People will continue to argue about which Disney film is the best but personally I think a great case can be made for Beauty And The Beast. Widely recognised by Disney as one of their finest works, it’s a seamless blend of animated musical theatre and old-fashioned fairytale storytelling.
Our heroine is Belle (Paige O’Hara), the beautiful and bookish young daughter of Maurice, the small town’s resident inventor. While her beauty is unrivalled, the townsfolk are perplexed by Belle’s interest in reading. She attracts the eye of Gaston (Richard White), a physically impressive but boorish and chauvinistic hunter who’s determined to marry her.
When her father leaves town to attend a science fair, he inadvertently stumbles into an enchanted castle whose inhabitants have been transformed into a variety of household objects – the walking carriage clock Major Domo Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), smooth-talking candlestick Lumiere (Jerry Orbach) and mumsy cockney teapot Mrs Potts (Angela Lansbury).
While the servants are more than happy to accommodate Maurice, the master, a large and powerful but short tempered beast (Robby Benson) doesn’t take kindly to the intrusion and mercilessly imprisons him.
Belle eventually comes looking for her father and agrees to take his place, raising the hopes of the servants, for if the Beast can learn to love and be loved in return, the spell on the castle will be broken.
The 3D, while mostly unobtrusive, does a wonderful job of drawing out the natural beauty of the sets, most of which could easily be framed and hung above any mantelpiece. There are a few notable standout moments though. The opening shot which tracks through some rose bushes before illustrating the prologue in stained glass windows is particularly spectacular, as is the famous ballroom scene (which in ’91 boasted one of the first uses of a 3D technique developed by a little known studio called Pixar).
Interestingly for Disney the antagonist isn’t a megalomaniac, a being with superpowers or even particularly crafty. Gaston’s not smart, he’s merely a bully and in the end Belle’s enemy is ignorance, intolerance and greed – a particularly human enemy – making his inevitable defeat especially satisfying
No praise of Beauty And The Beast would be complete without mentioning the music which is pitched absolutely perfectly. The score features some beautiful recurring refrains which echo across the entire film and the songs are witty, catchy and appropriate – they all slot perfectly into the action and not once do they feel like they’ve been shoehorned in.
This was when Alan Menken was at the height of his powers (the loss of collaborator Howard Ashman was keenly felt after he died during production – the film is dedicated to him). Every song is note perfect – from the hilarious witticisms of Gaston’s theme to the iconic refrain of the title piece– every tune is memorable and instantly hummable.
Voice acting too is universally spot-on but special mention should go to Richard White as Gaston whose booming tenor reverberates across every line. This was back in the day when actors were hired for their ability to belt out tunes rather than their celebrity credentials and no one in the entire Disney canon before or since has rivalled him.
David Ogden Stiers is also particularly memorable as Cogsworth (and in fact adlibbed some of the film’s funniest lines) and Angela Lansbury’s version of the title track (delivered in one take no less) is leagues ahead of the mellifluous warbling of the Celine Dion version used for the end credits.
It’s simply marvellous, an unassailable tour de force which is far more than the sum of its parts and truly the crown jewel of Disney. While there’s no particular reason to go and see it in 3D (much like The Lion King released last October), any excuse to get it back in the cinema is welcome. It is “ever just the same, ever a surprise”. Go see it and relive the magic.
Read our exclusive interview with Paige O’Hara, the voice of Belle.
Check out the best Disney Villains ever.