Few Disney films are as beloved as Beauty and the Beast. Originally released in 1991, Beauty and the Beast polished the format laid down by The Little Mermaid to its peak, and it is often recognized as the best film from the Disney Renaissance era. In all the years since its release, Beauty and the Beast remains one of the studio’s finest achievements.
Beauty and the Beast tells the story of Belle (Paige O’Hara), a young woman known throughout the village for her beauty, as well as her “peculiar” behavior (such as her fascination with books and fairy tales). After her father is kidnapped by the titular Beast (Robby Benson), she takes her father’s place as a prisoner in the Beast’s castle in exchange for her father’s freedom. But what starts off as a noble sacrifice becomes the story of romance and transformation.
The Beast was not always so beastly, at least not in physical appearance. He was once a handsome prince, but he and his castle were cursed by a mysterious enchantress as punishment for the prince’s unkindness and selfishness. He became the Beast, and the staff of his castle were changed as well (though into more charming forms), the only hope of breaking the curse is for the Beast to learn to love another, and to earn their love in return.
It’s one of Disney’s best stories, and one of the few from the studio that emphasizes character as well as plot. The relationship between Belle and the Beast is a far more fleshed out romance than most of those found in Disney features. The movie takes the time to develop the main characters, so the film’s core relationship – despite being a fairy tale romance – feels believable (though there are those who understandably question the premise of a woman falling in love with her captor, I think the film does a good job at fleshing out the two main characters in such a way that, within its fairy tale context, doesn’t come across as Stockholm syndrome).
Belle is one of Disney’s stronger heroines, displaying a sense of independence that outshines any of her predecessors, while the Beast is far more interesting than any Prince Charming for being a tormented, and often antagonistic character.
They are joined by a parade of some of Disney’s most endearing sidekick characters: Lumiere the candlestick (Jerry Orbach) is romantic and rebellious, Cogsworth the clock (David Ogden Stiers) is pretentious and uptight, and Mrs. Potts the teapot (Angela Lansbury) is kindhearted and nurturing. There’s also Chip (Bradley Pierce) a teacup and Mrs. Potts’ son, as well as Belle’s father Maurice (Rex Everhart), a cooky and eccentric inventor.
Along with the memorable heroes is an equally memorable villain in the form of Gaston (Richard White), a man from Belle’s village who is beloved by the townspeople for his good looks, despite his ugly personality. Gaston is one of the more underrated Disney villains, showing a greater range of character than most of the baddies in the Disney canon. Gaston starts off as little more than a buffoonish oaf and a nuisance, trying to win Belle’s hand in marriage simply for her beauty, but by the third act, vanity and jealousy turn him into a monster.
Beauty and the Beast boasts one of Disney’s best casts of characters. Belle and the Beast have a bit more to them than most Disney heroes, the sidekicks are all funny and charming (not to mention they actually have a role in the plot, and are never distracting from it by hogging the spotlight as many animated sidekicks do), and its villain proves to be just as entertaining. Of course, it’s the songs that bring out the best of Beauty and the Beast’s story and characters.
The soundtrack to Beauty and the Beast has long-since become iconic. Its self-titled theme song – sung by Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Potts – being hauntingly beautiful. “Be Our Guest” is among the most fun and smile-inducing Disney songs. “Belle” serves as one of the best ‘introductory songs’ in the studio’s history. And few Disney songs come close to the hilarity of “Gaston,” in which its titular villain and his sycophants sing of his obscenely masculine accomplishments.
The animation, while maybe not quite matching up to the later Disney Renaissance films, remains colorful and full of detail. This is especially true during the aforementioned musical numbers, which gave a whole new life to Disney features. There are some small instances during close-up shots where the animation isn’t always so consistent, but on the whole Beauty and the Beast is still a lovely film.
The character designs are still some of Disney’s best. Belle is an appropriate beauty, while the Beast couldn’t look more beastly if he were live-action or rendered through a computer (a factoid that Disney themselves would later prove in 2017). The supporting cast all boast simple, charming designs, while Gaston is a walking parody of manliness.
The Little Mermaid began the Broadway musical-style of Disney songs and storytelling, but with Beauty and the Beast, Disney perfected their craft. It would remain unmatched in the Disney canon until Frozen was released over two decades later. Beauty and the Beast was, and is, one of Disney’s most entertaining, romantic and magical animated features.