Beauty and the Beast

Disney’s last European fairy tale until The Princess and the Frog came out last year, and something of an apex for their traditionally animated features. Despite the typically straightforward plot (prince loses temper, gains hair, meets girl, epilates), 1991’s Beast is less childish than The Little Mermaid, assisted again by the wry lyrics of Howard Ashman and a more interesting variety of supporting characters, several of them famous Broadway performers like Angela Lansbury, here giving her Sweeney Todd pipes a workout. The early use of computer animation is more obvious here, but well-judged.

In a concession to the recent rise of feminist awareness over the last three centuries, heroine Belle is inquisitive and literate, which positively distinguishes her as an intellectual. Her relatively developed character is matched by some excellent animated “acting”, the sort of thing that Disney did better than anyone else. The Beast is unusually tormented for a Disney character, brooding and gnashing his way through the film. The real villain, hunter Gaston, pales by comparison. To compensate, he’s been given the most French name, and is narcissistic but butch*.

Beast was designed with an eye for lucrative adaptation to the Broadway stage, and the score is somewhat relentless, but the songs are better than usual, fulfilling the classic purpose in musicals of expounding character and advancing the plot. There’s another surly French chef stereotype, but luckily the entire film is set in France. It must be galling, if you’ll pardon the pun, how Disney films have shaped the public perception of Ye Olde Europe, just like how the Victorians got their hands on Camelot and sanitised the whole affair, something medieval historian Terry Jones gleefully demolished in Monty Python & the Holy Grail.

* In the manner of Tom of Finland.

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