With Beauty And The Beast, Angela Lansbury Gave Disney Animation Its Most Beautiful Theme Song

For most people my age, I imagine our first encounter with the dearly departed Dame Angela Lansbury was as the voice of the kindly Mrs. Potts in Disney's 1991 masterpiece "Beauty and the Beast." Not only do I consider this film to be Disney's finest animated film, but I feel it to be the greatest animated picture of all time. It also would be jockeying for the top spot of the best movie musical of all time, including live-action films. This is due in large part of two people: Howard Ashman and Alan Menken.

While their primary audience for the three Disney films they worked on –- "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Aladdin" -– were children, the songwriters didn't lower their standards for musical complexity, wit, or emotion to appease them. They trusted the stories and characters would be captivating enough for younger viewers that they could write detailed, gorgeously melodic ballads and not worry the kiddos would get antsy in the theater. Famously, producer Jeffrey Katzenberg tried to cut "Part of Your World" from "The Little Mermaid" for this very worry, and look how that song has lived on today.

Their greatest achievement in this regard is the Oscar-winning titular tune from "Beauty and the Beast," as performed by Angela Lansbury. The song is designed to be simple, but by Menken's own admission in the "Composing a Classic" DVD feature, it "was the hardest song to write in the whole movie." To crystallize the essence of love, change, and storytelling in less than three minutes required endless hours of work. But when you take that deceptively simple melody, have the sweet and disarmingly powerful Angela Lansbury perform it, and play it out over one of the most beautifully animated scenes of all time, you have a bonafide classic movie moment.

'Tale as old as time, song as old as rhyme'

"Beauty and the Beast" was so difficult because Howard Ashman was in the final stages of his life due to complications from AIDS. Ashman didn't even get to see the release of the film. His pain was so agonizing that eventually the production moved to New York so he didn't have to fly out to Los Angeles all the time. If you're an artist who's struggling that much and counting the days you have left, I guess all you can do is throw yourself entirely into the what you are making, and you can feel that emotion in "Beauty and the Beast."

He and Menken were writing specifically for Angela Lansbury, but the actress was quite hesitant about performing it. She would have been in her mid-50s at the time, and though the melody is hummed by all, the song asks a lot of the singer. In the "Ever a Surprise: A Portrait of Howard Ashman" featurette, Lansbury said:

"I listened to it, and I thought, 'Oh, my goodness. I don't know quite whether I can pull this one off. Although, I loved the idea ... You've got to feel that they're with you, they believe in what you're going to give them, and that what you're going to give them is what they're looking for. It's a combination of all those things, and Howard certainly gave me that feeling. He trusted me."

The result is a number I rarely find I don't weep at. The intimacy of Lansbury's voice mixed with the sweeping orchestrations and revolutionary camera movements bring out a primal reaction in me I can't control. Céline Dion and Peabo Bryson's version was the hit at the time, but decades later, all we remember is Angela Lansbury.