When people hear the words Beauty and the Beast it’s likely that they won’t be thinking of the original book, nor the Ron Perlman television series, but the 1991 (1992 for the UK) Disney animated film that took the world by storm.
This wasn’t the first time that Disney had attempted to turn this unusual fairy tale into a feature film, however, as the studio tried to do so on two previous attempts; one in the 1930s, the other in the 1950s. Both times the projects were abandoned because the story team struggled to find a way of making it work. The 1950’s version was also hampered by the 1946 live action film by Jean Cocteau; a film that still receives praise to this day due to its visuals and production values. The version that Disney eventually released still didn’t have a smooth production, however, as it initially began in 1987.
Thanks to rewrites, orders to throw out the project and begin from scratch, multiple directors leaving, others refusing to take it on, the project seemed doomed to live in development hell. That is, until studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg approached songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, who had worked on The Little Mermaid, to turn the story into a musical. The new team that formed around them went on to flesh out the story, and would add many of the characters that fans have come to love, such as the enchanted objects that call the Beast’s castle home, and the villain, Gaston.
Over the next two years the film would go through further changes, with songs being dropped, new ones being added, and the order of events being changed in order to streamline and improve upon the story. It was during this time that the film was cast, with the role of Belle going to Broadway singer Paige O’Hara, who competed against hundreds of other hopefuls. O’Hara was able to bring her stage experience to the production, able to perform in both the speaking and singing roles for Belle; something that is not always the case in Disney films. This also fit with Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s directive from Disney to make the film feel like a stage musical.
After several changes, the story was finally locked into place, and in the end it would tell the story of Belle, a young woman living in a small village in France with her eccentric inventor father. When her father gets lost in the woods and ends up in a spooky old castle, he finds himself becoming the prisoner of a monstrous Beast (Robby Benson); a prince who was cursed into being a monster years before.
Going in search of her father, Belle eventually finds the castle, and when confronted by the Beast, agrees to take her father’s place as his prisoner so that he can leave. With the help of the castle inhabitants, who have been magically transformed into living objects such as a clock, teapots, and candlesticks, she begins to settle into her new home. And her presence seems to have a positive effect on the Beast, slowly thawing his angry heart, and bringing out a kindness within. But as the two of them grow close, their time together may be under threat. Not only is the curse on the Beast subject to a countdown, but the people of Belle’s village decide that they need to do something about the monster in the nearby castle.
Beauty and the Beast was previewed to audiences in an unfinished state, before its initial release at the New York Film Festival. Despite only being 70% finished, with rough animatics and some sections being only sketches, the film received a ten-minute standing ovation from the audience, and Disney knew it had a hit on its hands. Upon its full theatrical release in US theatres in 1991 it would go on to gross $331.9 million, becoming the third highest grossing movies of the year, coming in behind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, two juggernaut blockbusters.
But the film didn’t just receive financial success, it also received acclaim from both critics and casual film-goers. It was praised for its animation, story, acting, and music, and would go on to be nominated for a number of Oscars in 1992. It won Academy Awards for both Best Musical Score, and Best Original Song for ‘Beauty and the Beast’; a song that is sung by actress Angela Lansbury in the film, and according to stories from the set she was at first reluctant to sing it, but recorded it on one take that reduced the production team to tears. Perhaps the biggest shame of the film doing so well, and its score especially being praised, is that Howard Ashman would never live to see it, passing away from heart failure due to HIV/AIDS months before the film was released. Beauty and the Beast was dedicated to his memory, and his partner, Bill Launch, accepted his Oscar in his honour.
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Beauty and the Beast had such a cultural impact that it became seen by many as the height of Disney Renaissance, and it would go on to be adapted into a Broadway musical, and a live action version in 2017. It would also become one of the highest selling home releases for Disney, getting multiple releases, re-releases, and special editions on VHS, LaserDisc, and DVD. It has also received re-releases on the big screen, including IMAX screenings, sing-along versions, and 3D releases in cinemas in the three decades since it was released.
Beauty and the Beast has become one of the most instantly recognisable, and popular films that Disney has produced, and remains popular to this day with audiences around the world.
Beauty and the Beast was released in the UK on 9th October 1992.