NEW ON BLU-RAY: “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST”
Susan King covers classic Hollywood for the Hero Complex. She now looks back at a film that celebrates its 20th anniversary next year and feels like a tale as old as time…
“Beauty and the Beast,” which opened in theaters Nov. 23, 1991, is considered one of Walt Disney Studio’s masterpieces. The classic fairy tale was adapted by writer Linda Woolverton (who went on write Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland“), directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (the tandem that also directed Disney’s take on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame“) and produced by Don Hahn, (who followed up “Beauty” with the mega-success of “The Lion King“). “Beauty and the Beast” was the first animated film nominated for an Academy Award in the best picture category. The grand animation was paired with a Broadway-musical sensibility, thanks to the memorable, Oscar-winning music by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken (who had collaborated on “The Little Mermaid“), and the cast had some magical vocal performances from Paige O’Hara as Belle, Robby Benson as the Beast, Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts and Jerry Orbach as Lumiere. ‘Beauty and the Beast” grossed $403 million internationally at theaters and spawned two made-for-DVD sequels, a television spinoff and a long-running Broadway musical.
[FOR THE RECORD, 6:23 a.m. Oct. 4: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said "Beauty and the Beast" was the only animated film ever nominated for an Academy Award in the best picture category. "Up" was nominated in that category in 2010.]
On Tuesday, “Beauty and the Beast” makes its Blu-ray premiere in a three-disc set with several new documentaries. Despite its tremendous success, bringing “Beauty and the Beast” to the screen was a rocky road. Originally, British animation director Richard Purdum was hired to make a darker, non-musical version. Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg scrapped the footage after seeing the initial story reels in 1989 and summoned the team back to Los Angeles. Purdum resigned, and first-time feature directors Wise and Trousdale were brought in. Far more wrenching was the less-public challenge facing the production: Ashman, also a producer on the film, was dying of complications from AIDS but was able to keep his illness a secret for several months. He died at age 40 in March 1991, eight months before the film opened to global acclaim. Some of the key players in “Beauty and the Beast” spoke to the Hero Complex about the film that still casts a spell over Disney fans. Here are some of their memories…
Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle: “They had 500 women who came in to be auditioned. They specifically targeted Broadway actors, because it really is a Broadway show on film. Robby and I recorded together, which was great. They would videotape us, and the animators would use those videos [to create the character]. That is why it was so realistic. Before I was cast, some of the drawings of Belle were too perfect. She was just too beautiful, too perfect and untouchable. Then they started to change their minds [after I was cast]. They said, ‘OK. We are making her an intellectual now. She’s a little odd. Let’s change it up a little bit and make her more attainable and more identifiable to little girls.’ You would be amazed at the amount of mail I got over the years about her being a bookworm but also having brown hair and brown eyes. Little girls had never seen a Disney princess with brown eyes. She’s pretty in an odd kind of way. That is why she is so successful. Not only is she smart and strong, her main intention in life is not to find a husband and get married, but to find adventure. Because she is physically similar to a lot of little girls, they can look at her and say, ‘I really am like her.’ “
Don Hahn, producer: “We ate up a lot of time and money at the beginning, and once we pulled it back to Los Angeles and Kirk and Gary started working on it, it went incredibly fast. It was a time where we didn’t spend a lot of money because there was no guaranteed box office . We were just hoping, if we were really lucky, to live up to ‘Little Mermaid.’ You had animators who were just arriving at their maturity. Some of them had been at the studio for 10 years by that time or more, and that is about how long it takes to make a really good animator. You start to see James Baxter start to shine. So much of it was the songs we had. The story we knew was classic … and we had the songs, which were tent poles to hold the movie up. Howard was very collaborative — he was happy to take ideas from everywhere — but of all of us, he was probably the most experienced, certainly in terms of telling stories through music. He knew more than any of us and taught us. I am proud in so many ways we learned at Howard’s feet. He was about 40 years old, and he had done a lot of shows as a lyricist and also as an actor and also as a director. And he really believed that Broadway could live on in animation.”
Angela Lansbury, the voice of the Mrs. Potts: “It’s very dear to my heart. As they say in the business, it has very long legs for me. Mrs. Potts appeals to every generation of youngsters. She is that wonderful, comforting being who we all wish was in our lives. She was written fairly straight, I’d say, although we decided to have this kind of cockney overtone, not too much, but just enough to make her comfortable. After all, she was a little teapot and in the servants category. All the characters were — we were subservient to the Beast. When I first heard the song ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ it was at the study of my house here in Brentwood. It was a CD that was sent to me by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. They said we would like you to make a version of this. Here’s the song, listen to it, and you sing your version. I went back to them and said, truthfully, I don’t think this is my style because they sang it in a soft-rock style. They said forget what we did, you do what you would bring to it. At that point, I hadn’t been cast as Mrs. Potts. So I thought about the character. I knew about the story, and I did my version with my accompanist. They said, ‘That’s it — that’s exactly right.’ I was cast as soon as they heard it.”
Linda Woolverton: “I was hired to write a draft … a non-musical, and they brought in Roger Purdum. In the middle of our process, ‘Little Mermaid’ premiered, and that changed everything, the concept of the musical, the Broadway musical brought to animation by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. So I was flown to Disney in Florida to meet with Howard. Howard and I just clicked. At the time, Howard was sick, and he didn’t tell anyone. I think the reason he didn’t write the book himself was because he was sick. In a hotel room in Fishkill, N.Y., Howard and I pretty much conjured up this version of ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Howard and I never clashed. I was his student. He taught me everything I know about musicals.”
Kirk Wise, co-director: Gary and I had to work on an extremely accelerated schedule. Even though a year’s worth of development time had been eaten up by the [previous] creative team, the movie had to come out at exactly the same time as it did before. We had two years to make it. We were in fourth gear from Day 1. There was really no ramp-up time because there couldn’t be. I think we were all younger. I honestly think our inexperience was actually an advantage because we didn’t know that we couldn’t do it. I think that works in your favor sometimes. If you don’t know what’s impossible, sometimes you can actually achieve the impossible. It is hard to overstate Howard’s influence on the movie. When Gary and I came on, Howard and Linda were already in the process of hammering out a brand-new outline for the story, and when Gary and I stepped in, we certainly had an influence on how it took shape, but that train was moving. When we came on, I think this is true of any creative relationship, there was certainly some friction because Howard had ideas of the way he wanted to go, Linda had her own ideas, Gary and I had our own ideas , but it’s the nature of the process. We all believed in the story, and we wanted to make it work.
Robby Benson, the voice of the Beast: “I was in ‘The Rothchilds’ on Broadway for the first year and a half, and somewhere in there, my voice changed. I went from … a tenor to hitting notes lower than a bass would sing at an opera. My sweet spot — where I am the most comfortable — is way down here. Suddenly, I was allowed to do that. To show who I really was. This angry Beast came out, and for me it was absolutely thrilling. I immediately smile when I think of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ not because I am a part of it but because I saw it for the first time with my daughter Lyric sitting on my lap. She was about 8. She was so entertained and happy by it, what more can a daddy want?”
Glen Keane, animator: ‘Beauty’ was an extremely difficult story. None of us felt cocky. We just didn’t know how we were going to solve the story. Basically, the story is an extremely boring story the way it’s told in the fairy tale. It all takes place at a dinner table. We knew we were going to have to start developing the story to be much bigger. But the biggest issue to me was how the audience was going to really believe that Belle falls in love with the Beast. That is the part. I felt no matter how wonderful and fun and how good the music can be, if that doesn’t happen, the movie is going to fail. We didn’t have that moment until we were about six months from being done. Howard Ashman wrote a song that turned the movie: ‘Something There.’ It was this moment where the Beast actually does something very unselfish and is sensitive to what Belle loves, which is reading. He gives her a library as a gift and presents it to her. As soon as that happened, suddenly Belle could really fall for this guy, and the whole movie turned on that movement. You would never know it from watching the films, but if you took that moment out, the film wouldn’t work.”
– Susan King
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