Some links before I get started with things today. Yesterday having had been a Sunday, we had a Snippet Sunday post at our joint blog. Krisztina had a holiday gift idea at her blog. Lorelei had various thoughts at her blog. And the Whisk had a knock-knock joke at her page.
Today I have another film review, something rather different from my last one. While it really has nothing to do with Christmas... well, there's snow in some of the film, and it seems oddly fitting for this time of year.
"As the years passed he fell into despair and lost all hope. For who could ever learn to love a beast?" ~ Narrator
"Enchanted! Ha ha ha! Who said anything about the castle being enchanted? Ha ha ha.... It was you! Wasn't it?" ~ Cogsworth
"When she comes in, give her a dashing, debonair smile. Come, come. Show me the smile." ~ Lumiere
"Were you in love with her, beast? Did you honestly think she'd want you when she had someone like me?" ~ Gaston
"Well, you shouldn't have been in the west wing!" ~ Beast
"Well, you should learn to control your temper!" ~ Belle
After a number of years in creative purgatory, Disney's animation studios had hit a renaissance with The Little Mermaid in 1989. Two years later, Disney released Beauty And The Beast, the thirtieth animated feature in the company's history. The film took on the classic fairy tale story from France, bringing together a wealth of creative talent in a film that was critically and publicly acclaimed, becoming a true classic. It earned Oscar nominations and awards, turned the conventional Disney animated film into new directions, and appealed just as much to adults as to children.
The story opens with backstory, told in a stained glass window sort of motif, with an arrogant young prince turning away a beggar woman seeking shelter. She reveals herself as a beautiful enchantress, and punishes him for his cruel indifference by transforming him into a monstrous beast (voiced by Robby Benson). There is a way out for him- to earn the love of someone else- but given the circumstances of what's happened to him, he gives into despair and hopelessness. After all, who could love him the way he looks?
The story moves forward some years, and we meet Belle (Paige O' Hara), a young woman living with her eccentric father Maurice in the countryside near a small village. He spends his time inventing things without really knowing if they'll work- hence the eccentricity. She feels out of place among villagers with no imagination and no creativity, and spends much of her time with her head in a book. She's also the subject of unwanted attention from the alpha male in the village, Gaston (Richard White), an oaf and idiot who's rather full of himself, is fond of shooting any animal in sight, and thinks women shouldn't be reading- sooner or later they get ideas and thinking. He'd much rather Belle pay attention to him, while remaining oblivious to the fact that she finds him rather obnoxious.
Maurice is off on a trip (apparently inventors in France at the time had plenty of opportunities to go off hawking their wares, gadgets, and contraptions). Things go wrong in the woods, he falls from his horse, gets chased by wolves, and ends up in a castle in the middle of nowhere. The servants are all enchanted under the same spell (come to think of it, that enchantress might have been overreacting). They have taken on the look of ordinary household objects, and happen to include Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), and Mrs. Potts (Angela Lansbury). They seem to have taken things in stride as to their present state, and Maurice's presence is quickly discovered by their master... who's unhappy to see the intruder. The Beast, being surly and bitter and probably feeling like scratching an itch somewhere in his fur, imprisons Maurice.
Back at home, Belle's busy fending off an unwanted marriage proposal from Gaston. The horse returns home, worrying her, and she sets off in search with the horse to find out what's become of her father. Sure enough, she finds the castle, locates her father locked away in the dungeon, and when confronted by the Beast, offers herself in trade for her father as his prisoner. Stockholm Syndrome, bantering back and forth, and true love ensues.
Disney had been musing on an adaptation of the fairy tale going all the way back to the 30s, but for one reason or another hadn't gone through with it. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise were brought in to helm the film, which adapted the screenplay by Linda Woolverton (from a story with multiple writers involved at one point or another). The other creative element involved was the partnership of the lyricist Howard Ashman and the composer Alan Menken, who would compose the songs for the film. The animation teams would end up mixing together traditional hand drawn work with computer generated imagery for a film that is widely considered to be a masterpiece in animation features. I think it's the best animated film Disney ever made.
The story also tends to turn convention on its head. We get ourselves a villain who for all intents and purposes looks like you might expect the traditional Disney hero to look. Gaston is handsome, sure, but the moment he opens his mouth he shows himself to be a boor. And as the film goes along and he transitions from egotistical prat to showing himself to be a monster, it's a radically different interpretation of a villain, whose looks in older Disney films would have had more of a sinister undertone.
We also get that turning of conventions in the relationship between the two leads. Traditional Disney films would have the hero save the life of the heroine, proving his worth, and everyone lives happily ever after. Instead, yes, we do see the Beast save Belle from a pack of wolves (in spectacular fashion, it's a ferocious sequence with a lot of action), but she saves him too, something you wouldn't have seen with heroines in older films. Belle chooses to bring him home in the wake of that. She gives him a reason to become a better, selfless person. And she quite literally redeems him and saves him by loving him back. The fact that the story makes Belle a smart, thoughtful, and strong person is also a step forward. She values herself for herself.
The overall look of the film is wonderful throughout. The French village feels like something out of the 18th or 19th century, quite pastoral and content to let the world pass by. The castle, foreboding at first, filled with dark shadows and murky danger, gradually shows itself to be not so gloomy after all (I really, really, really want that library). The servants, all of whom are enchanted into the forms of objects and furniture, nonetheless have personality and distinct looks, all of which comes across in the way they're rendered. Belle is a beauty, but seems oblivious to that, and her general look by the animators tends to emphasize her personality- her intelligence, stubbornness, and spirit. The Beast himself has a formidable look, a combination of bear, lion, wolf, bison, deer, and gorilla. He looks ferocious, yes, and certainly can be, but the facial expressions in time show us more as the story goes along- uncertainty, sadness, self pity, selflessness, humour, and mercy.
Howard Ashman died before the film was finished, and it is dedicated in his memory. His lyrics, written with his musical partner Alan Menken, breathe life into the story in another way, and the songs completely serve the story, never feeling out of place. Bear in mind that I generally hate musicals.... but this is the exception. The songs have humour when needed- the opening Belle, for instance, plays around with the gossip of the villagers, or the drinking song Gaston messes around with the raging ego of the character. Other songs bring out the softness, the romance, the humanity of the characters, such as with Something There or the title song Beauty And The Beast as softly sung by Angela Lansbury. Contrast that with The Mob Song, a hellish descent into Angry Villager mode led by the sneering Gaston, riling up the mob to go off and storm the castle (Angry Villagers tend to do that).
For all of the emphasis that gets placed on the songs when we think of the soundtrack, the score by Alan Menken is just as powerful and effective. There are soft, character based cues, romantic themes when appropriate, and humour that infuses his composition. And there are cues that have more of a ferocious, epic sound to them- the cue underlying the battle between the Beast and the wolves in the woods, for instance. He transfers this same energy into a dual cue, Battle On The Tower, which starts out sounding funny, since it accompanies the battle between the Angry Villagers and the household servants, who quickly send the Villagers running for their lives. The scene is funny, and Menken writes the music that way, but the cue quickly changes into a more serious, dangerous sound with the very personal battle between Gaston and the Beast high atop the tower. It reminds the audience that the danger is much more immediate. From there, Menken composes the utterly beautiful melody underlying the transformation, filled with poignancy, passion, and romance- it's probably the best piece of music he ever composed, and the songs and score netted the film two Oscars.
The choices for voice casting were ideal. This was a time before we saw a lot of stunt casting of much better known Hollywood actors in animated voice roles (perhaps better, because I find I'm not listening to the character, I'm listening to the actor). Rex Everhart voices Maurice, who certainly does seem crazy, though Belle believes in him. He's loopy and eccentric, and more than a little odd, but we like him anyway. Jesse Corti turns up as Lefou, Gaston's abused sidekick, a rather pathetic and nasty person in and of himself, and yet some of the great humour of the film comes from his character. We wouldn't want to know this guy, but he still brings out a smile in us- perhaps no more so than when he glances back at a mud puddle while conducting an impromptu orchestra and finds Gaston rising up out of the mud with a pig where his head should be.
Gaston himself is a marvelous villain. Richard White voices the part, and he starts out as a man completely full of himself, believing everyone should fall down and worship the ground he walks on (did I mention the arrogance?). He's a narcissistic egomaniac, and he's not a terribly bright person. He spends his time hunting, shoots anything that remotely looks like he can mount its head on a wall, and thinks he's going to marry Belle (it doesn't matter that she has no interest in him). White brings that arrogance across in his vocal performance, and shifts it into even darker tones as the story goes along and Gaston becomes increasingly malevolent. There's defiance in his voice, and even, ultimately, at a critical moment, fear... when he realizes he's outclassed.
The household staff are voiced by numerous actors, but three of them particularly stand out. Mrs. Potts, having had taken the form of a teapot, is voiced by Angela Lansbury, who when she wasn't solving crimes (or committing them, because let's face it, Jessica Fletcher was the greatest serial killer in history) on Murder She Wrote, had a lot of experience in musicals and on stage. Her take on Mrs. Potts is a motherly, sympathetic interpretation, a bit no-nonsense, and not afraid to speak her mind. She's like the grandmother we'd all like to have.
David Ogden Stiers plays Cogsworth the butler, transformed into a clock. He's extremely loyal to his master, and tries (and often fails) to keep his fellow servants following orders. Cogsworth is something of a stuck up fellow, the sort of person who you'd expect to volunteer for hall monitor duty, and doesn't have much of a sense of humour. He's often used for comic relief at his own expense (getting run over by tea carts will do that), but he's also a courageous clock... er, person in the form of a clock. His counterpart is Lumiere, as voiced by Jerry Orbach. If you're more familiar with Orbach from his days on Law And Order, it might come as a surprise that he did a lot of theatre throughout his acting career. Lumiere is the castle's maitre d', changed into a candlestick. He's a flirt of the first order, particularly where a maid turned feather duster is concerned, and is rebellious, overlooking orders from the Beast. Orbach plays these qualities to the hilt, and much of the humour of the film comes from him, particularly the constant bickering relationship Lumiere has with Cogsworth.
Paige O'Hara voices Belle, and it's such a strong performance and character. She is a young woman of intelligence, curiousity, and dreams. She's kind and loyal, particularly to her father, and yearns for something beyond the place she lives in. Belle thinks for herself, sees the eligible bachelor in town for the oaf that he is, and treats him the way he deserves. At the same time, there's a selflessness and compassion in her that acts to save her father's life, not knowing what might lie ahead of her as a prisoner in a castle. And yet even faced with what seems to be a monster, Belle comes into her own. She's not scared of him, stands up to him- one of my favourite scenes in the whole film is that great turning point between them. She tends to his wounds, doesn't panic at his roars, and tells him he should control his temper... which leaves him speechless. It's a great show of her spirit, her strength of character, and a moment that moves her forward into seeing the Beast in a different way.
Robby Benson voices the Beast in just the right way. It's a character filled with rage and torment, his arrogance having had cursed him into a fate as a monster, and so when we first really see him, that rage is understandable. He sounds like a force of nature at times, gravelly voiced and brooding, but there's also a deep self pity beneath the rage, and only when faced with a woman who's not running off in panic does he moderate and start to change. The character's journey from arrogance and anger to becoming a better person capable of being selfless, kind, and decent, is the soul of the film, and as Belle starts to see the Beast in a different light, so do we. He's unsure of himself, a bit awkward as he finds himself trying to win Belle's heart, and he has to unlearn old habits and be better than he was. In becoming a better man, he's a far better fleshed out hero than any Disney leading man before him. This is a Beast with depth, just as the woman he loves has depth.
1991 was the year of Silence Of The Lambs, which swept several awards that year, including Best Picture. Beauty and the Beast, however, was among the other nominees, and it deserved that nomination. In a weaker year it might have even gotten the award. It's the best animated film ever made, a tale that appeals to children and yet works so well for adults too. It gives its leading pair a chance to get to know each other, to fall in love, and makes them such a compelling, ultimately likable couple that we can't help but want them together. The film is an animated masterpiece.