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With Disney now taking to remaking their classic animated films in live-action, substituting hand-drawn cells for CGI enhancements, it’s a good time to look back at the inspirations and remember what made them so memorable in the first place. To call 1991’s Beauty and Beast a success might be an understatement as it was highly-acclaimed on release and became the first animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, aside from its huge international box office sales.
Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the story is based on a French fairy tale of the same name by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont and follows the adventures of a young woman named Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara). She is an independent girl who longs to read books and has no desires to conform to the traditions of the town, bored of the lifestyle and un-wanting of a man to take care of her. Her father, a quirky inventor is her only ally as most ridicule her values. Even still, she is pursued by the arrogant Gaston (Richard White), a bulky, handsome hunter the townsfolk adore but Belle does not.
One day, Belle’s father becomes lost in the dark forests and abandoned by his horse, finds shelter in a hidden castle where he discovers most of the furniture and many household items are in fact alive. They have been cursed, along with their master (voiced by Robby Benson), a prince who, ten years earlier, was cursed by an old woman he refused to give shelter. Forced to live life as a ferocious beast, he is doomed to live for eternity in this foul form unless he can find true love before his 21st birthday. But, when Belle comes by in search of her father and in turn offers herself up in place of him, there is hope at last that perhaps love might change it all.
Beauty and the Beast is a remarkably energetic and satisfying film, filled with some truly memorable and catchy songs and beautiful, fluid animation that still looks great, even today. A great cast of voices makes it all come alive and there’s just a welcoming joy to the movie that is clearly a work of great admiration for the project, but more so, the audience it is made for. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
To be sure, the epic musical moments of Beauty and the Beast define the production, with “Be Our Guest” easily one of the brightest in the entire Disney catalog. Watching that sequence, one can’t help but feel good when it’s over, and probably end up humming the tune for some time after. But let’s trade away the power of the songs for a bit in order to concentrate on plot and look at a scene that is a fantastic sequence in its own right, and one that reshapes our perceptions of the two leads.
At this point, Belle has been taken into the castle and learned about the ‘enchantment’ over the house, and has been treated kindly by servants, including a candlestick named Lumière (voiced by Jerry Orbach), a clock named Cogsworth (voiced by David Ogden Stiers), and a teapot named Mrs. Potts (voiced by Angela Lansbury), all of whom recognize the potential in the young woman and hold hope she might be the one to break the spell.
She’s also met Beast, a cantankerous, foul, quick-tempered creature who doesn’t have much patience, even as he too can see that this girl is their last hope. After giving her some accommodations in the castle, he roughly demands she join him for dinner, but given his attitude, she’s not so willing to comply, which sends Beast into a bit of a tizzy, declaring that if she won’t eat with him, she won’t eat at all.
Of course, that’s not going to happen. Belle sneaks out and gets a bit of hospitality from the others, much to their delight. But she has a plan of her own and after gently tricking them, manages to work her way alone up to the tall tower where Beast keeps in hiding, and where the cursed rose of the old woman remains under glass, the wilting petals marking the coming end of his hope for salvation.
Beast catches her and in a fury, frightens her away, causing her to run from the castle and jump on horseback into the dark woods. There, in the deep snows, she is chased by a growing pack of wolves, who descend upon her in ravenous numbers, looking to take her down, and when it seems she is to be lost, Beast arrives and saves her from certain death, nearly sacrificing himself in his effort to save her.
There is a moment right during this, as Beast lays bleeding and unconscious in the snow from the fight when Belle makes like she will abandon him, ready to mount up and ride away, but of course she does not and in fact, brings him back to the castle where … well, you probably know the rest. Either way, something has changed.
I’ve always liked this sequence, starting with the Belle ascending the stairs. The art design and illustrations are magnificent and give the castle a terrific sense of scale, history and intimidation as she works her way along corridors and into his secret chamber. More importantly, the moment shifts the story from character introductions and premise building to the main conflict, from which the romance will grow. And to do so, it takes three crucial steps.
First, discovery and vulnerability. At this point, Belle is getting a sense of what has happened, even finding a tattered mural on the wall that we know and she suspects is the true identity of the Beast. With her finding his precious rose, protected in a room utterly in shambles, she finds his greatest weakness, and in an instant the mighty monster is reduced to fearful survivor–despite his aggressive behavior–as he cradles the rose in his massive arms. She is witness to the very power that holds reign over him, a fragile flower with domain over his entire future.
Second, anger and defiance. Belle is never the damsel in the story, even as it comes to her rescue in the woods. She has already sacrificed herself for her father so that he might live free, choosing to remain in the cursed castle. That hangs over the story with great weight, and she further stands her ground by refusing to comply with Beast’s orders, but here, as she explores the tower and essentially violates his private quarters, we see in her something more, perhaps tender. Her anger feels justified when he rebukes her efforts and it is her stringent defiance of him that actually has the strongest effect, showing him that she has no need for him (a sentiment echoed from the first moments of the film). This is incredibly important as it leaves Beast with no options for conventionally winning her heart, and makes his efforts in saving her from the wolves one of pure altruism.
Third, acceptance. It’s not his great power, nor the fact that he defended Belle from the wolves that has her stopping as she is about to leave him dying in the snow. It is his humanity. The monster who has to this point been living up to his form, has been nothing if not troublesome and mean-spirited. With what she has seen in his chamber, and then his inherent forgiveness and sacrifice, which might easily be seen as a gesture of personal punishment, Beast has made a significant transformation. What she sees lying at her feet is not the same creature whom she once believed. She is filled with acceptance for what he is, and in every way, he feels the same about her.
The whole thing is nearly dialogue-free, giving the scene a kind of operatic feel, especially layered in Alan Menken‘s terrific score. Exciting and emotionally-charged, this is an affecting bit of animation as we ourselves come to see the heart in the Beast and strength in Belle. Beauty and the Beast earns it place as one of the best in the genre for its sensational storytelling and love for the material. And a powerful scene where a man trapped by the traits that have come to define are shed in hope of saving the only girl who herself can save him is reason to watch. It’s a great cinematic moment.