A Study in Disney: ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991)

| January 10, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Beauty and the Beast (1991) - Movie Review : Alternate Ending

If The Little Mermaid is credited with starting the Disney renaissance, then Beauty and the Beast was proof that it wasn’t a fluke.  When it was released 1991, it had been only six years since Disney’s legendary animation department had fallen into a dark creative pit with The Black Cauldron.  Six years isn’t such a long time but from a business and artistic standpoint the road from The Black Cauldron to Beauty and the Beast must have seemed like centuries.

Beauty and the Beast was an artistic milestone, the best film that Disney had ever made in any genre since its Golden Age and a film that was warmly and even enthusiastically received by the artistic community.  That’s important because at this point, animation had largely been seen as second-rate kiddie stuff, a colorful time-killer to offer the little ones to keep them occupied.  Very few saw the medium as an artistic statement.  Beauty and the Beast would change that and help Disney’s renaissance inspire a game-changing reevaluation of the form that exists to this day.  Today animated films are advertised and released with the same enthusiasm as any live-action film that you can name.  Beauty and the Beast was so welcomed by the Hollywood community that it became the first animated feature ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture – a feat that wouldn’t happen again until Pixar’s Up eighteen years later.

One difference in Beauty and the Beast is that it came from a source that was not inherently designed for small children.  Other Disney features previously came from children’s books like Peter Pan and Robin Hood and Alice in Wonderland; and fairy tales like Snow White and Cinderella, but the tale of “Beauty and the Beast” never seemed like kid stuff.  Had it been written today, you would probably find it in the “Teen” section of your local bookstore.

Disney’s version was loosely based on Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont’s version of the classic fairy tale with elements borrowed from Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film version, all laid on the template of a Broadway musical.  In turning the story into a musical, it could function much in the same way as The Little Mermaid, giving us a love story but involving us through song as well as good storytelling.  Plus, in fleshing out the love story, it also improves on some of the fundamental flaws of The Little Mermaid, namely that the relationship between the two lovers is allowed to grow and change based on their personalities.  The music and the over-arching details of the love story were not in the original plans, but they elevated Beauty and the Beast into something better than anyone could have imagined.

The story is not complex, but in its simplicity, it is a great work of art.  It tells a story we are all familiar with and adds elements that other animated films lacked (even films that would follow).   Belle and the Beast, to the larger world represent an odd union, one that the people of her village seem to have trained themselves not to understand.  She’s in love with a man who is, by all outward appearances, a monster.  By the time she is taken prisoner, it has already been established that the people of her village are narrow-minded and look negatively upon those perceived to be different.  She’s an oddball because she’s a woman whose forward trajectory has nothing to do with the pursuit of a man.  She reads books, something that most women of her town are encouraged to avoid.  Gaston, the town bully, puts the larger prevailing opinion into words: “It is not right for a woman to read.  Soon she starts getting ideas and . . . thinking.”

Despite the fact that Belle and the Beast end up together when he returns to human form what is important to note is that Belle fell in love with Beast while he was a beast and did not know that he had ever been human nor that he was cursed.  She fell for him heart and soul beyond his looks.  Outwardly they were at odds with one another, a union that was frowned upon by society at large.  If you think about it, this is something that lies at the heart of the Disney brand. 

The Walt Disney Company, as it stands today, is in support of cultural diversity and gender identity.  In the age of more cultural diversity, mainly in the 90s and in the first decades of the millennium there has been a push toward trying to recognize other cultures.  Of course, it can be debated on how they go about it, but it can be admired in the sense that the company does not have to do this – at least they’re not turning a blind eye.  It is a recognition of the fact that they choose to make this part of their brand.  Disney has been especially supportive of Gays and lesbians.  Walt Disney World, for example, is now famous for Gay Days, a loosely organized event that is held on the first Saturday in June in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their families and friends can enjoy the park in what is now recognized as one of the largest gay pride events in the world.

Such support does loosely tie in with the underlying message of Beauty and the Beast.  Remember that this movie came out in 1991, when cultural diversity was still grossly overlooked.  The fact that it is a story about two people whom society despises “come together on their own” and find one another not through looks, but through their shared humanity.  The uniqueness of their union speaks to couples whose story is outside the norm whether it be mixed-race couples, couples of different backgrounds, different religions, gay and lesbian couples, anyone whose romantic or friendly affiliations don’t fit the “normal” social patterns.  Beauty and the Beast may be a tale as old as time, but its underlying message is surprisingly forward thinking.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.