Beauty and the Beast is a true gem of a film, layering fresh and vibrant characters on top of that wonderfully timeless quality that is essential to fairy tales. There’s a true sense of magical wonder that lingers after the film is over–the songs, the energy of the screenplay, and the warmth of the story allow it to remain unique and memorable.
Most of us know the story: as punishment for denying her shelter from the bitter cold, an enchantress transforms a prince into a “hideous” (but kind of endearing) beast. If he is able to love another and earn their love in return before his 21st birthday, the spell that transformed him into the beast and his staff into useful and adorable household objects, will be broken. Sure, sure: it’s a tall order to find one’s true love by the time you’re 21–I’ve sure as hell failed–but we buy wholeheartedly into the story because it’s a fairytale after all.
At the story’s center is the strong willed and deeply compassionate Belle, a girl who is thought of as “odd” by the rest of the town (she’s always reading! and thinking for herself!!). We know Belle is a romantic, unwilling to settle for the studly yet narcissistically bland Gaston, who goes around town in skintight pants and some pretty ostentatious boots. She dreams of adventure “in the great wide somewhere,” and damn it, we share that dream.
When she becomes a prisoner of the Beast to save her father, we feel for both of these characters, and long for their connection. Of course he’s to be initially feared–he is still selfish, unmannered, and pretty damn intimidating. But he ultimately must be loved. Beneath the defenses and shows of strength that he puts up, he is good and decent (it also doesn’t hurt that he’s a good looking and filthy rich prince).
It’s hard not to love these characters. Belle is girl-next -door approachable (good luck getting into Jasmine’s palace or snagging a date with Ariel), smart, and fights for the things she believes in. The Beast is vulnerable, sensitive, and misunderstood–hardly the prototype for the way Disney usually chooses to portray its leading men. Together, they make one of Disney’s best couples.
The magic of this film is most potently felt, unsurprisingly, inside the Beast’s home. Disney has always excelled at blending the characteristics of the actors that provide the voices of its characters and the mannerisms and personality that the characters take on. Mrs. Potts, for example, is given life by the soft and maternal voice of Angela Lansbury–she’s the most kind and sensible teapot I’ve ever known. The back and forth between uptight Cogsworth the clock and the more suave and laidback Lumiere the candelabra is always a treat.
No gothic castle in real life could be as intimidating as the Beast’s home, no French village could be filled with such quaint and hearty neighbors, and of course, no real life experience could be filled with individuals who simultaneously break into song. That’s one of the reasons why Beauty and the Beast is such a success–it is enhanced, not limited, by its animation.
The songs of Beauty and the Beast are true knockouts–three of them were nominated for Academy Awards: the narrative and highly entertaining “Belle”, the wonderfully choreographed “Be Our Guest”, and the haunting title song, sung by Angela Lansbury. They’re the songs of childhood, and when combined with the wonderful story, provide us all an opportunity to believe in a little bit of magic.