‘Beauty and the Beast’: The stars and creators look back as a classic hits Blu-ray

Oct. 03, 2010 | 3:39 p.m.


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’sAlice 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… 

beauty and the beast1 Beauty and the Beast: The stars and creators look back as a classic hits Blu ray

"Beauty and the Beast." (Disney)

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.”

beauty and the beast2 Beauty and the Beast: The stars and creators look back as a classic hits Blu ray   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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15 Responses to ‘Beauty and the Beast’: The stars and creators look back as a classic hits Blu-ray

  1. Steve G says:

    The computer animation was clunky.
    Songs and hand animation were attractive.
    Little Mermaid was miles ahead of this one. Sorry

    • Jenna says:

      What?! Mermaid was great don't get me wrong, but I disagree when you say TLM was miles ahead of B&tB

    • Jenna says:

      As far as computer animation goes, of course it was clunky… computer animation was still in it's beginning stages. Nevertheless, it was still effective.

  2. Keith S. says:

    Sorry, I do not agree with Steve, I think that Beauty and the Beast was INCREDIBLE on all accounts. As a child is was the very first movie that I ever saw, which ultimately made it my favorite out of all the Disney Animated Feature Films. I believe Beauty and the Beast to be an example of Disney at its best. (This is not to start an argument, just my opinion)

    • Anne says:

      I completely agree! This was the first one I remember seeing in theaters (I was six at the time), and it is by far my FAVORITE Disney movie. It is such a beautiful story. The Little Mermaid was good, but Beauty and the Beast will always be first in my heart.

  3. kit says:

    i love both the little mermaid and B&TB. I watch them both often but to compare the two would be like comparing apples and oranges. One is a beautiful wash of color set in a magical land under the sea, the other is dark gothic style castle in an enchanted forest in france. its like saying "which is more beautiful a mountain or the ocean?" its a matter of taste.

  4. emilyvicks says:

    dont you think that there is more charractor to the story and atention to detail in a different way beauty and the beast, little mermaid, lion king all had charractor because they studied the person that was playing or reading the part and and draw what they saw it was an art. not saying animation is not good because it is its just not up to the same standard as actually drawing something. its like playing a keyboard it's good it just will never sound like a piano.

  5. Elma says:

    Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film Ive seen. It has been my favourite movie ever since I was five not one of the animated movies were that interesting like Beauty and the Beast.

  6. savannah says:

    Beauty and the Beast is my favorite movie and still is. I'm 24 and still know that movie word for word. It's a great movie and my children LOVE it. I can't wait to get it on DVD so I can store the VHS don't get me wrong VHS tapes are great but after watching that movie so much it's not all great anymore and I want my children to see it how I seen it or better!! Thank you so much for this beautiful creation.

  7. she says:

    The first one I ever bought was TLM, however when B & B came out I immediately fell in love with the story and the characters and have always been a huge fan and a collector of the B & B.. Some say it is very dark and at times scary, but so is true love and that is why I think B & B is and always will be the best love story of all time…

  8. Julie says:

    This is by far the best Disney animated feature in my opinion, I had watched many before, including The Little Mermaid, but none caught my attention the way Beauty and the Beast did. The others just seemed a little boring, with the girl always looking for her prince charming. but this was different…the story, the music, the characters, the way it made a little adventerous, brown haired, brown eyed, book worm like me, finally feel like a princess. The movie made me recommit to the Disney films and I've loved every one from that moment on. These movies are part of my childhood and I love sharing it with my the little kids in my family.

  9. carmentorres says:

    love it all

  10. teodora says:

    big likeeeee

  11. Wonderful paintings! That is the type of info that are supposed to be shared across the web. Disgrace on Google for not positioning this post higher! Come on over and visit my website . Thanks =)

  12. JohnMD123 says:

    I remember watching the movie when I was a kid, and the various songs and scenes really stuck with me through the years. There is something special about Disney movies in the 90s. The fact that the movie still holds dearly in the hearts of the original crew speaks volumes about its impact on many people's lives.

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