Belle and The Beast


Original Medium: Traditional story
Produced as a cartoon by: Walt Disney Productions
First appeared: antiquity
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Like Disney's very first feature, Snow White, Beauty & the Beast is based on a very old story, told in many versions, in many places, since time immemorial. Like Cinderella, the specific version used as its prose template is one written down in historical times. In this case, it's La Belle et la Bête, by Jeanne-Marie Le Prince de Beaumont, which was …

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… published in 1756, in Magasin des enfants. The fact that the movie was based on Beaumont's version was acknowledged in the film's credits.

This wasn't the first time Beauty & the Beast was animated. But it may have been the first to resemble the story reasonably well. A 1934 Merrie Melody of that name, for example, took practically nothing from the story but the title. Non-animated film versions, going back to the 1890s, range from fairly faithful to simple slapstick comedies with that as a unifying theme. This, while veering from the original in Disney-like directions, adhered fairly faithfully, at least in the area of the central characters.

It was one of the most challenging stories tackled by Disney animation over the years — Walt himself had rejected it as requiring too much reworking, both in the late 1930s and in the '50s. Especially vexing was the fact that the second half of the story took place almost entirely inside The Beast's (no relation, by the way) castle, which Disney thought offered not enough scope for action.

The project was revived in the late '80s, and given extensive revision. Belle's (no relation. also by the way) two sisters were jettisoned as distractions, while Belle's own character was enhanced, giving her a more modern sensibility as very much her own woman, whom the townspeople regarded as an eccentric bookworm. The eccentricity was enhanced by changing her father, Maurice, from a plain old, ordinary merchant into an inventor. A villain was added, in the form of Gaston, who sought her hand in marriage in aggressively unacceptable ways. Making the castle a more hospitable environment, the servants were changed from silent, invisible presences, to actual servants, transformed by The Beast's curse into household items.

Thus modified, Beauty & the Beast had its world premiere on November 13, 1991, and went into general release on the 22nd. Many film critics consider it part of a Disney "renaissance", a resurgence of classic Disney animation that had begun with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and The Little Mermaid (1989). Its critical success far outshone such non-classic-era offerings as The Fox & the Hound (1981) and The Black Cauldron (1985). In fact, it won no less than two Academy Awards, and was nominated for another four, inclueing "Best Picture" — making it the only animated movie ever nominated in that category.

Belle's voice was provided by Paige O'Hara, who has done few other voice roles, but did play one of Giselle's associates in Disney's 2007 live action/animated feature Enchanted. The Beast was Robby Benson (Prince Valiant in a 1990 animated production). Maurice and Gaston were Rex Everhart (another with few other voice roles, but who did have a role in the 1980 made-for-TV Gnomes) and Richard White (who isn't known for any other voice roles), respectively. The various enchanted servants turned household items included Jerry Orbach (Galaxy Rangers), Angela Lansbury (Mommy Fortuna in The Last Unicorn) and David Ogden Stiers (Solovar the Gorilla in Justice League).

The day was long past when Disney features were routinely adapted into Dell or Gold Key comic books, but Disney was doing its own comics publishing at the time, and did it as a four-issue series. But it had a much more prestigious media spin-off than that. It was the first Disney feature adapted into a Broadway play. In that venue, it premiered April 18, 1994, at Broadway's Palace Theatre. It wasn't as well-received critically as the film had been, but it was a commercial success. A later Disney feature, The Lion King, was done on Broadway in 1997.

And the characters have been ths usual merchandising bonanza for Disney, including Belle as one of the company's Princesses. The characters have become part of the cast, seen regularly on The Disney Channel and in books, videos and every other way Disney characters are exploited.


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Text ©2009-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Walt Disney Productions.