Beauty and the Beast (1991) Review
Walt Disney’s classic “tale as old as time” Beauty and the Beast hit the big screen initially in 1991. This enchanting film set in France, portrays the story of Belle, a poor inventor’s daughter, who is ridiculed for being different from the rest of the village. When her elderly father is captured by the terrifying Beast, belle volunteers to take his place and becomes a prisoner at his castle. From the opening narration, the use of dramatic irony is installed, as the audience are told that the Beast is in fact a handsome prince who was cursed for being cruel and shallow. In order for him to return to his old self, he must find someone to love him as the Beast, or a monster he will be…forever.
This romantic animated musical was derived originally from the traditional fairy-tale written by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villenueve. Although this film classes as a Disney Princess film, it has clear differences and is definitely more of a moral tale than a typical fairy-tale. It’s strong theme of inner beauty makes it unique. This theme is initially introduced in the opening narration: “She warned him not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within”.
“Since I was a child, this film has always held a place in my heart…maybe because of its standalone themes, or bold and feisty female lead: Belle.”
Since I was a child, this film has always held a place in my heart…maybe because of its standalone themes, or bold and feisty female lead: Belle. From the first musical number (“Belle”), the protagonist communicates her feelings of isolation in her town and her dreams of escapism. Throughout this song, the other characters make various comments about how she is “very different from the rest of us”, saying she has “a dreamy far off look, and her nose stuck in a book.”, in other words she is more educated than them which makes her an outsider. This subject in the film reflects beliefs in 18th Century England, when a moral panic arose about women reading, evident in Ana Vogrincic’s article about the novel-reading panic: ‘Considering that the novel-reading public was regarded as predominantly female and that women were already perceived as in all respects weaker, fanciful, more sensitive and thus more liable to bad influence, the situation seemed all the more alarming. It is suggested that this panic was mainly from a male perspective which is also reflected in Gaston’s character, when he says “It’s not right for a woman to read! Soon she starts getting ideas and thinking.” Which is opposed when Beast begs Belle “Could you read it again?”, later in the film.
“Considering that the novel-reading public was regarded as predominantly female and that women were already perceived as in all respects weaker, fanciful, more sensitive and thus more liable to bad influence, the situation seemed all the more alarming.”
With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, the same geniuses that worked on The Little Mermaid (1989), the story is brought to life. Lumiere and Coggsworth, the dynamic duo of talking ornaments, bring the house down with their comical number “Be our guest”, not only luring Belle into the fantasy world of talking furniture, but undoubtably us too. Jerry Orbach’s portrayal of Lumiere, the talking candlestick, is humorous but lovable, and he is one of the very few characters with a French accent, to remind us that we are in France. Apart from the odd accent, it is easy to forget that we are.
The leading lady, Paige O’Hara, completely amazes the audience with her portrayal of Belle. In my opinion, she is the most admirable Disney princesses of her time, as she stands up for herself in situations that a typical Disney heroine would not. For example, Gaston’s repetitive advances towards her go almost ignored and most definitely refused, yet I am sure if we placed Gaston in a film like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), his ignorant charm would probably overrule her weaker personality.
Talking of Gaston, he is one of the most interesting characters in the movie. Out of the male characters, Gaston’s appearance is most like a Disney prince, therefore it is surprising when he turns out to be the baddie, as the audience obviously expect the Beast to be the real monster. He represents the opposite to the Beast, he is typically beautiful but has no inner beauty, which is gradually discovered as he descends from just an arrogant flirt to a demonic monster in the last few scenes. I think it fair to say he is more of a beast than Beast himself.
Robby Benson’s depiction of Beast is much more favourable than Gaston. However, from the opening sequence, his character is quite ambiguous as he is described as selfish, yet sympathy is derived from the audience when his character is properly introduced in the later scenes with Belle, as he appears vulnerable. I think the Beast’s character helps to communicate to the younger generation, showing how you shouldn’t judge something by its cover or be shallow; this is furthered by the admirable female lead actually falling for the “monster”, rather than the more visually appealing (visibly) choice of Gaston (unless you’re into bestiality I guess…). Although the theme of inner beauty is strong, my only criticism when dealing with this would be that the ending could have been better. Belle learns to love him for who he is inside and then as soon as she does, the Beast turns into a beautiful prince. So really, what was the point? I guess it makes it more appealing and fairy-tale-like for its target audience of under tens… maybe it’s not targeted to university students after all?
“I think the Beast’s character helps to communicate to the younger generation, showing how you shouldn’t judge something by its cover or be shallow”
Apart from the one negative I have of this film, I honestly adore everything else about it. One of these things being the original Disney animation, which feels so real whilst also remaining loyal to Walt Disney’s original drawing style. Although animation obviously improves over time, as in films like Frozen (2013) and Tangled (2010) the style is supposedly more realistic, in my opinion it doesn’t feel like an original Disney film and it loses its magic a bit.
Robert Ebert writes in his Beauty and the Beast review that Disney ‘…seem to have abandoned… feature-length cartoons (that) are intended only for younger viewers…’ and it is ‘…robust family entertainment.’ (1991) I think Ebert has a point about this film being suited to more of a general demographic, as the morals and complex themes are possibly aimed more at older viewers. In my experience, watching this cinematic masterpiece as a child, or as an adult, has very little difference. As a child, obviously I just absorbed more of the fairy-tale aspects of the story, without really thinking about the deeper meaning or questioning anything, but I think at any age it is equally as enchanting, emotional and exciting. And yes, I still sob at the end when… *SPOILER ALERT* … the Beast dies, even though I know he will come back to life every time. I guess some things never change.
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