go and, in turn, she will be his prisoner. The Beast and his entire enchanted castle are placed under a spell, which can only be broken if the Beast learns to love, and finds someone to love him back.
Much has been made of the Stockholm Syndrome elements of Belle and the Beast’s romance. What makes the romance at the center of this film work so well is the economical storytelling. Belle’s disgust and hatred of the Beast thaw out as the Beast learns how to be selfless. Every scene builds this complicated relationship that isn’t easily developed. As the title song says, “barely even friends then somebody bends unexpectedly.” The romance develops because of character’s growing and bending for someone else’s needs. This central dynamic exemplifies why Gaston (voiced by Richard White), Belle’s handsome but brutish suitor, could never be a good match. That character, while baldy wrong, is great antagonistic fun. Even when the film paints its characters in broad strokes, it does so with great zest and fun.
The most fun is had with the characters in the enchanted castle. All the servants were turned into household objects. The animators go to great lengths to make each personification creative and dynamic. Lumiere (voiced by Jerry Orbach), a most hospitable candle, and Cogsworth (voiced by David Ogden Stiers), a fastidious clock, get the most interplay together. Their gentle ribbing and fun yield some of the strongest animated sequences. Particularly, the “Be Our Guest” number brims with imagination and fun as the entire home puts on a dinner party.
In talking about vocal performances, one must give props to Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts, the warm, maternal teapot. Her crooning of the title song provides the soundtrack for the most breathtaking scenery, as Belle and the Beast dance for the first time in the grand ballroom. It’s a grand and majestic scene that wows both with its technical artistry and emotional punch. Sometimes it’s hard for iconic scenes to live up to their place in pop culture. This sequence surpasses its reputation on all fronts.
Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson are even more stunning in how they shade the emotional arcs of Belle and the Beast. Belle wears her brains on her sleeve. Her insatiable love for reading shows through the way she talks and interacts with people. She constantly makes her own decisions and drives the story forward with her actions. She outwits Lumiere and Cogsworth to sneak into the West Wing. There’s a great sequence where she refuses to dine with the Beast upon her capture. Even when the members of the castle begin to mansplain the curse, she remarks that she already knew the castle was enchanted. The Beast, meanwhile, goes through intense personal betterment and change along with his arc. Robby Benson manages to make the Beast lovable even during his rage spells. The way he softens his voice as the Beast makes room in his heart for Belle is special.
The popularity of “Beauty and the Beast” is undeniable, as Disney’s live-action remake of the film made $1.2 billion last year, the highest of any of their live action remakes. While the remake made sure to recreate the scenes that were so iconic in the original, it felt the need to pad nearly an extra hour onto the film. In going for excess, the film merely danced around the emotional core of what made the original work. By taking down the color and lighting and creating a more “epic” romantic narrative, the film lost why Beauty would fall for a Beast. For as grand, as the animated film is, it works because of its intimacy and efficiency in storytelling. We want to see these two people fall in love. Focusing in on that dynamic is what makes 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” timeless and magical.