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.

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

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