In my previous Disney articles, I complained at length about Disney. In those articles, I argued that Aladdin and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were both held back by the “Disney formula”, which includes (among other characteristics) several catchy musical numbers, wacky sidekicks (an animation pet peeve of mine), and a happy ending. There’s a reason Disney stuck to this formula for much of the late 1980s and 90s, though: there are several popular and acclaimed Disney movies that use this formula to their advantage. The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, and Mulan are all great examples; however, when I think of the best Disney movies – ones where the Disney formula that cemented itself during the Disney Renaissance works to the film’s benefit in nearly every respect, that are nearly perfect examples of the art of animation – there’s one film that always comes to mind first: Beauty and the Beast.
This 1991 Disney animated classic is notable for several reasons. First, it was only the second film to use the groundbreaking animation software developed by Disney and Pixar called CAPS, which enabled the animators to make more extensive use of cel-shading (a technique for which you should be grateful, if you enjoy the look of “traditional” 2D animation) and a greater integration of 2D and 3D animation (more on that in a moment.) Second, it was the first animated film to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and only the second to date. Considering the Academy’s extreme bias against family-friendly entertainment, that’s saying quite a bit.
I’ve heard people argue that Beauty and the Beast is the crowning achievement of the Disney Renaissance period, and I’m inclined to agree. You might be able to claim that The Little Mermaid or The Lion King are equally as good or even better films (I would disagree with you there, especially in the case of The Lion King,) but for a mixture of great storytelling, memorable characters, catchy songs, critical acclaim, and technical innovation, Beauty and the Beast can’t be beat.
I’m always shocked at how well the animators for Beauty and the Beast managed to integrate 3D and 2D models. This was 1991, guys. The year that Microsoft’s main selling points for MS-DOS 5.0 were that it freed up a whopping 45KB of memory and featured a graphical interface. Meanwhile, Beauty and the Beast blends 3D and 2D animation seamlessly in shots such as this…
…and, more notably, during this scene where 3D models are used to simulate a camera panning around Belle and Beast:
Hell, the 3D animation in this movie looks better than the abominations I’ve seen in some modern movies. Considering how far the film industry was from such CGI feats as Avatar and District 9 and the fact that Disney had two instead of four years of production to work with because of a botched earlier version of the film that ended up getting scrapped, I am truly amazed by how beautiful and innovative the animation is.
I spent much of my previous Disney articles complaining about useless sidekicks added in only for comic relief. You might take this to mean that I hate all sidekicks, but that isn’t true. I don’t hate sidekicks in general; they’re just as essential to story-telling as any character when used correctly. My problem is with sidekicks who don’t contribute anything to a plot besides amusing little kids in the audience. In fact, I don’t take issue with the idea of sidekicks nearly as much as I do with the addition of useless characters in general, especially when they’re under-developed (like most sidekicks.)
Beauty in the Beast is a good example of a Disney movie that features numerous sidekicks while still managing to be well-paced. The living objects in the Beast’s mansion, (Lumiere, Cogsworth, Mrs. Potts, and company,) are enjoyable to watch and serve two important functions in the film. First of all, they add to the atmosphere of Beast’s enchanted, but lonely, dwelling. They serve as constant reminders of the spell under which the Beast suffers. Second, and I cannot stress this enough, they have agency within the plot. They propel the story throughout; in fact, there would be no story if it weren’t for Lumiere, who welcomes Belle’s father Maurice into the mansion in the first place, causing his imprisonment and Belle’s rescue. They serve as matchmakers, confidantes, caretakers, and even fighters during the film’s climax. Unlike the sidekicks in Aladdin and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, they do more than just stand around and crack jokes about whatever is happening in the plot.
Nearly every aspect of this movie comes together to create a harmonious whole, which is impressive for any movie, even outside the realm of animation. My only complaint about Beauty and the Beast is that it (like many other Disney films – do not get me started on the ending of Mulan,) appears to portray one message – in this case, “It doesn’t matter how you look on the outside, it’s inner beauty that counts” – and cops out at the end by suggesting that since the Beast now has a better attitude, it logically follows that he be returned to his beautiful, stud-muffin form. It doesn’t help that Belle’s so good-lookin’, either.
Beauty in the Beast is a testament to the things that Disney has done right over the years. They are absolutely capable of providing artistic, satisfying entertainment that doesn’t pander to any specific demographic. See? I like Disney! I promise!
I may have to take a break for a week because, in case you didn’t know, I’m in college and it’s finals season. If you don’t see an update next Saturday, though, you’ll certainly see one the Saturday after that. No matter when it gets to you, it’ll be another article about a Disney movie that I like. And after that, Christmas stuff! (Because that happens to be the holiday I celebrate, sorry to my less Christmas-inclined readers.) So be sure to look out for the next editions of Saturday Morning Cartoons!