THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘Beauty and the Beast’

The one that made history.

In 1990, the dawn of a new decade also marked the advent of a new age of Disney animation. After the staggering critical and commercial success of The Little Mermaid and the groundbreaking technical achievements of The Rescuers Down Under, the studio began to feel like the days when Walt Disney roamed the halls. After facing an uncertain future throughout the 1980s, the animation team were preparing to unleash one of their finest achievements. And it would be a film that would break records in more ways than one.

The idea of adapting Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th-century fairy tale Beauty and the Beast first began way back in the late 1930s. After the staggering success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt began to look for other classic folk tales to adapt into feature-length animated films. While the studio briefly began developing de Beaumont’s tale, the project was shelved at the outbreak of World War II in the 1940s and never touched again, possibly due to the success of a 1946 live-action French film adaptation by Jean Cocteau.

In 1987, the project was finally dusted off and placed in the hands of British director Richard Purdum, who began work on an adaptation with producer Don Hahn from Disney’s new satellite animation studio in London. At the request of Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Beauty and the Beast became the first Disney animated film to employ the use of a screenwriter. In the past, animated films were workshopped through storyboards before a script was crafted. As such, children’s television show writer Linda Woolverton was assigned to write the first draft script.

Despite rumblings of the progress of The Little Mermaid and its musical numbers, Purdum originally planned Beauty and the Beast as a non-musical production. When he presented the initial storyboards to Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg in 1989, the reaction was decidedly flat. Katzenberg ordered the production to scrap everything they had worked on and start over, leading to Purdum’s resignation just a few months later. Katzenberg was pushing Purdum to craft a musical in the same vein as The Little Mermaid, and it simply wasn’t what he had signed up for.

After a test screening of The Little Mermaid, Katzenberg was confident the film was set to be a roaring success, leading to the only logical conclusion; the film’s directors John Musker and Ron Clements should direct Beauty and the Beast and its music should be written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. After an arduous production of more than three years, Musker and Clements were exhausted and couldn’t fathom the idea of tackling another animated feature so soon. Truth be told, the pair and Ashman had their sights focused on another project involving a flying carpet and a magic genie.

Katzenberg instead offered the film to first-time feature directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, who had recently completed a short film for an attraction at Disney’s EPCOT theme park in Florida. Concerned over their lack of experience, Katzenberg implored both Menken and Ashman to join the production to help lead the script development and its new musical focus. There was just one tragic problem; Ashman was dying of complications from AIDS.

Unbeknownst to the entire Disney team, Ashman had been diagnosed with AIDS during the production of The Little Mermaid. At the time, there was still misguided fear and panic over the potential contagious properties of the virus. Ashman refused to allow the disease to affect the film’s production, choosing to instead throw himself into his work and only reveal his diagnosis to Katzenberg after The Little Mermaid had opened in 1989. Menken wasn’t informed until after the Academy Awards in March 1990 to avoid ruining their triumphant moment.

To accommodate for Ashman’s ailing health, the entire pre-production unit was moved from London to Residence Inn in Fishkill, New York, which was close to Ashman’s home. It was here Wise, Trousdale, Hahn, Woolverton, Menken, and Ashman hashed out the draft script, where an antagonist named Gaston was created and the roles of the previously silent animated household objects were given distinct personalities to liven up the narrative.

Katzenberg approved the team’s final script in early 1990 and storyboarding soon furiously began, given the production team now had less than two years to complete the film. With the production based in Disney’s studio in Glendale, California, animators constantly flew back and forth between Los Angeles and New York for storyboard approvals from Ashman, though none were told why. Working from Ashman’s deathbed, the lyricist and Menken continued writing the film’s soundtrack of musical numbers.

To aid with the shortened production time, the animation team employed the use of the Computer Animation Production System, which had seen great success on the creation of The Rescuers Down Under. The system allowed for a wide range of colours, particularly the line effects on the characters and the ability to create light and shade during key sequences. The animators were also able to simulate the classic Disney multiplane technique where the camera can move within separate layers of animation to create the illusion of depth.

But the true advantage of CAPS would arrive with the construction of Beast and Belle’s now-famous waltz sequence, where the animators were able to construct an entirely computer-generated ballroom for the camera to move around the two characters in 360-degree motion within a simulated 3D space. It allowed the animators the ability to swoop and twirl around the room, almost dancing in perfect unison with the two star-crossed lovers, thus creating one of the most iconic moments in Disney’s history. The sequence was so well-received, it encouraged the studio executives to further invest in computer animation technology.

For the central role of Belle, Katzenberg originally considered casting Jodi Benson, aka the voice of Ariel in The Little Mermaid, but felt it was best to avoid confusion by allowing each Disney princess voice to align with one performer. As such, Disney saw over 500 actresses for the role including Broadway performer Paige O’Hara, who had read about the project in an article in The New York Times. Ashman was familiar with O’Hara’s work on the Broadway stage and had already been eyeing the actress for the role. After five auditions for various members of the production team, O’Hara received a call on her 30th birthday informing her she had won the role.

In the roles of the animated household objects Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts, Ashman suggested casting veteran actors to give the film the gravitas it truly needed. Beloved stage and screen stars Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, and Angela Lansbury were soon cast to bring the roles to life. For the film’s title track, Ashman and Menken asked Lansbury to perform the song, but, amazingly, she did not think her voice was up to the task. As a favour to the composers, she recorded one single take of the song, which consequently left everyone in the studio in a mess of tears. That one take is the version you hear in the film.

Echoing the musical structure of The Little Mermaid, the songs of Beauty and the Beast closely mirrored the narrative purposes of its predecessor, tapping into the magic formula Menken and Ashman had uncovered. The opening number “Belle” stood as the film’s “I Want” song, much in the same vein as “Part of Your World,” where we learn everything need to know about our protagonist. “Gaston” reflected similar sentiments to “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” allowing us a glimpse inside the mind of our villain. The lively and extravagant musical number “Be Our Guest” was our new “Under the Sea.” And, of course, we needed a love song in the form of “Beauty and the Beast,” much in the same wheelhouse as “Kiss the Girl.”

In an unprecedented move and a key sign of Katzenberg’s faith in the project, a progress-version of the film was screening for film critics and members of the Academy in New York on March 10, 1991. While much of the film was still screened in black-and-white and only the opening “Belle” sequence was fully animated, the response from the crowd was rapturous, much to the delight of Katzenberg and the entire production team, bar one noticeable absentee.

By this point, Ashman’s health had deteriorated to the point of hospitalisation at New York’s St. Vincent’s Hospital. He weighed just 80 pounds, had lost his sight, and could barely speak. At the conclusion of the press screening, members of the production team raced to the hospital to inform Ashman how well the film had been received, with Hahn declaring, “It’s going to be a great success. Who’d have thought?” Ashman smiled and whispered, “I would have.” Just four days later, Ashman died from heart failure caused by the AIDS virus at the age of just 40 years old. While the entire production team were devastated over Ashman’s death, they pushed on, determined to complete the film in his memory and see his final work receive the acclaim it deserved.

Boosted by the success of the first screening, Katzenberg arranged to have Beauty and the Beast shown at the New York Film Festival on September 29, 1991, marking the first time a Disney film had screened at the prestigious festival. At this stage, the film was roughly 70% completed, leaving the remaining 30% to be shown through storyboards and pencil sketches. Despite its unfinished appearance, at the conclusion of the screening, the film received a ten-minute-long standing ovation from the typically difficult New York audience. Katzenberg was convinced they had a major film event on their hands.

Beauty and the Beast was released on November 22, 1991, to widespread acclaim from critics. The Washington Post called the film “a near-masterpiece,” The New York Times considered it “fresh and altogether triumphant in its own right, and Roger Ebert even boldly claimed the film was “a legitimate contender for Oscar consideration as Best Picture of the Year.” The film grossed over $145 million in the U.S. and a further $186 million internationally to end 1991 as the third-highest-grossing film of the year. It broke the record for the most successful animated film of all time and became the first animated film to pass $100 million at the U.S. box office.

And then awards season rolled around. In a first for an animated film, Beauty and the Beast won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, in addition to Best Original Score and Best Original Song. When the nominations for the 64th Academy Awards were announced on February 19, 1992, something unprecedented occurred. Not only had Beauty and the Beast received more nominations than any animated film in history (six in total), it became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture, just as Ebert had predicted.

On March 30, 1992, Beauty and the Beast won Academy Awards for both Best Original Score and Best Original Song for its title track, which Ashman’s partner Bill Lauch accepted on his behalf. Lauch delivered a speech noting this was the first Academy Award given posthumously to someone taken by AIDS and encouraged those watching to offer the kind of love and support Ashman had received from the Disney production team during his battle with the disease.

In the end, Beauty and the Beast stood as the bittersweet swansong of one of the finest talents both stage and screen had ever known. Ashman’s premature death robbed the world of the beautiful music he still had to offer, but we are eternally blessed for what he left behind. Many have speculated it was the creation of Beauty and the Beast which kept Ashman alive in his final years.

Even as his health continued to deteriorate, his commitment and determination to the project never faltered. With AIDS being a terminal diagnosis at the time, Ashman knew his time was running out, and he was clearly resolved to make his final work his absolute best. As a mark of respect, the film is dedicated in his honour, with the end credits beginning, “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman 1950–1991.”

As with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast was another remarkable fusion of music and story, with Menken and Ashman’s songs driving the entire narrative of the film. Every song is a work of art, with accompanying animation to bring Ashman’s evocative lyrics to life. There are few moments in Disney’s musical history as visually spectacular and musically thrilling as “Be Our Guest.” Nor is there a better love song than “Beauty and the Beast,” complemented by that animated waltz to truly capture your heart. It’s little wonder Beauty and the Beast became the first (and only) soundtrack from an animated film to be nominated for Best Album at the Grammy Awards.

Continuing the blazing trail set by Ariel, Belle is an independent, intelligent female protagonist who wants more from her life than just marrying the first braindead jock who comes courting. The earlier Disney princesses had always stood as relics of the past. Despite its narrative being set in the past, Belle represented a modern woman who refused to bow to society’s expectations of her. And, with its curious love story of a beautiful woman falling in love with a hideous beast, the narrative spoke to the value of someone’s inner beauty. Dig deeper beneath the dazzling music and animation and there’s far more depth to Beauty and the Beast than you may realise.

The unrivalled success of Beauty and the Beast proved The Little Mermaid was far from a fluke and cemented the musical genre as the template for the future of Disney animation. Its acceptance by the Academy declared animation could be considered as artistically valuable as live-action films. Its box office success confirmed animated films weren’t just for kids anymore. And its commercial and critical achievements gave the Disney animators the confidence to push the animation genre to even taller heights.

Is Beauty and the Beast a Disney Classic? Yes. Yes, it is.