Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Release Date: November 22nd, 1991 MPAA Rating: G
Director: Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise Actors: Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury
eauty and the Beast” is technically, artistically, and aesthetically one of Disney’s greatest animated achievements. Released in 1991 (partway through the renaissance period for the studio, started by “The Little Mermaid” ), it was the only full-length cartoon to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture (Pixar’s “Up”  and “Toy Story 3”  have recently earned that honor as well, due to an expansion in nominees for those years), prompting the creation of awards categories specifically for animation. Powerful, poignant, and perfectly crafted to appeal to both children and adults, “Beauty and the Beast” utilizes sensational songs, unforgettable characters, consistent humor, touching romance, and heart-pounding adventure to mark the highlight of the era, during which Disney released several of its most mature, influential works.
A young king (Robby Benson) is visited one night by an old hag, who offers up a single rose to stay the night in the castle. Repulsed by her ugliness, the uncaring sovereign sends the beggar away, prompting the woman to reveal her true self as that of a gorgeous enchantress. He begs for forgiveness, but it’s too late; convinced that he has no kindness in his heart, the sorceress places a spell on the tyrant and his minions, cursing him to become a hideous beast, while his servants assume the forms of inanimate objects. He’s given a magic mirror to see the outside world, and the rose, which will lose petals until his 21st birthday. If he cannot love and be loved in return by that time, he will be doomed to remain a monster forever.
As the years pass, the lovely Belle (Paige O’Hara) grows up in the neighboring village with her half-crazy inventor father Maurice. She’s the most beautiful girl in town (which makes her the best), but considered odd because of her infatuation with books and fantasy. Gaston (Richard White), the most muscular, egotistical, manly man around, aided by his short, stubby henchman Lefou (Jesse Corti), has his sights set on making Belle his wife. But before Gaston can successfully propose, Belle’s father takes a new invention through the woods to the fair and winds up at the Beast’s castle, where he’s taken prisoner. When Belle dashes into the storm to rescue him, she’s forced to trade places in the dungeon, swearing to remain with the terrifying monster forever in exchange for Maurice’s release.
Despite the focus on thrills and adventure, “Beauty and the Beast” is very much a musical. The songs are so skillfully executed that they don’t distract from the flow of the story (except, perhaps, for the approximately six-minute added sequence for the song “Human Again” in the Special Edition re-release version of the film) – a problem many contemporary musicals face. It opts for resonant, catchy tunes for narration, to transition scenes, in montages to demonstrate the slowly unfolding love story, and to develop the characters – usually quite hilariously (most notably in Gaston’s theme, which explains his four-dozen-egg meals during his childhood, his ruthless crookedness, and his barge-like physique). Dialogue seems to be sung more often than it’s spoken regularly, with routine reprises designed to tie together featured numbers with the developing plot.
All the while, traditional animation combines with computer-generated imagery for striking visuals in a nearly seamless blending technique that future Disney animations would generously employ (here, the ballroom sequence is most stunning). The action is markedly more intense and violent than before, with blood, warfare and death; the romance is also more sophisticated, with plenty of tears, heartbreak, chesty barmaids, and a sultry feather duster. Also impressive are the character designs, from the ringleader maître d’ Lumiere (Jerry Orbach) to the timid clock Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers) to the gentle, grandmotherly Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury). Best of all is the way each of these elements of outstanding filmmaking come together: apparent, clever, and expertly detailed, in a creative masterwork that once again proves that animation isn’t just for kids.
– Mike Massie