There are few films that transcend beyond art, scope and financial success. They’re set free into the world and quickly stop being the work of their creators. They fall into the lap of the audience that embraces them like they do a dear pet. They become a part of their lives and remain that way forever because they defy time or pop cultural skepticism. They’re classics. True genre defining films whose few flaws are forgiven for the entertainment, and consequently sentiment, they bring. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for its few flaws, is a classic. It only just became an adolescent, with the fine age of twenty-one, but much more like a person this masterpiece, that confirmed Disney’s return to the throne of animation, is like a rose that never ages. Fresh, romantic and magical.
The praise is earned mostly because of the stellar love story. There’s nothing real about it and it’s only relatable on a limited scale. Then there is of course the very solid argument of The Stockholm Syndrome. And yet, the two titular characters are complex, original and genuinely rootable. The movie, from its very epilogue, isn’t pretending they won’t get together. It’s confident enough that the hurdles along the way are interesting enough to challenge the predictability of its premise.
Belle is an improvement in every way on the usual Disney female protagonist. Just like Ariel, there’s some hinting that her wish for a bigger meaning in life is only love and of course she’s the fairest of them all, but that’s as far as comparisons go for Belle. She reads! She’s a social outcast! She is very much in charge of her story! Even though she has to be saved, when Belle and Philippe fight the pack of the wolves, you’re convinced this girl can handle herself. It helps that she defies Gaston and saves her father. Twice.
Beast is a little bit harder to root for. Not necessarily because the movie wants you to be afraid of him at first, but more because he does lock an innocent man in a cell and only seems to be interested in Belle for her looks and her potential to lift the curse. But he also goes after her to fight the wolves, he is genuinely humbled by Belle’s feisty attitude and he made one of cinema’s grandest romantic gestures ever by giving her a freaking library. It speaks volumes that he eventually lets her go, though you can argue that he doesn’t deserve credit for releasing, what in essence, was a prisoner.
What makes these two work, in the scheme of captivity and the search of adventure is the time we spend with them. As Belle is quickly turned into a guest her stay becomes more voluntarily. It’s clear that they are both very strongheaded characters, which makes them already more compelling than most Disney lovers. It also means that with a village that is content with the simple life and a household staff that does his bidding, Belle and Beast are the first ones to give each other some resistance. We see how Beast is actually a big softie who just was never raised properly. He intrigues and challenges her. He tries his very best for her. Everyone feels ugly sometimes and knows what it’s like to not feel good enough for the other. Or is pleasantly surprised by someone you never expected to like. In a grand love story, these are honest emotions. It is at a point in the movie that almost completely focuses on their growing affections. She wanted adventure and she finds it in him. He just wanted to lift the curse and now he met the only person to ever warm his heart. For a good fifteen minutes everything stands still and we focus solely on two unique and fresh characters fall in love. Beastiality be damned.
Of course, there is one major wild card that differs this love story from so many others and propels it into the epic saga it feels like. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s joyful and captivating soundtrack elevates the material to great heights. ‘Something There’ is cute, almost quirky, as it delves into the minds of Beast and Belle and faces their insecurities and doubts on a innocent and uplifting melody. But what really turns the relationship into the galactic athmosphere of true love according to Disney, is of course the ballroom scene. Angels literally turn their heads as the two main characters dance to their theme. He, as handsome as he’ll ever be, she in the signature yellow gown. It kicks off with a piano that suggests a typical ballad. The orchestra that follows, the perfect balance of simplicity and granduer all guided by Angela Lansbury’s warm and soothing voice transcend it into a moment of pure awe and romance. Everyone’s first dance should be like this.
Though ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is by far the most iconic song on the soundtrack, it doesn’t outshadow ‘Be Our Guest’. The show stopper, which easily alligns with ‘Under the Sea’ and ‘Bare Necessities’ and ‘Heigh-Ho’ as the fun song sung by the sidekicks, is a true spectacle. It hardly furthers the story, even complicating it by saying the staff hasn’t seen anyone in ten years which puts off the film’s timeline. But it’s such a delight to watch as tens of plates, forks, spoons, souffles, beers, champagne bottles and whatnot do their very best to impress. The other songs are less obtrusive, with Belle’s “I-want” song setting up her entire character in one deliciously paced opening song and Gaston’s adoration and over-the-top self image portrayed in the song by the same name.
The musical aspect works incredibly well. Partly because the story is paced, with the right amounts of excitement and adventure, emotional notes and social messages. For every glorious musical outburst there’s a dark moment of fright or action. And the movie focuses on all kinds of beauty, both inside and out, without ever feeling like a lecture. The hot, popular guy is conceided. The beautiful girl is also smart and considerate. The fear of the unknown is powerful enough to rally a mob. And furniture makes for good weapons. In ninety minutes the film offers so much you almost forget that every frame is a work of art. The castle is iconic, the seventeen-century paintings-inspired backdrops are gorgeous. And the, now basic, CGI still makes for beautiful camera movements.
On the twenty-first birthday ‘Beauty and the Beast’ shows no signs of dropping peddles. Any criticism on the story is valid, and the movie takes itself seriously enough to warrant a discussion. But in the end it’s still a crazy ride. One with a beautiful love story, genuine excitement, entertaining songs and unadulturated magic. It really is a must-see, and thankfully, a have-seen, for everyone. A true classic.
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Produced by Don Hahn
Screenplay by Linda Woolverton
with Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson and Richard White
Released November 22, 1991