Thirty years ago we were given the gift of Beauty and the Beast. I didn’t go to the cinema at the time, I was too little, but I can vividly remember the first time I saw the movie.
Sat at my mum’s feet as she held my new baby brother, we put the VHS in the player, the music swelled and I was in awe and I’ve never stopped. The film is a comfort when I’m feeling down, a soft reassuring hug when I’ve been heartbroken and a nostalgic connection to a more innocent youth when I hear the familiar prologue.
Beauty and the Beast might not be everyone’s top Disney pick, but it’s mine.
It’s easy to see why. Forget the tired Stockholm syndrome debate (seriously, the definition doesn’t even fit the story), forget the live-action remake and cast your mind back to the colourful, rich animation, lyricist, and composer Howard Ashman’s music (chef’s kiss at the 7-minute opener Belle), and the love story at its very heart.
This was no boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, this was a story of outsiders, transformation, acceptance, and seeing beyond the face of things.
“I want adventure in the great wide, somewhere”
Disney princesses come and go, and, don’t get me wrong, I love the strong female leads we’ve had since (Moana, Brave, Mulan), but bookish Belle will always hold that special place in my heart.
Belle is our central focus for the beginning of the film, the ‘princess’ setup is clear – cue Gaston, the handsome, muscular male figure, your average hero, or is he? We soon see he’s gruff, hates reading and he’s just plain insulting.
Beauty and the Beast takes the popular hero trope and rejects it, instead it champions the outcast, the outsiders – Belle and the Beast. Even better, Belle isn’t really even its focus, the Beast is.
Even though the script shifts to focus on the Beast’s transformation, the best thing is Belle remains a well-rounded character. You spend time hearing her ‘I want song’ one of Ashman’s key devices and stylistic gifts to Disney (also see Little Mermaid’s Part of Your World). You really, really, root for this girl that society doesn’t understand.
“Please, control your temper!”
The Beast? Well, let’s be honest. He’s not even likeable at first. He’s, not unlike Gaston, rough, rude and righteous. He sees Belle as a nuisance, then an opportunity, before he finally unselfishly puts her needs – and life – before his own.
Cogwarths, Lumiere, and Mrs Potts all push him, almost against his will in the first act. In fact, I have fond memories of the Beast prowling outside Belle’s door as he tries to ask her to dinner at their behest, “but she’s being so difficult!”
He ends up losing his temper, the first of many times, growling out: “If she doesn’t eat with me she doesn’t eat at all!” before flying down the stairs.
Half the magic of Disney is how it weaves itself seamlessly into the fabric of your family jokes and references. My mum used to quote that line endlessly whenever we were late answering her as she called us down for dinner, minus the growling of course.
It isn’t until the Beast races after Belle as she flees – yet again running from his temper – that we see a thaw between them. It’s another of my favourite moments. While we often rely on the key music numbers to drive the plot, it’s actually not a song that sparks the change in the Beast – it’s when he’s fully animalistic, and fully the Beast.
“There’s something sweet, almost kind”
Fighting off the wolves as they attack Belle he uses his darker beastly side for good, and he didn’t even bust out a song to do it. No, that musical task is saved for one of the other gloriously crafted songs in the movie – Something There. I’ll confess, while Beauty and the Beast, with its gentler tone and Angela Lansbury’s English accent is often the more popular track, Something There always wins me over. Something There is pure genius. I often play it full blast in my car as I sing along, singing both parts of course.
It’s the shortest song in the movie (bar Belle’s reprise, another great addition), but it has the most important job. In a mere 2 and a bit minutes, it convinces us that Belle genuinely, if not slowly, is seeing the man behind the Beast, that this hulking figure is in love with this dainty girl and that love can transcend what seems impossible (he’s a Beast for crying out loud!) and the amazing thing is, you utterly and completely believe it.
But then that’s why I love Beauty and the Beast so much. Not because it so subtly draws you in, or that it somehow makes you root for a beast and a girl to fall in love, but because it’s a masterclass in ‘heart’. There’s so much heart, it oozes it.
The man who gave the Beast his soul
That (Disney) magic touch is mainly down to one man (though I’m not dismissing the amazing work the animators and the whole team did), Howard Ashman, a name I actually didn’t know until many years later after I first watched the movie. Ashman is one, if not the best, lyricist Disney has ever seen. We haven’t even touched on the performance art of Be Our Guest, the scale of the opening number, or the self-indulgent Gaston “I use antlers in all of my decorating!”
Ashman’s the “man who gave a mermaid her voice and the beast his soul” to quote the movie’s end credit tribute. I say tribute because Ashman died before the film ever got truly released.
Ashman wasn’t well at all when he was writing the songs for Beauty and the Beast, not that his friends and colleagues knew it. The musician had AIDS and was deteriorating rapidly, he was getting weaker and soon found himself struggling, but he kept the news to himself for a long time. Soon he could hide it no longer and told his fellow composer Alan Menken in a heartbreaking conversation.
The whole Disney family was supportive. Film production moved to Ashman as he continued to decline in health, ensuring the film could be finished and he could still be involved.
“He was literally writing songs in his hospital bed and you think really?” Don Hahn told me when I interviewed him last year. “There’s that human spirit and drive to talk about humanity and love, hate, and all those things that really drove him. We’re the beneficiaries of that.”
“Barely even friends, then somebody bends, unexpectedly”
Sadly Ashman died before the film premiered. He never knew how much of a commercial and Oscar-winning critical success it would be.
He never got to see how much it touched the world either. Disney has so much to thank him for. He’s reportedly the reason behind a few crucial creative decisions, the main one being shifting the focus to the Beast (though people debate this one), as well as the approach to storytelling (see the many videos on the ‘I Want’ song).
“[Ashman] was much more than a lyricist and his biggest legacy with Disney was reminding us, or teaching us, how to tell a story in the context of songs,” Hahn said. “It might be something that was done back with Snow White or Pinocchio but it was a little bit of a lost art.”
Ashman’s reach was felt way beyond Beauty and the Beast (he also reportedly gave animators the idea of drag Queen Divine as Ursula’s design and saved Part of Your World from the axe after an initially frosty reception), but it’s undeniably his rawest work.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you had *feelings* for this monster”
The Mob Song has been seen as a metaphor for Ashman’s own battle with AIDs, and you can sort of see why. The song is born from fear, and a lack of understanding. While Ashman’s sister said she doesn’t think that’s how Ashman intended the song to be taken, the truth is it doesn’t really matter.
Whether we see the song as Ashman pouring his feelings into his work, his desperation to get the music finished, or as a great relatable song, is immaterial. It packs a punch, lyrically and musically (thank you too, Alan Menken) in a way that few Disney songs have for me since. It’s dark in a way that Disney often isn’t, or at least isn’t seen as being.
What it definitely did do is pave the way for the movies that followed; from that Disney magical feeling to style, Beauty and the Beast – and the Little Mermaid – set the studio back on track for a golden era, the Disney Renaissance, that lasted the rest of my childhood and beyond and for that I’m forever grateful.
“For who could ever learn to love a Beast?”
The only bittersweet note for me was the sadness I felt over Ashman. I used to think if only he knew how much love we had for the film, even now 30 years later. But perhaps he did…
Speaking to Hahn when he was promoting his Howard Ashman doc I shared this joy and sadness. Pausing, his voice gentle, he reminded me the team went to see Ashman in hospital after the film was screened at the NY Film Festival. They told him of the raucous applause, the whoops of joy, at how much love there was in the room.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” they told Ashman in disbelieving wonder. “I mean people love this movie. Who’d have thought?”
He simply replied: “I would have.”