In November of 1991, Disney released Beauty and the Beast, and the way everyone looked an animated films changed forever. The story had always been one Disney wanted to do, starting story work on project in both the 30’s and the 50’s, but he always found it too challenging. During production on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the Disney studio brought back the Beauty and the Beast project and asked Richard Williams, who had directed the animated portions of Roger Rabbit, to direct. Williams declined in favor of continuing work on his long-gestating project The Thief and the Cobbler, but recommenced English animation director Richard Purdum and his wife Jill Purdum. In an unusual move, Disney CEO Michael Eisner brought in Linda Woolverton as a writer for the project.
The first version was a non-musical version set in Victorian France. After several months of development, the Purdum’s perspective on the work was deemed too dramatic and too dark. It was at this juncture that then-Disney Studios chief Jeffrey Katzenberg asked songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken to lend their talents to the project. Richard Purdum resigned the project, and was replaced by Disney newcomers Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. The team brought the structure and archetype of the Broadway musical to Beauty and the Beast, further defining the approach that had succeeded so well for them in The Little Mermaid (1989).
Because of time lost in pre-production on the non-musical version, animation was restricted to two years- about half- the time needed for a film of this stature. The use of the CAPS coloring system helped with this tighter schedule, and added to the artistic pallet of the film. Colors were richer, self-inked lines became the norm, and a vastly more opulent color design was achieved. The CAPS system also allowed shots that could have never been achieved before, specifically the long crane and tracking shot at the top of the ballroom scene.
From the grand to the sublime, the new CAPS system touched the film. Delicate shading was now possible on moving characters, in a precision never before possible (compare the blush on Snow White’s checks to Belles… subtle, but impressive). The light of candles or fires could now be modeled on characters, bringing a level of life-likeness unseen in any previous animated film. The tools available to the animators had been opened wide up, and they took advantage of their new freedom.
As in The Little Mermaid, the music was instrumental in moving the story along. In a very Broadway-like manner, the story unfolded in a series of production numbers which added to the ability of the animators to move the story along.
The distinctive design of Beast helps create sympathy for the tormented character. But exactly what is the Beast? According to veteran Disney animator Glen Keane, who refined the final character design and animated Beast, “the beard and muzzle stem [are] from the buffalo, as well as the feeling in the eyes. The gorilla…has a great, expressive brow, and we used this for Beast. We went for a very lion like mane…then borrowed the tusks from [a] boar…also the hair on the nose. The horns on the head are something we gave him ourselves. He’s got a big tail like a wolfs, and his body is generally like a bear, but with a wolfs legs.”
Mark Henn, supervising animator for Belle, found the character a bit of a challenge. “Belle was difficult to do because she’s so real and has a greater emotional level,” said Henn. “With a fantasy character like a mermaid you can get away with a lot, but when your character is human and walking around on two legs, everyone knows what to expect, and she has to be believable in order for the film to succeed.”
The film was an instant and monster hit. Produced for 25 million, the film brought in over 145 million in North America on its first release. Beauty and the Beast received six nominations for Academy Awards that year, and became the first animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. The film was instrumental in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences opening up a new category for Best Animated Feature in the annual Oscar competitions. Beauty and the Beast did not win best picture that year, but it did win two other Oscars for Best Music, Song (Beauty and the Beast) and Best Music, Original Score.
But all the success of Beauty and the Beast was also bittersweet; lyricist Howard Ashman died of AIDS six months before the films release. The film was dedicated to him in the closing credits crawl with these words: “To our friend, Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul. We will be forever grateful. Howard Ashman: 1950–1991.”
On December 16, 2002, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced that Beauty and The Beast was one of 25 “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant motion pictures that he selected to be added to the National Film Registry.
A sequence containing the song “Human Again,” written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman for the original movie, was initially cut. It debuted in the Broadway version of the film to great success. This encouraged the filmmakers to restore the sequence to the movie.
Beauty and the Beast set an all-time record for video sales, according to The Guinness Book of Records. However, this was soon eclipsed by such other Disney animated features as “Aladdin.”