In the 1980s, the Walt Disney Company was in a period of darkness. The legendary king of American animation and family entertainment had fallen on hard times. After the death of its illustrious leader and self-styled auteur, the company had a vacuum of creativity and leadership they struggled to fill. There were good films in this period that made money, like The Rescuers, but the studio's attempts to recapture the magic of Walt had left them with waning box-office receipts and dwindling critical acclaim. It didn't help that competition had increased during this period when former Disney animator Don Bluth went independent and began making the sort of unique, family-friendly movies that were previously the exclusive domain of the House of Mouse. One attempt to re-establish themselves as the titans of the medium resulted in The Black Cauldron, a disastrous flop beaten at the box office by The Care Bears Movie and a mistake so costly that the company’s leaders were tempted to shut down animation at Disney altogether.
Between waning financial successes in animation, failed live-action movies, and the ballooned costs of their new theme park project, Epcot, the company came perilously close to spinning into bankruptcy. Things began to change as the decade gave way to the 1990s. The Great Mouse Detective did respectable enough business to encourage further animated films. The Little Mermaid birthed the new renaissance of Disney animation. But the film that changed the game for Disney, the movie that created a paradigm shift in their entire outlook, came in 1991: a little film called Beauty and the Beast.
The successes of Beauty and the Beast are well known. It was the first animated movie ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, long before the category expanded to up to 10 possible nominees; it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, the first animated film ever to win that category; its initial theatrical run made over $425 million worldwide, accounting for over 17 times its original budget; an unfinished cut of the movie, with storyboards to fill in for incomplete animation, premiered at the New York Film Festival 27 years ago this day to a 10-minute standing ovation; and more importantly, it gave Disney back their indomitable clout as the masters of American animation. The Little Mermaid may have been the crack in the ceiling, but it was Beauty and the Beast that smashed through it. Not bad for a film that nobody at Disney seemed all that enthused about making.
Walt Disney had always considered the story of Beauty and the Beast the ideal fodder for a film, especially after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While attempts were made to develop the story for a couple of decades in Disney's early days, nobody could crack the story, and it was widely theorized that Walt Disney felt discouraged after seeing French director Jean Cocteau's 1946 version, La Belle et la Bête. By the 1980s, the studio put the project back on the table and work began on a non-musical version. Typically, Disney's animated films were made through storyboards and a script fashioned from this process rather than the use of a screenwriter. Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney film to work from a screenplay after Disney CEO Michael Eisner made the request and Linda Woolverton was hired.
The early version of the film was scrapped altogether, forcing the animators to start from scratch. That proved too much for original director Richard Purdum, and he resigned. The studio wanted John Musker and Ron Clements to take over, following on from the success of The Little Mermaid, but they declined. Eventually, the job was given to Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, two first-time feature directors who caught the studio's eye after directing animated sections for the Epcot attraction Cranium Command. Hopes weren’t high for this film, although it had top-notch talent attached to it, like composer Alan Menken, legendary animator Glen Keane, and songwriter Howard Ashman. At the time, Ashman was dying of complications from AIDS, and the production team worked overtime to accommodate him in his contributions. Production was tough and hopes were high, but few expected Beauty and the Beast to do well. The Little Mermaid had been a huge hit, but the following Disney animated film, The Rescuers Down Under, hadn’t done so well. There was no guarantee their latest effort would be successful.
Of course, it became a phenomenon. The film was rapturously received by critics and audiences alike, and it lives up to that hype. The script is tight, the characterization strongly defined, the villain one of Disney’s most quietly terrifying, the animation (which included large swaths of 3D) still dazzling and deftly drawn in its subtleties, and the music instantly iconic. Without Beauty and the Beast, it’s arguable that the Walt Disney Company’s animation wing wouldn’t be the unshakable force it is today. The Disney Princess wouldn’t be the icon it is. Seventeen years on and Disney is now one of the most powerful and influential corporations in entertainment, but they’re still trying to recapture the magic of Beauty and the Beast.
Nowadays, it could be argued that Beauty and the Beast is the real jewel in Disney’s crown. It’s certainly the one whose legacy the company continues to mine for all it's worth, from a Broadway musical adaptation to the many straight-to-video sequels to last year’s live-action remake. It is a well that shall never run dry, and for good reason. That beautiful animated spectacle is as good as you remember it, and it only gets better with age once the first flush of nostalgia passes. In many ways, it is the perfect Disney movie, in terms of both quality and how it represents everything that defines the term “a Disney movie.”
The Walt Disney Company is a curious beast in Hollywood in that it's the only studio whose output is so wholly defined by its name. You know a Disney movie and its characteristics the moment you see it and you label it as such in a way you never see done with, say, a Paramount or Warner Bros. movie. These tropes are so recognizable and well marketed that it’s no wonder so many people refer to Disney films as being indelible parts of their childhood. The Disney Princess forms a large part of that appeal, although given its omnipresence in pop culture, it’s notable how, up until Beauty and the Beast, there weren’t that many films that fit the trope. The princesses before the Disney Renaissance were striking icons but not necessarily fully rounded women. Ariel signaled an evolution of both formulas, but Belle and her film put the Disney story in concrete in a way that felt both modern and in line with its history.
For generations of women, Belle was a game-changer, a Disney Princess with her own ambitions, her own motivations, and dreams that extended beyond marriage to a good-looking prince. Every now and then, someone tries to argue that Belle is an anti-feminist creation or the victim of Stockholm Syndrome. These glib generalizations overlook what makes Belle so striking, both as a creation of 1991 and as a timeless icon. Belle has a backbone. She prizes education and self-improvement while those around her heap scorn on her for not conforming to their ideals. While the village residents give in easily to fear and ego, stoked by Gaston, she stridently refuses to join in. She doesn’t see the Beast as a project or a bad boy she can fix, as some claim she does, but rather she demands respect from him and then begins to see his better side when he makes an active effort not to be a jackass. In earlier Disney films, especially ones from the Golden Age like Cinderella and Snow White, the princesses are symbols more than people. As with many fairy tales, they serve as images to tell morals or fables around and don’t necessarily need to be further developed beyond that. Belle is markedly different from that. She has an arc, a personality, a level of independence not usually afforded to such heroines, and the movie is far more her journey than the Beast’s.
For any '90s kid, seeing a bookish heroine who didn’t bow down to bullies or misogynists and refused to stoke the fires of fear really meant something. It still means something in the Disney canon. Every princess who followed in her footsteps is trying to replicate that model, often without a romantic subplot to tie it together.
Disney has made great films since Beauty and the Beast. The 1990s was a rich creative period where the studio strengthened its formula of musical fairy tales and classic retellings, and the past decade following The Princess and the Frog has brought the studio new successes. Yet it's never truly recaptured that lightning-in-a-bottle sensation that came with Belle, the Beast, and a rose. It was a film wherein the stars aligned perfectly, and such things cannot be artificially copied. In an age where kids’ entertainment is saturated in tacky pop-culture references that are dated the moment they’re said and where so many studios think their audiences will eat up any old rubbish, Beauty and the Beast feels timelessly respectful of its fans.
Last year’s live-action remake of the film, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, tried to toe the line between a slavish recreation of the original and a timely update but ended up spoiling what made the story so special. It over-explained where answers were not needed and tried to pander to the nit-pickers of bad faith who complained about nonexistent plot holes. The studio and filmmakers were so concerned with making the story modern that they overlooked what makes it so timeless. It’s a story about not judging people based on appearances, about prizing the qualities that make you unique, about rejecting conformity and small-minded bigotry even when it leaves you alone against the world.
Beauty and the Beast is a story about Belle, an ambitious nerd who hates misogyny and calls out the privileged town bully who stirs up hate. What could be more timeless?