Just The Way Walt Made 'Em

Studios used to have traditions, and pride in them. MGM had its musicals, and now it's tuneless and hobbling. Warner Bros., once famous for its gangster movies, has become an impersonal corporate giant. But at least one tradition survives in Hollywood. When it comes to animation, nobody's done it longer--or better--than Disney. Though this has been a year in which the fortunes of the Walt Disney Co. have been sputtering-and it's looking as though Disney's "Billy Bathgate" will take a bath-it's safe to say that Uncle Walt himself would have crowed with pleasure at the sight of Beauty and the Beast. It's the company's 30th full-length animated film since "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937), and it has the feel of a classic.

Ironically, Walt himself, in the early days, considered turning the timeless fairy tale into a film. But the studio was stumped by the static second half, which was just a series of dinners between the imprisoned Belle and the romantically imploring Beast. The current Disney team has solved the problem. Under the direction of Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, and with the talent of songwriters Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman, they have turned "Beauty and the Beast" into a resplendent musical. Sophisticated and funny, romantic and scary, the story has been reimagined with a wonderful new supporting cast of characters and witty, memorable songs that put current Broadway fare to shame.

The book-loving Belle, burning to escape the provincialism of her close-minded 18th-century village, has a lot more spunk and brains than the traditional Disney ingenue. She's captured the eye of the town's hunk, a hilariously self-enamored macho man named Gaston (the voice of Richard White) who's determined to wed her. The wise Belle has only contempt for this stud with the soul of a newt. Gaston is a triumphantly funny villain, who boasts, in the movie's funniest song, that he uses antlers in all his interior decorating.

If some of the finer satirical points will sail over kids' heads, there's plenty for them to relish. Borrowing a trick or two from "Fantasia," the movie creates a marvelous array of animated household objects that serve as the staff of Beast's magical castle. There's Lumiere, a candelabra with the pizzazz of Maurice Chevalier; Cogsworth (David Ogden Stiers), an overwound mantle clock with a taste for puns ("If it's not baroque, don't fix it"); a warm English teapot (Angela Lansbury) and her baby cup, Chip. In the showstopping "Be Our Guest" musical number, they all join forces with the tableware to serve up a rousing Busby Berkeley-style extravaganza.

Paige O'Hara is the sterling voice behind Belle, and the fierce, temperamental Beast, a Prince who fears he will be forever trapped in his animal form, is played by Robby Benson, with a rich bass that will startle those who had him pegged as a whispery eternal kid. Their love story has real poignance (has there ever been this sexy a kiss between two Disney drawings?), not to mention a welcome message for kids growing up in our appearance-obsessed culture. "Beauty and the Beast" is 80 minutes of seamless, transporting storytelling.

Producer Don Hahn started work on the picture three and a half years ago. From the start, the filmmakers knew they didn't want Belle to be the passive character of the original story or a carbon copy of Ariel in "The Little Mermaid," a creation some critics found cloyingly sexist. With screenwriter Linda Woolverton--who brought to the character her own passion for reading--they devised a plot in which Belle would actively track down her father and bargain with the Beast for his life (in the original her father, under threat of death, trades her to Beast.)

But Woolverton had to start all over from scratch when Howard Ashman and Alan Menken ("Little Shop of Horrors," "The Little Mermaid") came aboard two years ago to transform "Beauty and the Beast" into a musical. Ashman, both the lyricist and the film's executive producer, in many ways became the driving force behind the movie. "He was a genius storyteller in knowing where to place songs, in knowing what's important and what's not," says Hahn. "Howard was our simplification police." It was Ashman who realized, contrary to tradition, that this had to be Beast's story. "We didn't agree with him right away. But he was right. The Beast was the guy with the problem."

Few knew Ashman was ill from the start. It was not until two days after he and Menken won an Oscar for a "Little Mermaid" song that Ashman told his partner he was sick with AIDS. "Towards the end," Menken recalls, "it became an increasingly remote-control process for him because he couldn't sing, he could barely write ... He was very strongly a participant every step of the way [although] it was an increasingly painful struggle." Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg felt he was an inspiration. "Howard Ashman's fingerprints will be on movies out of this company for years to come." The film is dedicated to Ashman, who left behind songs for a 1992 animated feature, "Aladdin."

Watching animated film, you might suppose that the actors come in at the end and dub their characters' lines. The reverse is true: the voices are recorded before the drawing begins, and often the real-life actors' mannerisms are incorporated into the animation. Part of the job of directors Trousdale and Wise was to cast the animators who are each assigned specific characters to develop, matching their personalities and humor to the parts. "We work with the animators the same way that we work with the actors," explains Wise, "They feel as close to the characters that they're portraying through drawing as human actors do ... I think the heart of Disney animation that sets it apart is that individuality to all the characters."

In September, "Beauty and the Beast" was shown at the New York Film Festival as a work in progress-roughly 35 percent was still black and white line drawings. The crowd responded with a 10-minute standing ovation. Katzenberg, who was obsessively involved with the project from start to finish, feels that this is his animation team's "greatest artistic achievement" and has let it be known he thinks it should be nominated for a best-picture Oscar. The odds are against it: no animated film has ever been nominated. But as they say at Disney, when you wish upon a star ...

A LITTLE SAINT-SAENS, A LOT OF FUN KATRINE AMES

The most delicious musical score of 1991 is Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's "Beauty and the Beast." If the growing armada of titanically troubled Broadway musicals had half its charm and affectionate cleverness, the ships wouldn't be foundering.

"Beauty and the Beast" has the best songs of any Disney movie since "Lady and the Tramp" (1955) and the best, most sophisticated score since "Sleeping Beauty" (1959)-and that was adapted from Tchaikovsky. Menken and Ashman are not revolutionaries--that's not what Disney is about--but their work is old-fashioned in the most endearing sense. If it weren't the kiss of death, the studio could call "Beauty and the Beast" an operetta: the songwriters did, in fact, cast several big numbers in the style of Romberg & Co.

Because the story is set in France, Menken has given the music a French flavor, and not just in the Chevalieresque moments of the irrepressible "Be Our Guest." He is a master of pastiche, and his score shimmers and simmers with Debussy, Saint-Saens, Satie and Couperin; the village girls who ogle Gaston are descendants of a flirtatious trio in Massenet's "Manon." But there are nods to great Americans, too, including Copland and Bernstein. The sensational "Belle," complete with Ashman's sly and quick-cutting dialogue, is reminiscent of Sondheim.

The orchestration is lush, too, and despite some requisite Hollywood glissandi, often delightful and surprising. There's some effective use of woodwinds--and when did you last hear a harpsichord in a musical? Throughout, Ashman's lyrics are just right, intricate or simple, sweet and funny. And even the tinniest ear will respond to a rhyme like "fair facade/rather odd." As in all great musicals of the last 50 years, "Beauty and the Beast" has songs that actually advance the plot. It's clear that, unlike many of their contemporaries, Menken and Ashman did not sit down at the piano and say, "Gee, let's put a hit song here." Well, Menken admits, they did do that once. "In all our projects, we had never achieved the liftable ballad. We were determined to have it this time."

They achieved it with the title song, which they dared to compose for a teapot. They lucked out with casting: Angela Lansbury can deliver a song more intelligently and intuitively than almost anyone in musical theater. Alas, the reprise is a bleating duet by Peabo Bryson and Celine Dion. They should have trusted the cozy teapot.

Just The Way Walt Made 'Em | News