Twenty-five years ago, a tale as old as time became timeless.
Elevating what The Little Mermaid had revolutionized just two years prior, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast solidified the revival of not one but two dormant genres: the animated feature and the movie musical. How many films can make that boast?
It’s not only the landmark of Disney’s late-century renaissance (which would make the creation of Pixar possible, along with animation’s rebirth that flourishes to this day), but a case could be made that Beauty and the Beast is the best film to ever come out of Walt Disney Studios. Period.
Go ahead. Do a “Death Match” Sophie’s Choice showdown in your head. What beats it?
This game-changer drew not only raves from critics (like Siskel & Ebert’s; see clip below) and standing ovations at film festivals (for a cartoon?!), but 1991’s Beauty and the Beast became the first animated feature to ever be nominated for Best Picture. It was unprecedented then, it is in many ways still unmatched now, and for the generation in-between it has become as much of an enduring cultural touchstone as Star Wars.
Perhaps most miraculously, it hasn’t needed sequels to maintain its longevity. From its debut on November 21, 1991 until today, Beauty and the Beast has remained ever-present. The modern Disney catalogue has, too, but it exists and endures as a direct result of this one, from which the rest have flowed. It’s essentially impossible to “look back” on something that never went away. It’s hard to imagine it ever will.
Even so, as someone who’s never had kids and therefore not had this film running in the background on regular rotation, I may be best equipped to testify to its lasting brilliance. And indeed I will. From the opening shot, which provides a three-dimensional depth of layered animation via a colorful eye-popping tapestry, Beauty and the Beast painted pictures that set new standards for animation. They still elicit wows.
It does so by paying homage to classics like Gone With The Wind (mirroring lush Technicolor landscapes from Hollywood’s Golden Age) to imbuing its heroine with the spunky strength of an ageless favorite; Belle has the same undaunted conviction as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz – she’s feminine, but she won’t be pushed around – and even a similar fashion sense.
But Beauty and the Beast thrives on much more than subconscious iconic callbacks. It aspires to the highest artistic ambitions, reaching a grandeur of sweeping epics and sophistication of Tony-worthy Broadway (not reduced to pop power ballads). From the stunning provincial plains on which Belle belts her reprise to the whimsical spectacle of “Be Our Guest” (the quintessential show-stopper), well, to paraphrase a brute, “As a specimen, yes, it’s intiiiiiiimidaaaaating.”
(On the new blu-ray edition, which includes an extended version with added song “Human Again”, this work of art has never looked or sounded better.)
Yet its virtues go deeper than its surface, or even to how it makes us feel, and to the example it sets for girls and boys alike. Beauty and the Beast is that one “Princess” movie, perhaps more than any other, that teaches girls to value men beyond their good looks and status. To find one’s identity first in education, humility, and generosity. And that love is not a swooning crush of giddy butterflies, and that it can be found in the most unlikely of creatures.
This is a story where the bad guy is the archetype of what the world envies, fawns over, and covets. Gaston is the embodiment of what indulges yet deceives our passions, and tempts us with false securities. Meanwhile, the good guy is the one who humbles himself to overcome his monstrous flaws.
These are not only good lessons for our girls to heed, but they teach young boys what kind of man they should aspire to be, and which one they shouldn’t; the kind that values a strong-willed woman of character, and sees those independent traits as attractive, desirable qualities.
As effective as this milestone is in every way, perhaps the reason Beauty and the Beast endures the most is that it inspires the best in our humanity. To see past the surface, whether beautiful or beastly (both of which can be deceptive); to see truthfully, and to be truly seen.
This is all powerfully rendered in that magic moment after the last petal falls. It’s one of the most affirming, glorious resurrections in movie history (with a stirring assist from composer Alan Menken’s soaring music cue), and it never fails to give me chills from head to toe and straight to my soul.
It captures not just our highest hopes, but our eternal ones.