Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) is an adaptation of the book La Belle et la Bete by Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. While it’s neither the first nor the last of the adaptations, it is for me the definitive version even more so than the book.
This film is remembered extremely fondly among critics and audiences. It received a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival. It is the first animated film win the Golden Globe for ‘Best Picture’, and is the first to be nominated at the Academy Awards for that category, which later inspired them to add the ‘Best Animated Feature’ category. Walt Disney himself was working on making the film but waited because it was too challenging, but sadly he died before that became a possibility.
The Beast started off as a spoilt and selfish prince, who looked down on others and was cursed as punishment for turning away an old beggar woman. Over the years of being a beast, he’s developed a terrible temper making him even more beastly.
Throughout the film he must learn to overcome his temper and amend his selfish ways. His development to being kindhearted person feels natural as they do a great job setting it up, even during his beastly modes. When he takes Belle as prisoner, you can see regret in his face and at times struggles to know what to say to her, which is even carried through to when he starts being kind to Belle, with his struggles to be sophisticated. This is particularly true during the ballroom dance scene where he is nervous but takes confidence from Belle.
Belle is such a kind and likeable heroine; it’s so admirable that she live solely by her own standards. She’s happily doing her own thing not worrying what other people think of her, yet she doesn’t hide away in fact she’s very open about what she loves.
I also love her backbone. She’s not afraid to stand up herself even against strong men. She’s not totally perfect either; she knowingly breaks the Beast’s rule about going into the west wing, which had consequences. Her reason for doing it is likely that she felt she had nothing left to lose after giving up her life to stay in the castle.
Even after the Beast saves her from the wolves and passes out, she’s still anticipating leaving him behind. She of course quickly comes to her sense and nurses him, but still doesn’t thank him for saving her until after giving him a piece of her mind.
Belle starts off wanting an adventure, like ones she reads in her books, “far out places, daring swordfights, a prince in disguise,” which is what she experiences throughout the film. She realises the reality of it is not what she thought it was: it was not exciting, it was frightening.
What she truly wants is to live a life of her own, not by the standards of the people in her town. She struggled to find someone to talk to besides her father or the old librarian, to share what she loves. She finds that companion in the Beast, as they can relate to each other being isolated and they share each other’s interests.
The Beast’s design is amazing. His look was inspired by various wild animals – lion, boar, bison, bear, wolf – and this makes him look scary and menacing. Belle’s appearance is loosely inspired by Judy Garland’s Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz with her brown hair and light blue dress, as a nod to her desire for a fantasy adventure, which makes her look sweet and innocent.
The servants became enchanted objects to symbolise how the Prince would’ve seen them, not as people but just objects to him. The three main servants also serve purposes, as they symbolise the objects they’ve become. Lumiere as a candle represents the light in the darkness of the curse, Cogsworth as a clock represents the time and reality of the situation, and Mrs Potts as a teapot represents nurture. These are three things that the Beast requires to help put an end to the curse, when he finally listens to his servants he learns these aspects and develops appreciation for his servants.
Gaston is a great villain as he’s a spin on the heroic type character, who is truly vain and hungry for power. His ego gets increasingly hurt because Belle doesn’t fall for his act, which brings out the evilness in him. The scene where he tries to get Belle to marry him is almost symbolic of rape, when she’s resilient he starts to becomes forceful as he backs her against the door. But then she overpowers him by opening the door letting him fall out into the pond, leaving him humiliated.
The songs are great and add to the story as well as pleasant to listen to. Belle perfectly demonstrates how Belle is not accustomed to her life in the community and how the others see her as odd. 'Gaston' is a great way to show Gaston’s egotism and narcissism and how he’s perceived by others as a hero.
'Be Our Guest' is highly energetic celebration song to help Belle feel welcome to the castle. 'The Mob Song' is a great climax song, as ‘hero’ Gaston manipulates the townspeople into believing that the Beast is dangerous and must die.
'Beauty and the Beast' is a beautifully romantic song during the ball scene, sung wonderfully by the legendary Angela Lansbury. The music itself by Alan Menken is also breathtaking that adds enchantment and mysticism.
The animation is beautiful in all aspects, and the characters are drawn with a lot of expression. Every frame of their faces displays a lot personality; you know what they’re feeling, whether they’re happy, scared, angry or even conflicted. The CGI backgrounds merge with the 2D animation seamlessly and successfully enhances the movements, creating an illusion that it was actually shot on film.
The prologue opens with a beautiful forest in daylight with a waterfall, animals and a rose bush, then a zoom into the castle in the background, before we get backstory. After the stained glass narration, we zoom out of the castle, and its night with all darkness and thunderstorms. It’s a great way to start the audience off at ease with relaxing imagery before going into the backstory and getting them intrigued for the darkness to come.
The film is not afraid to go dark, and there were parts that terrified me as a child: Maurice getting chased by wolves, and Beast catching Belle in the west wing. Scenes with Belle just wandering around the castle in the dark also kept me at the edge of my seat, as the scenes are slow paced, and the music and visuals create an unsettling atmosphere.
The design of the castle is amazing, very Gothic and so many little details that even today I notice something I’ve not seen before, like a painting, architecture or patterns on the floors. Many sculptures in the background display earlier designs of the Beast. Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring can be seen as one of the paintings in the background.
I love the use of colour in the film, particularly in what the main characters wear. Belle’s main dress is blue, which symbolises her intelligence and calmness, and being the only person in town who wears this colour demonstrates how unique she is among them. Gaston’s main outfit is red, which symbolises his power and rage.
The Beast starts off wearing red and later switches to blue, symbolising his development from angry and dangerous into a kindhearted person. It’s also interesting that both the Beast and Gaston have blue eyes, which adds to the parallel between the two characters; Gaston could’ve been redeemed if he didn’t resort to such evil actions.
Everything in the Beauty and the Beast 1991 animation, with its story, themes, characters, visuals, music, is nothing short of perfect.
Written by Jack Parish