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Empire List #436: Beauty and the Beast

Chances one of the first movies your parents showed you was a Disney movie. Disney is the safe choice: its movies always have cute and cuddly characters, moral lessons you can carry with you for the rest of your life, scenes depicting good triumphing over evil, and often, singing characters. Occasionally the Mouse House breaks new grounds in animation and gets a shot at an Academy Award for best film. “Beauty and the Beast” the 1991 version by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, is one such film.

I have to admit, the very first time I saw this movie parts of it scared me. In my defence I must have been around six years old and what the titular Beast got mad, I wouldn’t have liked to be sitting in his lazy-boy. It wasn’t even my choice. It was movie time in the first grade so of course the teacher went with the Disney catalogue and closed the curtains as we sat on the carpet. I am not sure if I even understood everything the first time since back then I was living in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and I was only beginning to learn how to speak English. What I am sure of is that I would have preferred “Aladdin” because nothing beats Robin Williams in genie mode. However, “Beauty and the Beast” does have its charms.

A prologue informs the viewers that “once upon a time” there was an enchantress disguised as a beggar woman who knocked at the door of a prince’s castle seeking shelter. He promptly told her to get lost, spurning her wrath and causing her to transform the prince into a hideous beast. The only way to lift the curse is for him to find true love before a magical rose loses all of her petals or else he will be a beast forever.

The Beauty comes in the form of Belle (Paige O’Hara), the daughter of an inventor in a French village. Belle loves her father, loves her books, and occasionally loves to spontaneously start singing in the streets to express how she feels about her life. What she doesn’t like is Gaston (Richard White); the pompous local hero who assumes the whole world loves him as much as he loves himself. He could have any woman in the village, but sets his sights on Belle believing she will immediately jump at the chance of being his obedient wife. What a dolt.

When Maurice, Belle’s father, leaves the village to take his latest invention to a fair, he gets lost in the woods and is attacked by wolves. He seeks refuge at the Beast’s castle and is surprised to be received by talking furniture, which are nonetheless very accommodating. Unfortunately the Beast (Robbie Benson) is furious at seeing they’ve let an intruder in the house and locks Maurice away in the dungeon. Led by Maurice’s horse to the castle, Belle convinces the Beast to let him go in exchange for her life.

Over time of course, the beautiful Belle manages the melt the cold Beast’s heart. It doesn’t hurt that the Beast owns a library the size of a theatre, leading to a great moment when he pulls the curtain to reveal the rows and rows of books much to her delight. Those are the parts that the girls loved. Isn’t that romantic? Being a guy I preferred the battle scenes in the third act when the jealous Gaston forms an angry mob with pitchforks and heads to the castle to slay the Beast. It never occurred to them they might get attacked by feather dusters, teacups, and wardrobes.

“Beauty and the Beast” is often praised for the dance number when Belle and the Beast dance in a computer-generated ballroom as the camera dollies around them in a simulated 3D space. Technically impressive, but my favourite musical number is when Lumiere (Jerry Orbach) the maitre d’ turned into a candlestick performs “Be Our Guest” for Belle in the dining room. He is so enthusiastic he manages to make the uptight clock-shaped butler Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers) join in on the dance.

What was even more impressive was seeing all of this live on stage. During a high school trip to New York City I got to see “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway. I don’t care if you hate Disney, musicals, or even New York. You simply have to see this play for the costumes. You’d think it was impossible to make a clock costume with swinging pendulum inside, but they did it. Now, if only they could make “Aladdin he Broadway Musical” with Robin Williams…


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