Note: The Rescuers Down Under was actually released prior to Beauty and the Beast, but I’ve already covered that in The Rescuers entry.
Personal Overview: everyone knows the story of Beauty and the Beast, although I was probably more familiar with the version in the 1980’s TV show starring Ron Perlman as the Beast than I was with the original French fairytale.
I’d never seen the film until now. I think that had a lot to do with it being largely advertised as a ‘couples movie’ and I wasn’t in a couple at the time. It’s actually my wife’s favourite Disney animated feature.
It’s very unusual for a Disney film in that overall there aren’t any animals used either for the Cuteness Factor or as comic relief, unless you count Belle’s horse: Phillipe (I wonder if he was named after the prince in Sleeping Beauty or it was just a good sounding French name). The Cuteness Factor and the comic relief are largely supplied by the Beast’s household staff who are animated household objects (Mrs Potts is a teapot, Lumiere is a candlestick, Cogsworth is a clock, etc…).
It took Disney a while to do this and get it right, but while they look a bit cartoony the people in Beauty and the Beast are actually people and recognisable as such.
Also unusually for a Disney fairytale this is located somewhere real. It’s in France (they don’t go as far as to say what part of France) in the 18th century.
There’s a distinction made between the village and the Beast’s castle. The castle is dark for the most part and the village is full of light, yet the village is probably darker underneath than anything at the Beast’s castle.
At the heart of it Beauty and the Beast is a love story, with the Beast gradually falling in love with Belle, until she sees the man beneath the hideous visage that he was cursed with years ago.
Even moreso than The Little Mermaid this was an animated film that was a Broadway musical and it’s no surprise that it was the first Disney film adapted into a highly successful Broadway musical. Because singing was such a big part of the film, it being more of a musical than other films, the cast was largely composed of singers or musical performers.
Hero/es: I see both Belle and the Beast as the heroes of this, in their own ways. They complement each other. Belle is smart and lively as well as compassionate and able to see the best in people, unless like Gaston there’s really no best to see. The Beast, or Adam as I believe his real name is, comes in handy when things get physical as they were always likely to do when he went head to head with Gaston.
Villain/s: there’s actually only one. Gaston, the village bully. Everyone looks up to Gaston, because he’s good at killing things and he’s considered handsome. I guess he kind of is in a brutish way. When Belle refuses his advances and proposal of marriage he attempts to have her father declared insane and locked up, he also finds out about the Beast and leads the villagers with torches and pitchforks on an assault of the castle. This is one of the few times I can really remember seeing the villain actually die. Further evidence that the films were growing up and realizing that their audiences were too.
Cuteness Factor: now how do you get a cuteness factor when you don’t have animated animals to fall back on? Beauty and the Beast isn’t really that sort of film and it was a departure for Disney. There is a Cuteness Factor, though and that’s mostly provided by Chip, the cheeky cracked cup that seems to be Mrs Potts' son.
Animation: I’ve spoken about the darkness and the light and the contrast there. The real tough thing in this was giving the Beast a good range of expression and making the audience believe that there was someone human underneath the visage. There was also the challenge of making the utensil’s human appearance match their personalities when the curse was broken and they went back to being people. They succeeded in most cases, except I didn’t see Mrs Potts' son Chip as looking like that and she looked old enough to be more his grandmother than his mother.
Final Words: I wasn’t sure how I’d view this. I’m not big on love stories overall, and this one is odder than most. I actually quite liked it. The Little Mermaid definitely shaded it for sheer enjoyment factor, but this was still as Disney movies go a powerful entry and deserved all of the considerable success that it enjoyed. You don’t see the Beast that much in their merchandising now, but Belle is one of the pantheon of Princesses.