The tale as old as time got told again in Disney's 1991 animated film, Beauty and the Beast. Loosely based on Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's 1756 story, it also liberally borrows elements from Jean Cocteau's 1946 adaptation of the tale. Yet Disney's version definitely has its own voice and, as the first true follow-up to The Little Mermaid, definitely showed the studio had found a new winning formula. Unlike The Little Mermaid, though, it's not the female lead who stands out but the male. Beast and the Beauty may well be a better title.
Primarily it's a difference in animation. The Beast (Robby Benson) can be silly or scary, majestic or pathetic, but always believably the same character. Belle (Paide O'Hara) feels less consistent--her eyes change size often early in the film and much of her movement feels like a stiffer, more awkward version of Ariel. Watching the film again last night, I began to suspect whoever animated the Beast must have animated Ariel--and I was right. Both are the work of Glen Keane.
Belle's not a bad character, though. She's not the child from the original story but she's not the intelligent, graceful being from the Cocteau film, either. Her "I Want" song, called "Belle", is motivated by a desire for adventure and to escape her "provincial town" and she certainly gets what she wants. Though it's not nearly as effective as Ariel's "Part of Your World" partly because the difference between the world underwater and on land is much better established than the difference between Belle's provincial town and whatever exists outside. Interestingly, after decades of movies that periodically approached class issues, Beauty and the Beast is the film that most explicitly throws in its lot with the bourgeoisie--Belle wants to escape being poor and she does so by moving into a castle and marrying a prince. Arguably that's what Cinderella does but the story of Cinderella is more focused on the dynamics of governance--Cinderella being ruled by her stepmother, the mice being ruled by Cinderella, the pragmatism of her marriage to Prince Charming in order to stabilise the monarchy for another generation.
What's so bad about Belle's provincial life? Well, in a word, Gaston (Richard White).
Gaston himself is obnoxious but, worse than that, everyone in town inexplicably adores him. Obnoxious people can certainly maintain a following but there's a postmodern wink in so much of his antics--as when he agrees that thinking is a "dangerous habit" or when he uses a word like "expectorate" in a song after we already know his disdain for reading. He's not so much a character as a parody of a character--in fact, he's a parody of Brom Bones from the Sleepy Hollow segment of Ichabod and Mister Toad.
But if one considers Ichabod and Mister Toad, Brom Bones is a much more nuanced character. We almost sympathise with him as newcomer Ichabod consistently gains the upper hand with Katrina for some inspired slapstick. He's likewise not so clearly a villain in Washington Irving's original tale, just an adversary for Ichabod, one who reflects an aspect of the town's personality and heritage that happens to clash with the invading, if worthy, pedagogue. This makes him more interesting than Gaston--and so is Avenant, the character in the Jean Cocteau version who occupies the same position in the plot. In that film, he represents a legitimate possibility for Belle while Gaston, when he's not a joke, can only be a physical threat.
Visually, the film quotes from Ichabod as well but has plenty of its own splendour, particularly in the backgrounds. The computer colouring looks a little better than it did in The Rescuers Down Under but still not as good as the actual paint used in The Little Mermaid. And then, of course, there's the full on cgi.
That ballroom sure hasn't aged well. It looks like a bad video game now but I remember how everyone marvelled at it at the time. Luckily, the song sung by Angela Landsbury holds up just fine.
Employing once again Broadway composer Alan Menkin, Beauty and the Beast has even more of a Broadway feel than The Little Mermaid. He does great work but even more crucial for the film are the lyrics by Howard Ashman. The lyrics to "Beauty and the Beast" do a lot of heavy lifting, ably filling in blanks for the relationship between Belle and the Beast:
Barely even friends
Then somebody bends
This is a good response to someone who wonders why Belle would suddenly be sweet on him--sometimes chemistry is sudden, sometimes things change for seemingly tiny reasons, and that can be scary, as the next lines affirm:
Just a little change
Small to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared
Of course, the two have sexual chemistry--that's always there when you have a big brute managing to be a gentleman around a vulnerable young woman. Or a big brute being a sloppy, but chagrined, eater around her.
Again, most of the interest here is on the Beast's side. The Little Mermaid may be a little sexier but things are usually sexier when everyone's wet.
Beauty and the Beast is available on Disney+.