It’s Debate Day on Trope and Dagger! For the past couple weeks we’ve been discussing animated films, and this week we’re wrapping up our discussion with the best traditionally animated Disney movie. You can view Aaron’s side here, though I can’t imagine why you’d want to fill your head with his wacky nonsense!
Disney’s canon is full of some pretty great movies. The House of Mouse has fallen out of favor a lot recently, mostly just making computer animated movies these days, but there was a time when Disney was the gold standard in traditional animation. There are so many excellent films to choose from: Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin, The Great Mouse Detective, the list goes on and on. But when we decided on this topic for Debate Day, I knew immediately what to pick for my favorite. No, not A Goofy Movie. It can only be Beauty and the Beast (1991), directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.
The first thing to point out about this movie is the music. Classic Disney movies are known for wonderful soundtracks and musical numbers, but for my money, Beauty and the Beast is the best of an amazing bunch. Veteran broadway songwriters Alan Menken (music) and Howard Ashman (lyrics), who had just composed the songs for The Little Mermaid, were brought on to score the movie. Ashman was dying of AIDS during the film’s production and had to write most of the lyrics from his own home. Legend has it that the film’s production team visited the very sick Ashman to tell him about a very successful screening of the rough cut. When someone remarked about the film’s success, “Who’d have thought it?”, Ashman replied, “I would.” He died on March 14, 1991.
All the songs in the movie are incredible. The opening number, an operetta-style piece where Belle and the villagers sing about their provincial life in the village, perfectly sets the tone. “Be Our Guest” is a hell of a lot of fun and features some amazing singing from Broadway veteran (and television detective) Jerry Orbach, doing an outrageous French accent. “Gaston” is a hilarious, over-the-top romp and probably the best villain song of all time. But it’s the title song that stands out as the best to me (it actually won the Oscar for Best Original Song). Supposedly Angela Lansbury had doubts that she could pull it off, and had to be convinced to try it just one time in whatever style she thought appropriate. Her first take was perfect, and brought the crew to tears. Let’s take a listen, shall we?
The actual plot of Beauty and the Beast is honestly nothing too special. Selfish prince is transformed into monster, can only regain his true form if he finds true love, local townsfolk are afraid of monster, plucky girl sees his true heart. It’s really the execution that sells it. In a different light, we might remember Beauty and the Beast as a movie about a despicable kidnapper Stockholm-syndroming a poor girl into loving him, while meanwhile striking down the valiant human who tries to save her. But instead we remember this movie as a poignant, emotional, and sometimes hilarious journey of love and self-discovery.
The songs are definitely one reason why the film works so well, but the writing and the performances of the leads (Paige O’Hara and Robby Benson) are top-notch. We get to spend a ton of time with Belle and the Beast, and we see their relationship evolve and grow over time (albeit with a musical montage at one point). The Beast is basically a horrifying monster at first, and Belle is appropriately afraid of him. But the enchanted household staff, led by Lumiere (Orbach), Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), and Mrs. Potts (Lansbury) help her feel at home in the dank castle, and also help humanize the Beast.
It’s completely believable that they come to care for each other over time, but they don’t just fall into a romance, either. The Beast lets Belle leave the castle when her father is in danger, giving Belle to decide if she cares for the Beast enough to return. This makes her decision to go back to the Beast and help him in his time of need a more personal and emotionally touching climax for the movie.
Gaston (Richard White) is a really stellar antagonist. He’s not comically evil or pointlessly cruel like so many Disney villains, but instead has believable, even relatable motivations. For most of the movie, Gaston is an oafish buffoon, but he’s motivated out of attraction to Belle than out of a megalomaniacal desire to rule to world or murder innocents. He’s just a dude — a really handsome and capable dude — who likes a lady a whole lot. Sure, he goes about it in a egotistical and chauvinistic way, but his actions mostly fall short of villainous. Towards the movie’s end, when Gaston has Belle’s dad committed and tries to kill the Beast, he strays into villainous territory, but even then you can sort of relate to him. After all, can you blame the guy for wanted to slay a horrible monster that lives in a castle and kidnaps beautiful maidens?
It goes without saying that the animation in Beauty and the Beast is wonderful. This was one of the first Disney animated films to use computer animation, notably during the ballroom sequence. The technology, known as CAPS (Computer Animation Product System), was provided by none other than Pixar. The hand-drawn animation, unsurprisingly, lives up to Disney’s typical transcendent standard. Re-watching a movie as richly animated as Beauty and the Beast is bittersweet, because it just makes me long for the good old days.
Surely everyone reading this has seen Beauty and the Beast, but if you haven’t you really owe it to yourself to give it a look. It’s truly one of Disney’s crowning achievements. It has plenty of laughs and upbeat moments, but they’re balanced against a somber and poignant quality that makes me tear up every time. The songs are infectiously catchy, the characters are believable and fully realized, and the animation is nothing short of gorgeous. Let there be no doubt: Beauty and the Beast is the best traditionally animated work Disney has ever done.
So who’s got the right of it, me or Aaron? (hint: it’s me) Sound off in the poll below!