Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Beauty and the Beast: A Trip Back in Time

When I was a little kid, there were two movies that had a profound effect on me and contributed to my love of cinema. These were movies that I would watch over and over and over and over, staples of my viewing diet (and since I didn't watch too much TV at that age, this was all I watched). One of those movies was Toy Story. The other, more significantly, was Beauty and the Beast. Around the time I was four or five, I would watch it every single day. I knew the songs by heart. Did I completely understand the film at such a young age? Certainly not the more sophisticated stuff, but I was definitely drawn into this magical world where clocks and candelabras  can talk, enchanted spells can be broken and true love can be found regardless of outside appearances. As I grew up, I still found myself coming back to this film, and the older I get the more and more I appreciate the film as cinema. Nowadays I'm amazed by the classic, excellent storytelling here, where story is driven by deeply complex characters and there's nary a pop culture reference in sight. I'm impressed by the sophistication of the humor, such as the visual gag of Gaston in the mud, his body visible but a pig's head where his should be just after he borderline-rapes Belle in an attempt to marry him. And, of course, there's the gorgeous visuals that film provides for us, the finest to ever be done by Disney Animation Studios and, in my opinion, the best of any animated film ever.

Beauty and the Beast is a visual feast, inviting us to be their guest and marvel at the animation wonders the Disney team has pulled off.  Which makes it difficult to pick out a single shot as my favorite, there are just so many to choose from!

I could choose this shot, as Maurice (Belle's father) comes face-to-face with the Beast for the first time. There's a great menace to this shot, as the Beast's shadow looks downright Satanic, as if Maurice were about to meet the devil himself...

Or maybe this one, that captures the gloom of the castle while nonetheless looking like a painting, a shot that can stand alone as a work of art...

But there's always this one, taken from the exuberant "Be Our Guest" number. This whole number is a complete delight, a rollicking dance piece that features some incredible choreography and cinematography, animated or not. And the big finale, well, you just can't beat that. But then...

There's the famous ballroom scene. The CGI may not be as crisp as it is in today's films, but I guarantee you there is no use of it more awe-inspiring than this. The sweeping cameras, the gorgeous detail, the tender melody of "Beauty and the Beast" playing as these two fall in love under the's a sequence that deserves to live on in infamy.

But if there's one shot that I had to pick out as my favorite, it's this one:

Here we see the portrait of the Beast as a man, a young prince with a sour inside before he was placed under a spell for his misdeeds. As the Beast, he's shredded this portrait, and yet the eyes remain. And those eyes...even though he would have never known what would become of him in this portrait, those eyes are hollow and unfeeling, a reminder of the soulless animal he was before he became a literal animal. After this shot comes this one of Belle:

She's scrutinizing the portrait, trying to discern who it depicts, and yet you can see the warm humanity in her eyes, feeling the shudder of coldness the portrait emits. Its not just the rips in the portrait that prevent her from recognizing it; the Beast, interestingly enough, has been humanized by becoming inhuman, as throughout the film we see the hurt and sorrow he feels, wounded from knowing that he may very well never know true love and be trapped in his current state forever.

The Beast really is a magnificent character, when you think about it, because there's such a delicate balancing act in his creation. For Robby Benson, who provided the Beast's voice, he had to convey the deep-rooted anger, hurt, and desperation that drives the him, as well as the longing for human connection. The animators had the trickiest task, having to make the Beast's appearance scary enough to seem terrifying, but cuddly enough so that the audience can sympathize with him. Not only do they nail this, but they give him expressions that say volumes more than any words ever could. With the exception of a handful of Pixar creations (Wall-E comes to mind), this has rarely been seen in animation before or since.

Maybe this is why the Beast has always been my favorite character. He's ugly outside but beautiful inside, driven by a need to love and be love but frustrated by the barriers preventing him from doing so. He's the inverse of a man like Gaston, beautiful on the outside, but with little need for emotion or tenderness (or intelligence, for that matter). And in the end, it's impossible to not be like Belle: totally, completely smitten with him.

Other great shots that I loved:

This is a part of The Film Experience's Hit Me with Your Best Shot.


Laika said...

Couldn't agree more about the greatness of the Beast as a design and a character - maybe the best thing Disney ever did.

And the pig's head gag with Gaston is a good call to illustrate the strengths of the film - for some reason it never occured to me it was a comment on his piggish behaviour towards Belle.

Great post!

French Toast Sunday said...

I was just talking to someone about how certain movies affect you a lot as a kid and that I want to revisit those movies that had an impact on me. So of course now I'm dying to re-watch Beauty and the Beast! Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed it.