WFTB Score: 18/20
The plot: When eccentric inventor Maurice is held captive after seeking refuge in an enchanted castle, his daughter Belle makes the courageous decision to trade her freedom for his, sacrificing herself to the Beast who lives there. The Beast knows that Belle falling in love with him is his last chance to lift a curse, but even with a houseful of animate objects giving him advice, it seems impossible that he will be able to control his temper; certainly not against the baying townsfolk who pitch up at his gates.
Belle (voiced by Paige O’Hara) isn’t a typical young woman, at least not in the quiet French village where she lives with her eccentric father, inventor Maurice. Whereas the other girls are blonde, showy and only too keen to flutter their eyelashes at local stud Gaston (Richard White), Belle prefers the company of a good story, the sort that frees her mind and allows her to imagine a different sort of life to that she seems destined to live. Belle’s disinterest provokes Gaston all the more and he plots, with his idiot sidekick Lefou, to lure Belle into marriage; but tragedy intervenes when Maurice goes missing and Belle tracks him down to an enchanted castle, owned by a Beast (Robby Benson) who has been cursed with his appearance forever unless he can earn the love of a woman, and peopled with enchanted objects that were formerly his servants. Knowing none of the Beast’s history, Belle selflessly forsakes her freedom for her father’s but struggles to live with her new master’s anger, and after a row she flees, requiring him to rescue her from a pack of wolves. By degrees, the two come to appreciate each other’s qualities, but just as it seems they are about to fall in love, Belle discovers that her father is in danger and Beast lets her go, unwittingly opening himself up to attack when Belle – in order to save her father from being locked away in an asylum – reveals his existence to the villagers. Can Belle reach Beast and reveal her feelings before Gaston and his mob get to him?
Before I go any further, I should declare my hand. I have never felt any special love for Disney, and have never understood the appeal of their boring flagship mouse nor why anybody, young or old, would want to spend any time in theme parks stuffed full of the studio’s creations. Many of their recent successes, until they merged, were bought-in Pixar films and I have always thought the reputation of Disney as purveyors of magic for kids of all ages has been largely undeserved. Just so you know.
That said, Beauty and the Beast is brilliant. Utterly superb. Although the animation is largely traditional in feel, it has a distinctive style which makes the characters live: not too cute, and not too lifelike. For instance, Belle is not exactly a curly-haired blonde princess, and Beast, while capable of prowling and snarling like an animal, can also carry off civilised behaviour. More importantly still, the characterisation of each of the main characters is accomplished with humour and energy by the animators and actors alike, creating memorable roles throughout: from Belle to the bickering pair of Cogsworth and Lumiere (David Ogden Stiers and Jerry Orbach), right down to the gormless Lefou and Maurice’s horse Philippe. The enchanted house is a thing of wonder, Angela Lansbury’s Mrs Potts ordering the dishes about with enthusiasm; yet all the time the withering rose in the forbidden West Wing, a sign that Beast’s curse is destined to stay with him forever, anchors the action in serious drama. That any sort of affection should grow between Belle and the Beast appears implausible, but Linda Woolverton’s script orchestrates their encounters so that their love grows organically. The songs of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (to whom the film is dedicated) also help to accentuate the action, with witty lines and spritely tunes helping the film throughout its tight 81-minute running time.
In two places the songs and visuals come together to extraordinary effect. The first is for Be Our Guest, in which the kitchenware dances for Belle in a terrific copy of a lavish 1930s musical. Better still, though, is the title song. For Beauty and the Beast, the directors set up an intimate dance between the leads whilst Lansbury sings the lovely tune with enormous sympathy and feeling, then ramp up the emotions by showcasing a few brief but incredibly effective shots of the couple dancing in an extraordinary computer-generated ballroom. No doubt it’s the sort of thing that could be knocked up in a few hours these days, but the glittering, polished ballroom heightens the mood of the scene in an unexpected and totally unique way. To top it all, the film refuses to linger on this achievement and carries on with a moment of self-sacrifice from Beast that has you rooting for him right until the end against the vicious, arrogant Gaston.
Very few films are perfect, and some of Beauty and the Beast’s animation is a little rough: the mouths of the characters don’t always match their voices and ironically the post-transformation prince is, to quote Fargo, kinda funny looking. These are minor quibbles, though, for a film that brushes away cynicism with good humour, good tunes, and endless charm, all of which earned it an unprecedented Best Picture nomination. It didn’t win, of course, and perhaps that’s right; for this movie is a different kind of special. Beauty and the Beast isn’t perfect: but it’s absolutely magical.