After the success of The Little Mermaid, The Walt Disney Company virtually replicated that success with one of their next features, Beauty and the Beast. Despite Walt Disney’s intention to adapt this film in the earlier days of the studio, it ultimately never came to fruition during his lifetime. The studio was eager to finally bring this classic fairy tale to life. Though hard to imagine now, Beauty and the Beast was originally going to be an animated film without songs. However, before too long, Disney realized that perhaps a different method would be better suited for this project and they brought back the duo of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, whose combined talents largely contributed to the success of The Little Mermaid.
Their talent shines in the final version of Beauty and the Beast as well. One of the strongest aspects of the film is the seamlessness in which the music and animation are paired together. Howard Ashman was a pioneer in taking the Broadway musical format and applying it to animation. This concept has been often replicated, but seldom as successfully as it is here.
Apart from the beautiful animation and memorable music, Beauty and the Beast also offers lovable and unforgettable characters. Paige O’Hara’s Belle is one of the most unique Disney Princesses and carries the film. Jerry Orbach’s Lumiere and David Ogden Stiers’ Cogsworth are a delightful pair and Angela Lansbury is such a pure Mrs. Potts.
For those who grew up in the 1990’s, this film is, arguably, the quintessential Disney Renaissance movie, giving us that unmistakable nostalgia and “feels”. Though this is undoubtably one of the reasons for its continued popularity, it is also indeed a very good film that is worth watching at any age.
Live-action remake: In March of 2017, a live-action remake was released by Disney featuring a star-studded cast, the original Ashman/Menken songs, newly written songs and an expanded plot. Some people had trouble accepting the new film, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The soundtrack is incredible (if you can get past the often distracting autotune), the story is improved, and the cinematography is beautiful. This remake sits nicely alongside the animated original.
A prequel series based on this film is currently in development for Disney. Tentatively titled Little Town, the series will star Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou, reprising their roles from the film. It will be a six-episode musical event, with newly written songs from Alan Menken.
Beauty and the Beast in the theme parks: It is practically impossible to go to any of the theme parks without seeing some trace of Beauty and the Beast. This is true whether it be meet-and-greets with characters, parades, or live shows. A Beauty and the Beast themed dark ride recently opened in Tokyo Disneyland. Called Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast, this attraction features innovative audio-animatronics and reenactments of some of the major scenes from the film.
Sequels: Two “sequels” to the film were released from DisneyToon Studios. The first, Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, takes place during the events of the original film following the scene where Belle is rescued from the wolves by the Beast. The other is Belle’s Magical World. This direct-to-video film, released in 1998, was originally conceived as a television show, likely in the vain of Aladdin. Ultimately, the show never came to fruition and what was left was three segments that are loosely tied together for this film.
Beauty and the Beast on stage: In the early 1990’s, similarly to how the Disney company was just ten years before, the Broadway scene was fading. The joy of the Broadway musical was not as far-reaching as it used to be and less and less people were going to the theatre. In stark contrast, Disney was at an all-time high since the death of Walt Disney due to the success of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. In 1993, then CEO Michael Eisner made a business move that has changed musical theatre since. He decided to open a division of Disney called Disney Theatrical Productions. His plan was mutually beneficial both for the world of New York and Broadway and also for Disney itself. Inspired by the success of Beauty and the Beast, Disney decided to adapt the film for the stage. By restoring the New Amsterdam theatre, which had been the home of the original Ziegfeld Follies, Disney created the corporate musical.
The process of putting Beauty on the Beast on stage was a huge job. The first step was making Beauty and the Beast into a full evening of theatre. They had the film to start with, but a film that runs only an hour and a half would not cut it for the theatre. Audiences who are paying big bucks expect to spend between 2 and 3 hours at the theatre and there wasn’t enough material in the film to work with. Composer Alan Menken was brought back to write additional songs for the stage. Because of the death of Howard Ashman, they needed to find a new lyricist to work alongside Menken on the new songs. They brought in Tim Rice, who had worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on musicals such as Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar. In the film, one of the major things that can be noticed is that the Beast doesn’t sing. This was changed for the stage musical and so the Beast was given a new solo ballad to bookend Act One. Of course, in an animated feature, you don’t need to worry about an intermission or breaking it up for the audience, but it is essential in live musical theatre. This song offered a fitting conclusion to Act One and kept the audience interested. Belle was also given another song called “Home” that she sings after she arrives at Beast’s castle.
Beauty and the Beast is available to stream on Disney+.