Disney Classics #30: Beauty and the Beast

This was the first animated movie to get nominated for the Best Picture at the Oscars, and while I’m a big fan of that year’s winner (The Silence of the Lambs), this would have been a deserved winner, because it is, for me, easily one of the best movies Disney have ever made. It’s just wonderful.

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Adapting the old fairy tale, this deals with a spoilt prince who is cursed after refusing to help a beggar woman, who turns out to be an enchantress. Due to his vanity and superficial view, he is transformed into a Beast (Robby Benson), the castle enchanted. He has ten years to learn how to love and be loved in return, or he will remain that way for ever.

Years pass. In a nearby village, newcomer Belle (Paige O’Hara) is frustrated by life in the little village, where the locals regard her as odd given her free spirited nature, love of reading and  desire for adventure. Her father, Maurice (Rex Everheart), is an eccentric inventor, which further adds to their status as oddballs and outcasts.

However, Belle’s beauty has attracted the attention of local huntsman Gaston (Richard White), who wants her for his bride. Belle finds his brash, chauvinistic character unattractive and doesn’t want to be trapped in the mundane life of being his housewife.

Maurice leaves town and lost in the woods on the way home, stumbles across the castle, where he encounters the enchanted residents, the prince’s servants who have been transformed into magical objects linked to their former roles. Captured by the Beast, who angrily imprisons him, Maurice despairs.

When his horse arrives at their house Belle sets out to find him, and discovering the castle she finds him, but the Beast refuses to let him go. Seeing that her father is unwell, Belle offers to take his place and remains at the castle. The servants, particularly the Prince’s former valet Lumiere (Jerry Orbach), believe that Belle may be the key to their salvation, if the Beast and she can fall in love. But can the Beast control his temper, will Belle be able to see beyond his monstrous exterior? And is there a good man beneath the fur and claws?

I love this flick, I think I saw it in the cinema when it came out, but I know for a fact that we had a VHS copy that got a lot of viewings over the years. It’s hands down one of the strongest Disney movies, with a wonderful script, amazing songs and beautiful artwork. They take an old fairy tale but give it new life and create memorable, lovable characters.

Belle is one of my favourites of the Disney Princesses’, this clever, compassionate woman who shows courage and integrity throughout. She’s willing to put herself at risk to protect those she cares about, and stands up for herself, wanting to find her own place in the world. The Beast, too is a strong male lead, a brooding presence who starts to learn to show his softer side, to curb his temper and to be more considerate of others.

The sequence where he and Belle slowly start seeing something that wasn’t there before is lovely, a montage of sweet moments which shows their developing understanding and appreciation for the other. It’s helped by “Something There” which is a wonderful song, featuring the leads, Orbach and the legend that is Angela Lansbury.

The music across the board is wonderful with a long list of great songs dotted throught, the theme song is gorgeously romantic and the ballroom scene is still stunning to this day. There’s also Gaston’s villain song, which is basically the man himself and the villagers listing how amazing he is, possibly the most boastful song in a Disney movie until Maui’s “You’re Welcome” in Moana.

Gaston is a great villain too, because there’s something utterly human about him. His arrogant, manipulative nature is detestable, but he’s a hugely entertaining on screen presence, all preening posing and dumb confidence. The scene where he rallies the villagers into a mob is a terrifying glimpse of how quickly a showy blowhard can play on people’s fears to demonise others and incite them to violence.

Circling back to music, I have to mention “Be Our Guest”, which is this utterly delightful large scale musical number where Lumiere and several other characters delight in being able to entertain and exercise their skills. It’s ridiculously catchy, and Orbach’s fake French accent is a delight throughout. It’s easily on of my favourite Disney songs and just glorious to watch.

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The Little Mermaid might have started the Disney Renaissance, but for me this is the film where they really threw down a marker and said, “we’re back, and we’re better”. It’s just timeless, magical storytelling, and years later still one I regularly return to. It deserved the critical acclaim and the nominations, and ranks at the very top of the Disney rankings as an utter classic and gem of a movie.

Disney score: 10/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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