A tale as old as time turns 25 this year. “Beauty and the Beast,” an undeniable classic in the Disney pantheon, is a rich film that represents a high point from one of the greatest eras of Disney filmmaking but to understand its place, diving even further into the past is necessary.
Disney scholarship is a wonderful thing that actually exists, and academic study of the now-sprawling company has led to the widely-accepted establishment of defined periods in Disney history. One of the most notable periods is referred to as the “Disney Golden Age,” which extended from 1937-1942 and included five films spanning from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to “Bambi”. The arrival of WWII cut the Golden Age short, bringing in budget cuts and floppy films that nearly destroyed the Disney company. But a prescient foray into television and a string of good films (“Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland”) saved the company and ushered in the Disney Silver Age, which lasted until Walt Disney’s death in 1966. After Disney’s death, the company was in a state of turmoil, so desperate for a guiding force that the phrase “What would Walt do?” became the mantra of the Disney offices. Without Walt — and, later, without his brother Roy, who was by all accounts a financial wizard — the Disney company was on the brink of collapse yet again.
So what saved Disney? Answer: the next chapter in Disney history, the Disney Renaissance.
In 1989, “The Little Mermaid” kicked off the Disney Renaissance, which constituted an era marked by technical and stylistic innovations, masterful storytelling and dynamic, sympathetic characters. “Tarzan,” released in 1999, is considered to be the last film of the Renaissance period. Routinely, the protagonists of Disney Renaissance films were misunderstood outsiders — think Mulan, Ariel, Quasimodo or Tarzan — and featured strong female leads who were cut from a different cloth than, say, “Sleeping Beauty”’s (released in 1959) Briar Rose, a character who infamously only has about 18 lines of dialogue in her own movie.
“Beauty and the Beast,” the third film of the Renaissance period, exemplifies many of the peak traits of the era and has rightly been being hailed as a masterpiece for over two decades. The iconic ballroom scene features a moving, 3-dimensional, CGI background that shifts and grows as Belle and the Beast waltz through the space; this creates an illusion of depth that more closely mirrors the effect of a camera dollying around them. This was cutting-edge technology in 1991, and the fact that it still holds up so beautifully is a testament to the skill of Disney’s artists and technicians.
In just over a year, a live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens will be hitting theaters. If it’s anything like the live-action “Cinderella” from 2015, it’ll be a carbon-copy of the animated film. But with more substantial characters and an intriguing story, the “Beauty and the Beast” reboot should have a stronger foundation than its live-action predecessor.
The protagonist, Belle, is a far cry from Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty — princesses who essentially rolled with their stories rather than directly influencing the plot themselves. Watch any of the first three princess films, and you’ll be amazed at how the plot just happens “around” the protagonists. Belle, on the other hand, continued the trend started by Ariel in “The Little Mermaid” — they’re two girls who know what they want, and they’re going to actively fight to get it. They cause their own problems and clean up their own messes. Also like Ariel, Belle is a misunderstood girl who yearns for something beyond her “provincial life.” Belle’s love of reading can’t be understated; her name may be the French word for “beauty,” but she’s more than just a pretty face — she’s got a brain to match that beauty. Belle exemplified a feminist trend in animated Disney features that began with Ariel and continued with Mulan, Jasmine, Meg, Rapunzel, Elsa and a plethora of others.
Critics and audiences alike loved the film. “Beauty and the Beast” was the first animated film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, a feat which no other animated film achieved until 2010. It won the Golden Globe for Best Picture — Musical or Comedy, in addition to winning Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (for the title song, “Beauty and the Beast”).