If there’s anything more enjoyable than a teapot with the voice of Angela Lansbury, I don’t know what it is – I think before anything else, this is the driving factor behind Beauty and the Beast’s astonishing success. Never mind the ground-breaking animation or the Oscar-winning score or the unforgettable characters; nope, the Angela Lansbury Teapot does it for me. I suppose everyone has their own reasons for loving this undeniably magnificent film because really you’re pretty much spoilt for choice with this gem…
Beauty and the Beast is now nearing its 20th birthday (hard to believe, I know) but it is still as fresh and immediate as it has ever been whilst it’s contemporaries seem to have fallen into comparative oblivion. Here’s why:
1. The Storyline; It’s over two hundred years old and yet it’s totally original. It takes Disney back to the glory days of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, timeless classics which have never been topped and never will. Even though it is set in provincial France in the 18th/17th/16th Century, it’s bang up to date and so easy to relate to it might as well be an episode of Eastenders… or not. Now that’s not to say we’ve all been imprisoned by a fearsome yet ultimately kindly beast in a magic castle; just that, like Belle, we’ve all wanted more and not in the Little Mermaid ‘I’m not spoilt enough’ sense.
Belle wants something we all want: adventure, pure and simple. She’s absolutely determined that ‘there must be more than this provincial life’ and will stop at nothing to find it, even if that means putting herself in great danger and risking everything along the way. And of course what she finds is beyond her wildest dreams, but so thirsty is Belle for adventure that she’s not even put off by the Beast’s ranting and raving about the forbidden West Wing.
The only criticism of the story that I’ve been able to find (and it really is from a very small majority!) is regarding Gaston’s death; the fact that he is ultimately his own harbinger might be a bit of a cop out for the more blood-thirsty amongst Beauty and the Beast’s audience, but personally I say a good dose of Hubris never hurt a story and I’m pretty sure that if there had been an award for ‘most likely to be his own undoing’ award in his high school (maybe there was….), Gaston would have it proudly displayed amongst his antlers.
2. The Characters; It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that no matter how perfect the story may be, it’s nothing without ‘leap off the screen’ characters to bring it to life (actually, a film critic is much more likely to be figuring this out than a rocket scientist, who is probably busy figuring rockets. Anyway…). If Beauty and the Beast isn’t a master class in memorable characterization, I don’t know what is. Even with the dynamic duo aside you have a cast strong enough to put on a show of their own, even if they are crockery! Angela Lansbury as a teapot… it’s genius!
Its characters are what make Beauty and the Beast into the Disney gold which it is, and mark it out as a feat of such imaginative brilliance. No corners are cut in terms of characterization and no part too small: even Philippe the horse is a well thought out, rounded individual as much as a horse can be. The star turns of the film must be Lumière and Cogsworth, the odd-couple masters of the Beast’s castle and giver of light and teller of time. As the mediators and go-betweens of the story, they are the driving force behind the action, serving almost as the Beast’s personal therapists. And of course, who could fail to mention their showstopper ‘Be Our Guest’, a song which may have missed out on the Oscar but it certainly wins awards in my book as Beauty and the Beast’s answer to ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’, only not as disturbing for the under 5’s.
Now to the burly, hairy, muscle-god of a man that is Gaston, determined to win Belle for his trophy cabinet by any means necessary. He is quite unlike any Disney villain to grace the screen in that not only is he good looking and – dare I say it – talented, but he is respected and revered by everybody in the community as one of its winners, not least for his impressive chin. Who wouldn’t want to marry him? Gaston is the high-school bully to Everyman: supremely arrogant and not about to change for all the tea in China. As such he is a truly fearsome foe and one we have no trouble believing in. After all, we’ve all met him.
And last but by no means least, we have Beauty and the Beast themselves. Belle herself is not really the most original or interesting character; her inquisitiveness and curiosity are something we’ve seen before in plenty of Disney Princesses (think Aurora and Ariel) and it’s only the way she deals with what is really a very difficult situation which sets her apart from other Disney Gals. The Beast, on the other hand is about as different from Prince Charming as you could get without recruiting Lenin for the job. He’s not about to win Mr America for one thing and that temper could put off a raging bull. But if there’s one thing we can learn from Beauty and the Beast it’s that the love of a good woman can turn even the most hairy, impolite animal of a man into a charming, elegant and handsome prince.
3. The Music; Beauty and the Beast would be nowhere near as successful as it has turned out to be without the input of the indisputably genius Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who won the film two Oscars, both for its magical score. To return again to the beautiful concept of Angela Lansbury as a teapot, would her character be nearly so memorable without her solo of the title song? Probably not. ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Be Our Guest’ are the two songs foremost associated with the film and rightly so, but there is one number which deserves perhaps a little more recognition than it receives: ‘Gaston’. Now if this song doesn’t leap off the screen and into your heart, I don’t know what will. Packed with one line wonders such as “I use antlers in all of my decorating” and “I’m especially good at expectorating”, ‘Gaston’ is the gratuitously violent, memorably tuneful ditty which has been missing from so many Disney films and without which Beauty and the Beast would certainly be one notch down on the ‘special’ scale.
4. The Animation; Disney are not shy when it comes to bucking the trend with their animation techniques. In 1961, 101 Dalmatians saw the dawn of a new Xerox era and thirty years later Beauty and the Beast took this one step further by bringing CGI to the forefront of modern animation. Even though it was only used in one scene, there can be no denying the huge impact the Beast’s ballroom had on its audience as a result of the startling animation which went into it. The camera shots were unparalleled to date and Disney had never looked as life like as it did from that dance floor.
Now these are just a few reasons I have singled out for their generality, but every individual lover of the film will have infinitely more of their own to speak of and it is this above all else which marks Beauty and the Beast out as the definitive Disney: it is big, bold and beautiful and speaks to everyone who watches it as if it were their own personal story-teller with more to give on every viewing. One never to tire of and which itself will never tire.