How 'Beauty And The Beast' Changed Disney Animation – And Animated Feature Films – Forever

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today's column, he discusses the 1991 Best Picture Oscar nominee Beauty and the Beast.)

As the Disney Renaissance hit its first peak in the late 1980s, executive Jeffrey Katzenberg had a mantra when it came to the films that Walt Disney Animation Studios would continue to produce throughout the 1990s: "Bigger, better, faster, cheaper." The Little Mermaid had certainly achieved the first two goals of that aim, but making low-budget animated films on a tight schedule was a concern for animators. They were laser-focused on the second word of his mantra: "better". 

After the relative failure of The Rescuers Down Under, Disney Animation wasn't going to collectively lick its wounds and mope — they were already moving onto the next project. It was, like The Little Mermaid, an adaptation that had been through development at the studio as far back as the 1930s. It was, like The Little Mermaid, a film that would retell one of the most well-known fairy tales ever written. It wouldn't be cheaper, but Beauty and the Beast was bigger, better, and made on a shockingly fast schedule, to the point where it nearly missed its release date.

A Tale as Old as Time

Walt Disney had his eyes set on an adaptation of the French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but the timing never worked out. First, the studio suffered financial losses incurred by the initially muted reactions to films like Fantasia and Bambi, as well as by dedicating resources to making propaganda for the U.S. government in the midst of World War II. Then, in the 1950s, as the studio had a resurgence with films like Cinderella and Peter Pan, Disney's focus on the Disneyland theme park as well as a possible fear that the studio would be copying the success of Jean Cocteau's 1946 classic live-action version of the story left an animated version collecting dust. 

But the story of the fair maiden who falls in love with a beastly prince reared its head once more in the 1980s. Katzenberg and the Disney animators needed new stories if they wanted to keep releasing films on an annual basis. When the project was greenlit into production in 1987, it shared one very distinct characteristic with The Rescuers Down Under — there were no songs to be found. Katzenberg had initially asked British animation icon Richard Williams to helm the project, but he passed. (Williams was then working on the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and hoped to follow it up with a long-in-the-works project called The Thief and the Cobbler.) Williams' recommendation to take over was Richard Purdum, a fellow Brit who took on the project in a very different direction.

Beauty and the Beast would have gone in a different direction whether Purdum was there or not, if only because of a specific request Michael Eisner had. In his mind, this movie needed a screenwriter. That may seem like a basic necessity for...any film, but the world of Disney animation frequently utilized its story artists as opposed to screenwriters, in the same way that live-action films employ writers. Eisner, still unused to how stories came together in large, collaborative efforts in the animators' offices, all but demanded a screenwriter. The project then added Linda Woolverton to the team, previously known for her work on children's shows like Chip 'n' Dale Rescue Rangers and The Berenstain Bears

As noted in an oral history with Entertainment Weekly, Woolverton was aware of the fact that her style, and her commitment that the lead character of Beauty and the Beast shouldn't be the typically passive princess of Disney lore, wasn't making her friends: "I didn't make myself very popular." The film's producer, Don Hahn, said in the same oral history, "The storyboard artists weren't used to having a screenwriter in the room, and Linda, uh...Linda's manner at times could be combative." But even leaving Woolverton's style aside, Beauty and the Beast was going to have to go through major upheavals before it could even truly get off the ground.

A Dangerous Pastime

In 1989, Katzenberg was shown roughly 20 minutes of the footage Purdum had worked on, for a version of Beauty and the Beast that now lives on in the special features on various home-media releases of the 1991 classic. Purdum's take does have a winsome, beautiful lead named Belle, and there is an antagonistic man named Gaston who wants to marry her. And there's a Beast with enchanted objects in its mansion. That much is true. 

But the Purdum version was statelier and more dramatic in its presentation. The character designs were much different, and allowed for less of the whimsy inherent in the final film. The heroine is, like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty before her, beset upon by an imperious older woman; this time, it's her aunt, who wants to marry her off to Gaston. The enchanted objects were, with just one exception, both voiceless and faceless. And again, there were no songs. 

Though The Little Mermaid was a few months away from being released when he saw the test footage, Katzenberg had grown increasingly (and, as history bore out, correctly) convinced that the film about a sweet-hearted mermaid was going to be a game-changer for Disney. Though the studio's first sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, would eschew songs, Katzenberg saw an opportunity for music in Beauty and the Beast, courtesy of the same men who gave Ariel her voice, lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken.

A musical with talking objects was, for good or ill, not what Richard Purdum had signed up for, so he bowed out of the project. Thus, in essence, the studio had to start from scratch on Beauty and the Beast, all while still attempting to release a film by the end of 1991 to keep up its once-a-year pace. To replace Purdum, Katzenberg made the logical — in his mind — request; if Ashman and Menken would write the music and songs, why not have John Musker and Ron Clements take the reins just as they did with The Little Mermaid? It was that film, though, that led the duo to pass on the job — they needed time to relax before diving into their next project. Then, Katzenberg looked to two animators who hadn't directed anything beyond a five-minute short for the EPCOT Center theme park in Orlando: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

The Great Wide Somewhere

In fact, the project Musker and Clements were focusing on next, instead of Beauty, had been Ashman's passion for a while: a feature adaptation of the Middle Eastern fairy tale of Aladdin and the magical lamp. Though Musker and Clements would be able to more smoothly shift onto that project without working on Beauty and the Beast, Ashman and Menken were encouraged to join the director-free take on the French fairy tale. 

As recounted in the incredible and vital Disney documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, the shift in directors and music was coupled by the pre-production moving from London to upstate New York at a local Residence Inn. This enabled Ashman and Menken to work directly with Wise, Trousdale, Hahn, and Woolverton. Though it was a fairly unheard-of production shift, the movie was necessitated by something simple and tragic. Howard Ashman was dying.

For a long time, very few people knew that Ashman had been diagnosed with AIDS. He'd decided to tell Katzenberg soon after The Little Mermaid opened; the executive's immediate response was to offer any help the studio could provide, hence the pre-production shift in location. Until the after-party at the Oscars ceremony where they won for The Little Mermaid, even Alan Menken hadn't known of Ashman's health problems — just the writer's family and his partner, Bill Lauch. 

It was March of 1990 when Menken found out. Not even a full year later, Ashman would be gone. But the intervening period was one of tireless work on the composing team's part, to create songs where none had previously existed and add joy where there had been a staid story and dull, starchy characters.

For Ashman, the production of Beauty and the Beast may have served as a way to stave off the disease ravaging his body. He and the other filmmakers holed up in upstate New York did end up following in a few of the footsteps of the Cocteau masterpiece, such as giving Gaston more of a front-and-center antagonistic role. The most notable difference, and one that was a huge key to the film's success, was giving personality to the household objects. 

The changes were drastic enough that Katzenberg approved a script in the early part of 1990. A number of Disney animators were tasked not just with storyboarding the script, but going back and forth between Burbank and New York, without fully grasping why. They just knew they had to get to work quickly – though the early 1990s were a far cry from how studios plant a metaphorical flag on certain dates years in advance for untitled films, the end of 1991 was coming up fast and they had to get a film ready for release.

Casting the Great White Way

The cast for this overhauled film would have to line up with its updated musical leanings. And just as The Little Mermaid had largely focused on the right-sounding voices even if they weren't automatically famous, so too was the case for Beauty and the Beast. Some of the latter film's cast members were already recognizable to the general public, but called upon for their pipes, not name recognition. 

Though the voices of Belle and Ariel sound somewhat similar, Jodi Benson wasn't called upon to play both characters. For Belle, Disney looked towards another Broadway ingenue, Paige O'Hara. O'Hara, whose voice called to mind for co-director Kirk Wise no one less than Judy Garland, noted in an interview that she imagined her work on a cast recording of Show Boat might have gotten Ashman's attention. Like many of the film's cast members, she'd spent time on Broadway, in the original cast of the 80s musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Belle's other half, The Beast, would be played, though slightly enhanced through modulation technology, by Robby Benson, one of the few non-stage performers in the cast (and notably, the Beast doesn't sing a whole lot in the film).

Unlike The Little Mermaid, when it came to some of the bigger songs, Disney went for all-stars of the stage. For the Maurice Chevalier-like candelabra Lumiere, they went for Jerry Orbach (perhaps best known for his work on Law and Order, but he won a Tony for his work in the original production of Chicago). Cogsworth would be voiced by TV and stage actor David Ogden Stiers, perhaps best known at the time for his role on the CBS show M*A*S*H. And for the charming Mrs. Potts, they went to undisputed national treasure Angela Lansbury.

It was all well and good to get this group of actors, because they were going to be given a series of musical masterpieces to bring to life.

Something There

Howard Ashman wrote most of the lyrics to the six songs in Beauty and the Beast from his deathbed. The work that he and Menken had performed on The Little Mermaid breathed fresh life into the Disney animated musical. But Beauty and the Beast was a bolder step forward, an unabashed, confident film where the music drove the story as much as any amount of written dialogue. The importance of music is clear as soon as the title card goes away, and the first musical number, "Belle", begins.

Beauty and the Beast, end credits and all, clocks in at just 84 minutes. But a whole life is lived, in the best way possible, in that brief period, starting with "Belle". The seven-minute sequence tells the audience exactly what it needs to know about the conflict that sets Belle off into the world of a mysterious prince and his castle. She seems to be the only well-read young woman in town (or, at least, the only young woman in town interested in reading), and chafes at the confines of the small unnamed town. In spite of this, the town's most handsome man, Gaston (voiced by the booming Richard White) lusts after Belle precisely because it's "only she who is beautiful as me". Within the sung-through scene, we learn that Belle's kindly father Maurice is both an inventor and perceived as being a nutcase, and that Belle loves him dearly.

Most important, though, "Belle" is just a brilliant piece of musicianship from both Menken and Ashman. It's as close as you'll get in the Disney discography to the work of Stephen Sondheim. The playful use of the greeting "Bonjour" coupled with the background singing from the townspeople just going about their day fills in so much life in the small town Belle's ready to move on from. Ashman and Menken were reportedly concerned with how the executives would react to "Belle", but it's no surprise they fell for it. Who couldn't?

There was only one number in Beauty and the Beast that didn't quite make the cut. "Human Again" is an extended sequence you may recognize, thanks it to having been placed into a longer cut of the film that premiered in theaters in the early 2000s. The sequence features many of the Beast's servants, stuck as household objects, pining for the time when they could be...well, human again. To avoid timeline issues in the story, it was removed from the 1991 release, only to be revived in that Special Edition; the sweet "Something There" took the place of "Human Again" in the original release, bridging Belle's softening to the Beast as she rapidly falls for him.

The title song has its own special lore, having shifted from a more fast-paced number to the slower ballad everyone recognizes. When Ashman and Menken lighted upon Lansbury to sing the number, she was skeptical but willing to at least record a test track that could presumably be improved upon. As mentioned by the filmmakers in making-of featurettes, that test track is what you hear in the final film; no reason to improve upon perfection.

Hitting the Emotional Beats

If you wanted to, you could pick apart Beauty and the Beast to the bone. It is arguably a film that makes more emotional than logical sense, from its very setup. A callow, selfish young prince cruelly turns away a haggard old woman, only to learn that crone is actually a beautiful sorceress in disguise. She punishes him by transforming him into a monstrous beast, and transforming the people who work for him into household objects. His only chance of being saved is falling in love, and being loved in return, by his 21st birthday, when the last petal of an enchanted rose will fall. 

It's to the credit of Trousdale, Wise, Woolverton, Ashman, Menken, Hahn, and the countless animators working on Beauty and the Beast that many of the logic-based questions related to this story are elided past without feeling like you're missing out. You could wonder how old the prince was to begin with, how it is that no one in the small village nearby seems aware of the massive castle and its denizens, where the prince's parents are (or ever were), etc. And you could ask about the timeline from when Belle meets the Beast — roughly 20 minutes into the film — to when she falls for him. No doubt, modern Disney animated films like Frozen, in which a lead character is upbraided for falling in love with someone immediately, seek to question if not outright criticize the actions of characters like Belle. 

But all of the plot-based questions you can ask, all of the "Everything Wrong With Movie X" videos you could see on YouTube, cannot cut to the heart of what makes this film special. At the time, Beauty and the Beast felt like a genuine sea change for Disney, a case where the animation studio had cracked a previously impossible nut. The romance at its core may occur fairly quickly — all told, Belle and the Beast are only in each other's spheres for about an hour — but what matters is that the filmmakers took the title to heart. Each character is the protagonist, even if the film opens with a song about Belle. The Beast is given as much of a backstory and a life as Belle herself is, thus making his eventual transformation all the more potent.

Put Our Service to the Test

Though the script and songs are full of cleverness and emotional depth, it's the animation that does the lion's share of the work here. One of the film's most highly praised, and (at the time) technologically advanced, sequences fuses hand-drawn and computer animation: the ballroom scene. At this point of the film, Belle has softened considerably to the Beast, who himself has become much nicer despite his fierce exterior. The Beast has saved Belle's life from a group of bloodthirsty wolves, and has also essentially gifted her his massive, multi-story library for the bibliophile. They celebrate with a romantic dinner and dancing, scored to "Beauty and the Beast" as Mrs. Potts serenades them. And the ballroom in which the characters dance was entirely created via computer.

The CAPS system was changing the way that hand-drawn animation could be accomplished, utilizing computers without becoming the dominant tool. But Disney's animators were embodying the spirit of the man who created the studio by pushing the format forward in other ways. Even now, nearly 30 years later, the blend of hand-drawn and computer animation in the ballroom scene is surprisingly seamless, all the more so because of how quickly it all came together. As the technology improved throughout the late 1980s, it became clear that using computer animation wouldn't cause the hand-drawn animated film surrounding it to suffer. 

Moreover, the way the camera was able to operate within the computer-animated space allowed for a more fluid style of movement. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, camera movement in hand-drawn animation at Disney was accomplished with the multiplane camera. It was an arduous process where multiple animation cels were placed in a specific order as a large camera faced all the cels downward; each cel plane would be shifted in speed and distance as the camera filmed to suggest movement where none would otherwise exist. With computer animation, a similar technique could occur swiftly. Thus, you have the ballroom scene, as the camera descends from on high to meet the two young lovers on the floor, before swooping upwards to a chandelier and a classically painted ceiling on which cherubs seem to watch the dance unfold.

Even leaving aside the technological leaps of the film, and of this scene, the character animation is doing as much of the acting as O'Hara and Benson do. Glen Keane, who served as supervising animator on the Beast, and his team are able to imbue rich emotion on the Beast's face with every little gesture. When Belle, during the dance, rests her head upon his animalistic chest, the Beast, both delighted and shocked, turns to his servants Cogsworth and Lumiere, who both silently cheer him on. 

The flood of emotions is equally matched by the Beast's emotional transformation in the climax. By this point, Gaston's brutish and extreme masculinity has won over the majority of the villagers. Upon learning that Belle's father Maurice isn't making up stories, and that there really is a Beast nearby, they head to the castle with torches and pitchforks. 

During the melee, Gaston heads to the top of the castle to face off against the Beast, initially despondent at Belle having left the castle to care for her father. But the Beast gets the upper hand — both because of his own strength and because Belle returns just in time — and could easily drop Gaston off one of the parapets of the castle. Then, without the need for any dialogue, he realizes it's the wrong move. The way the Beast has a genuine epiphany, whether because he's remembering how cruelly he acted to the old crone in the prologue or because he knows Belle is watching and doesn't want to harm Gaston in front of her, is accomplished through Alan Menken's wonderful, French-inspired score and by the animation from Keane and others. 

From Coast to Coast

By the time Beauty and the Beast opened, its production had become a truly bicoastal affair. It wasn't just that animators would go back and forth between Burbank and upstate New York to work with Ashman and Menken. By now, Disney had opened the Disney/MGM Studios theme park in Walt Disney World; at the time, the park was only half of the story, and the other half was a fully functioning production facility. Though most of Beauty was created in California, a small team did work in Orlando on scenes like the show-stopping "Be Our Guest" number. (That musical sequence was itself altered — an earlier version of the story would have had Belle's father Maurice as the audience, not Belle herself.) 

As quickly as the film was coming together, Jeffrey Katzenberg was convinced that the film was going to be extremely special. That March, Disney convened some critics and members of the Academy in New York for a special, in-progress screening of the film. The "Belle" sequence was fully completed in color, but the rest was in black-and-white. It was the studio's first step in a campaign to bring a level of respectability to animation that it hadn't seen since the early days of Disney. Though the film was incomplete, the reaction from the crowd was clear and effusive. The filmmaking team immediately went to St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, as documented in Hahn's Waking Sleeping Beauty. There, they informed Howard Ashman of what occurred; Hahn said the film "would be a great success. Who'd have thought?" Ashman, now so ill that he had lost his sight and was extremely frail, whispered, "I would." 

A week later, Howard Ashman died at the age of 40. He never saw even an unfinished print of the film that would cement his legendary status. Ashman's death hit everyone hard, up to and including Jeffrey Katzenberg. According to DisneyWar, he saw in Ashman a kindred spirit with Disney himself. Arguably, there are few other people who have had the same level of influence on animation in the last 40 years as Howard Ashman. (Possibly only John Lasseter could claim such a title.) Beauty and the Beast served as a forceful capper to his influence. Ashman had been right to bring back the world of the musical to Disney; The Little Mermaid proved it was possible, and Beauty and the Beast proved it was necessary.

Later in 1991, at the New York Film Festival, another in-progress screening wowed audiences to the point where it became clear that this was a film with the potential to be a crossover success, as much to adults as to children. The film's success was coupled with a general sense of success among Disney's animators. Michael Eisner announced that Disney would build the animators a brand-new studio, to take the place of the Glendale offices they'd been forced into throughout most of the 1980s. 

A Groundbreaking Success

Beauty and the Beast opened wide across the United States on November 22, 1991. It wasn't the only animated film getting a wide release that day, either. Just as Universal Pictures had stepped up competition for animated fare with An American Tail in 1986 and The Land Before Time in 1988 (on the same day as Oliver & Company), they released An American Tail: Fievel Goes West opposite Beauty. In 1986, An American Tail had equaled the box office of The Great Mouse Detective. The same was not true with the sequel. Beauty and the Beast outgrossed Fievel by three times over — the former made nearly $10 million in its opening weekend, and the latter just over $3 million.

Beauty and the Beast, though, was not the kind of out-of-the-box hit people associate with modern animation. In total, it grossed $145 million at the domestic box office in its initial release. (Adjusted for inflation, the film made $315 million domestically.) As much as critics loved the film, Beauty and the Beast was never the top film at the box office throughout its lengthy run. In its first weekend, it was topped by films like The Addams Family and Cape Fear. But it stuck around, thanks to Disney's shrewd and aggressive marketing.

And then, of course, there were the Oscars. The Walt Disney Company was no stranger to the golden boy. Even now, Walt Disney holds the record for the most Academy Awards in history, with 29 victories from 51 nominations. No single person has topped either of those records, in spite of the man having been dead for more than 50 years. But Beauty and the Beast would be a true, unadulterated first. 

The film unsurprisingly received Oscar nominations for its score and three of its songs, "Be Our Guest", "Belle" and the eventual winner, "Beauty and the Beast". The one historic nomination was for Best Picture. Though Best Picture nominee Mary Poppins featured animation, no fully animated feature film had ever been nominated for the highest Oscar of all. (Even now, after Up and Toy Story 3 were nominated for Best Picture, they got the honor in a field of ten nominees. Beauty was one of just five nominees.) 

Beauty didn't end up winning the big award — the eventual winner was another film that seeped into the zeitgeist in 1991, The Silence of the Lambs. But it won for Score, Song, and received a special Oscar for technical achievement. Add to that the film's spot as the third highest-grossing film of the year, behind only Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the 22 million VHS copies it sold upon home-media release, and there was no question: Beauty and the Beast was an unqualified smash hit.

Though the studio had lost a friend and creative partner in Howard Ashman — who receives a dedication in the closing credits, for having given "a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul" — they were otherwise at the peak of their game. The notion of the Disney Renaissance being such a fruitful era for Disney became reality in the early 1990s. Beauty and the Beast was the next step forward for the animators, after the brief hiccup of The Rescuers Down Under. It was a creative masterpiece and paid off financially in every possible way, the best of both worlds.

Even with the loss of Howard Ashman, Disney was about to reunite the team behind its first success of the Renaissance, for a film of even bigger magnitude.

***

Next Time: Hop on a magic carpet and fly to Agrabah with Disney Animation.