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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Beauty and the Beast

Happy June!  Since it is my birth month, I am being self-indulgent and writing about all of my favourite movies.  For some of the more well-known movies out there, I will be mostly reflecting on the why it is one of my favourites, as opposed to the usual format of a plot rundown and a wee little bit of reflection.  Not all of my favourite movies are classics – some fall into the guilty pleasure category – but whatever.  It’s my birthday month, deal with it.  OK, disclaimer out of the way, let us begin…

#344: Beauty and the Beast (1991).  In the late 1980s/early 1990s, Disney experienced what is known as their Renaissance Period.  It began when Disney decided to stop fussing around with “experimental” (for them) stuff, and do what they do best: fairy tales.  Thus was born The Little Mermaid, which will be showing up here at some point this month.  But following the success off The Little Mermaid, the masterpiece Beauty and the Beast was created.  And it was decades in the making, dating back to Walt’s heyday.  The original French fairy tale was basically Beauty and the Beast eating dinner over and over, so trying to flesh that out proved to be a challenge for some reason.  Well, in the late 80s, the stars aligned, the right minds were all in the right place at the right time, and we got this spectacular near-prefect piece of art.  Can you tell I love this movie?  So, let’s get to it.

The Players:

Belle: Voiced by Paige O’Hara.  Belle is “quirky”.  She (gasp!) reads a lot, is curious, smart, and wants more than her small-town life.  She is the first true Disney role model for modern girls, which is why I think so many women adore her.

The Beast: Voiced by Robby Benson.  Ice Castles Robby Benson.  Didn’t know he had it in him… The Beast is cursed because he was a spoiled jerk and refused an old lady entrance into his massive castle for one night.  He needs to find someone to love, and to love him back, but he doesn’t understand what that really means.  Until he meets Belle…

Maurice: Voiced by Rex Everhart.  Maurice is Belle’s father.  He’s an inventor, and the town nutjob.  He and Belle are very close, and being a Daddy’s Girl myself, I relate to, and love their relationship.

Gaston: Voiced by Richard White.  Gaston is our villain.  He’s big, strong, handsome, and he knows it.  He’s vain as can be, and wants to marry Belle.  Why?  Because she’s the most beautiful girl in their village, and he thinks they’ll make beautiful babies. 

Lefou: Voiced by Jesse Corti.  He’s Gaston’s lacky.  Fairly harmless, a mini-bully in training. 

Lumiere: Voiced by Jerry Orbach.  Lumiere is an enchanted candlestick, most likely the head butler before the castle was enchanted.  He is oh-so-French: all about amour and fun.  He’s loud and enthusiastic, and a joy to watch. 

Cogsworth: Voiced by David Ogden Stiers, who is in pretty much every Disney animated from the 1990s.  And I love him in all of them, especially this one.  Cogsworth is an enchanted clock, but I’m not really sure what his job in the castle was?  Anyway, he’s British, so basically the opposite of Lumiere. 

Mrs. Potts & Chip: Voiced by Angela Lansbury and Bradley Pierce.  Mrs. Potts is the heart of the castle.  She is warm and sweet, a tea pot, most likely head housekeeper back in the day.  Chip is her son, and he’s the “cutesie” character, and the least obnoxious of all the “cutesie” characters Disney put out.  Mrs. Potts is probably my favourite of all the enchanted objects. 

So, those are our main people, but I’m not giving a rundown because, really?  Like I’ve said before, if you haven’t seen this, or are at least familiar with this movie, then you’ve been living under a sad, sad rock. 

This movie is very special to me.  I can’t really explain why, but it is affiliated with a lot of firsts for me.  I wrote my first movie review for this when it came out for an English class.  I had one of my first solos in eighth grade singing “Something There” with my then crush.  It was the first “traditional” Broadway show I saw (having seen Rent and Chicago prior, both fantastic, but this was old-schoool).  I saw the Broadways show in the Palace Theatre, starring Deborah Gibson.  Between the history of the Palace, the nostalgia of Debbie Gibson, and the absolute beauty of the show, I cried non-stop throughout the first act.  No lie. 

The team of people who made this movie happened knew they had something special when it premiered, unfinished, at the New York Film Festival.  The film was at varying levels of completion, including rough animation, and people were crying.  Crying at pencil drawings.  Which just goes to show you that if you have a good story, strong characters, and good music, you don’t need all of the movie trickery Hollywood is so obsessed with these days. 

I know there has been a lot of analysis and criticism of this movie – Belle has “Stockholm Syndrome”, the Beast is abusive, but really it is a beautiful story about a woman who is strong-willed and beautiful inside and out, who touches the heart of a beast, and transforms him through love.  Which sounds cheesy, but is done quite elegantly.

So, the specifics that I love?

Belle.  She is a lot like me, with the reading, and the close relationship to her dad, and longing for more.  And I know there are others out there who relate to at least one of her qualities, which makes her truly universal, but not obnoxiously so.  It is so hard to create a truly relatable character without it being in your face, and the filmmakers have done a fantastic job.

The Enchanted Objects.  Usually the secondary characters in Disney films are there for comic relief, and little more.  But they are slightly tragic, in that they are innocents who are enchanted as well.  They didn’t turn the enchantress away – the Prince did.  They each have their own personalities, and the voicework is stunning.  Most people remember the late great Jerry Orbach from his work on “Law and Order”, but to me, he will always be Dr. Houseman from Dirty Dancing.  He also had a long career in the theatre, including shows like the long-running off-Broadway The Fantasticks and the 1984 original Broadway production of 42nd Street.  He truly shines here with “Be Our Guest”, and he is a presence that is greatly missed.  David Ogden Stiers began his long-running relationship with Disney here, improvising a few of his lines, including the favourite “flowers, chocolates, promises you don’t intend to keep”.  The last part was all him.  Love it.  And Angela Lansbury.  Just perfect as Mrs. Potts.  As much as I adore the Broadway recording, there will only ever be one Mrs. Potts to me, and that is Angela Lansbury.  Also known primarily by modern audiences for a long running television show, Lansbury has had a glorious film and stage career, and is still kickin’ it after all these years.  I know I say this about a lot of people, but she is one of my role models, heores, and who I want to be when I grow up.  No one sings the title song to this movie like her. 

Phew.  OK, what else can I gush about?  Oh, yes, my usual favourite: the music.  From the people that brought us Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid, Ashman and Menken.  Really, I am so sad that Howard Ashman died when he did.  He still had so much to give, and as much as I respect Tim Rice, he is no Howard Ashman.  (For those not in the know, after Howard Ashman passed away, Tim Rice stepped in for a couple of projects to write lyrics with Menken.  He has also worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber).  This is the most “Broadway” of their films, so is it any wonder that it is the first Disney to go to Broadway?  So, what is my favourite song?  I love, love, love the title song.  I like them all, truly, but Beauty and the Beast is so simple, the melody so pure and beautiful, combined with Lansbury’s performance, and you have perfection right.there.  Also, as much as I crap all over computer technology, the use of it here was amazing – they were able to pretty much create a set to sweep through with the computer.  See, I don’t mind it as a tool, it’s when it’s overused that it bugs me.  I’m just an old crank, it’s ok…

So, real quick, because I’ve mentioned it a few times: the Broadway show:

Oh, how I long for them to make this into a live action movie.  There is more depth and character development, especially for The Beast.  Mostly because there is more time in a show than in a 90-minute animated feature.  The songs that were added to the show really enhance everything – from Belle and Maurice singing “No Matter What”, to Gaston’s hilarious “Me”, to “If I Can’t Love Her” sung by the Beast, it is all wonderful.  There is not one song I don’t like, which is rare for me.  The song “Human Again” was originally written for the film, but had to be taken out for time purposes.  It found its way back into the stage show, and then back into the film.  And I’m really glad, because it’s a fantastic song.  If you ever have a chance, see the stage production.  It’s amazing.

Like I’ve said, this movie means a lot to me.  It still resonates, and is still beloved by many.  It is the first animated feature to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  It truly is the Crown Jewel in the Disney Animated Features department, and what they need to keep looking to for inspiration and guidance if they want to keep it up and running. 

That’s a Wrap for Today!  Tomorrow: something featuring music that is not a musical!

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