Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Walt Disney, part XLII: Come into the light


Directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Written by so, so many people, so let's say "Linda Woolverton and Howard Ashman"

Spoilers: get real

I should apologize (God knows to whommyself, I suppose), for while the Disney retrospective was always conceived of as a long and involved project, I did not intend for it to stretch across more than three years; I surely didn't mean to stop when I'd reached the halfway point, though it's incredibly sobering to realize that doing every canonical Disney feature from 1937-1990 only brought me halfway.  (And it's not even "halfway" anymore.)  But of course I'd hesitate before Beauty and the Beast, many folks' pick for the best of Disney's Renaissance, and a fair fraction's pick for the best Disney cartoon of all timeand nowhere close to being mine in either regard.  It's never any fun being a movie's smallest fan.

I've read my fair share of fine essays about why it's so great, and its partisans have their articulable reasons.  Yet it's closer, I'm afraid, to my least favorite Renaissance film.  But then, my position is that Beauty and the Beast's poor forgotten predecessor"The Little Mermaid isn't forgotten, idiot," you immediately said to yourself, which is my point, as I refer to 1990's The Rescuers Down Underbetter earns the appellation "masterpiece," even for the same exact reasons that Beauty and the Beast does, except moreso.  A love story that doesn't blossom out of first sight but out of friendship, inflected by the maturity of its participants?  That's a check.  A showcase for the ability of Pixar's CAPS to bring elegance back to Disney after years of chunky xerography?  Also check.  A successful demonstration of how CAPS could integrate CGI into 2-D animation?  Check.   Even Glen Keane doing career-defining work bringing grandeur and spirit to a spectacular beast?  That's a big, big check.  Well, now we all know why nobody listens to me.  I've already planted my "best Disney" flag on Mermaid, anywayalbeit with the occasional second thoughts as regards Fantasia and Moana.  But Beauty and the Beast?*  My favorite thing about it is that everyone else loved it so much back in 1991, thereby confirming Walt Disney Feature Animation's rebirth and paving the way for movies I do consider favorites.

So to recite its history: while an adaptation of La belle et la bĂȘte was mooted after Snow White, it never really gained traction, and Jean Cocteau's "definitive" 1946 live-action versiongreat, another attested masterpiece, in this case one I actively dislikeevidently put paid to any prospect of Disney doing their version under Walt.  Thus it's best to start in the late 80s, when director Richard Purdum and producer Don Hahn forwarded it as a potential project.  You can probably guess that, with Mermaid's success, Purdum's visiona non-musicalwas soon thrown in the trash.  Directorial duties were subsequently handed off to Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, who would rise to become Disney's second-biggest directorial deals after Clements & Musker (they also managed to flame out in similar ways).  But despite the ascendance of directorial voices during the Renaissance, perhaps it wouldn't be quite right to call this their movie: Beauty and the Beast only really began when Jeffrey Katzenberg cajoled Howard Ashman and Alan Menken into joining the project, encouraging them to replicate the magic that had made Mermaid Disney's biggest critical and commercial hit in decades.

Ashman was reluctanthe was more invested in his own passion project, Aladdin, and he was already aware that he probably would not have time for both, though truthfully he barely had time for either.  Yet he managed to get excited about it anyway, and Katzenberg, after learning of Ashman's AIDS diagnosis and the extremely limited days remaining to him, authorized an unprecedented pre-production phase that centered not upon Burbank but upon Ashman's home in New York.  Ashman worked through much of his decline, and he and Menken did their jobs; Ashman got to see something akin to his movie before he passed, though he never got to see it in fully-finished form.  Maybe it's a tactless thing to say, but I'm convinced that Ashman's tragic death has been a major, unstated reason for the robustness of Beauty and the Beast's reputation: as the last completed work of a promethean artist cut down in his primeindeed, at the exact moment that he'd become the most important figure in film musicals for the last half of the 20th centuryit's only natural that folks might add the greatness of all the songs Ashman never got to write to the greatness of the last songs he did.  But I'll give you this one anyway: they are some pretty great songs.

The other most significant personality here was Linda Woolverton: tasked by Michael Eisner to provide a screenplay (what a concept!) back when this was still a non-musical, she was immediately tasked with providing another one after Katzenberg redirected the film towards Ashman and Menken.  You'll see references sometimes that this represented Disney's very first screenplay.  My sources state that screenplays go back to Oliver & Company; but either way, it must've still been an awkward process, and it always feels like one woman's script sitting uneasily atop Disney's more traditional procedure of two dozen people each randomly adding their own ideas, plus the further wrinkle of Ashman writing songs that would already pin down the major beats of the film's narrative.  It's a damned bad excuse, but maybe that's why the dialogue and lyrics are so frequently in contradiction with the visuals, even in the moment they're being spoken or sung.  The most "did the artists even read the script?" moment is when a character loudly complains that Belle's book has no pictures despite an insert shot of lavish page-filling illustrations about a hundred seconds earlier; the most distractingly freakish moment, obviously, is the reference to the bewitched kid teacup character's "brothers and sisters" sleeping in a cupboard filled with fully two dozen of his mother's other "children," each drawn with snoozing eyes so we can be very sure that once they were all human beings.  There are many other annoyancesa reference to the Eiffel Tower in what I am sure is not supposed to be the 1880s, for examplebut even if I don't like them, these are at least deliberate in their immersion-breaking.  But a lot of it is just bad filmmaking, full-stop, the kind of thing you'd expect from an MST3K movie, and while maybe it should bug me less, it should bug you more.  All this is before you even start to consider any problems with the actual story.

That, of course, is a tale as old as time; or, in these particulars, a tale as old as the 18th century, despite numerous precursors.  We begin with an updated riff on the storybook openings of the Disney princess films of old, coming upon a secluded palace somewhere in rural France and allowing our narrator (David Ogden Stiers) to tell us what happened there, long ago, assisted by the visual aid of stained-glass windows that relate the story of the prince who became a Beast (Robby Benson), thanks to his callousness towards a cold and hungry vagabond who turned out to be a sorceress.  She cursed him and all his servants with terrifying transformations that can be undone only if the Beast falls in love and earns love in return, and even then, only if he manages to accomplish this seemingly-impossible task by his 21st birthday, his remaining time symbolized by the token of an enchanted rose.  Once again, you might ask, "did anyone read Woolverton's screenplay?", because the stained-glass clearly shows an adult prince dismissing his supplicant, while later we hear tell of references to a full decade spent trapped by her curse.  Or I guess that strapping young man we see in the glass and in the ruined portraits was ten.

Poor kid.

Still, our Beast may yet get his chance: most every retelling since Villeneuve's original has seen fit to streamline it, reducing the number of characters, and this one reduces it to the most simplified form possible, leaving Belle (Paige O'Hara) as the only child whatsoever of her widowed father Maurice (Rex Everhart), now an inventor rather than a merchant but no more successful, and considered eccentric and weird by the other inhabitants of their town.  Like father, like daughter, and Belle is held to be at least as strange as her dad, as we learn in the first of those great songs, "Belle" (though not the first great piece of music: there's a beautiful twinkly bit in Menken's score that attends the framing narrative).  Belle, much to the bewilderment of her neighbors, reads bookslet's just get through the plot for nowbut notwithstanding her insularity and penchant for talking to sheep, she is the hottest girl in town, and thus the object of desire for the strongest and most handsome of its men, Gaston (Richard White), a preening asshole.  She manages to fend off his initial advances despite not having her dad around to back her up, for Maurice has left on a trip, and, losing himself in the woods, has been forced to take refuge in a certain foreboding castle.  The Beast imprisons Maurice, but when his daughter rides out to find him, a deal is struck.  Belle offers her captivity in exchange for her ailing father's, and Beast agrees, somewhere deep down hoping that she could be the one to save him though it takes him a while before he ever begins to act like he has any hopes at all.

One somewhat has to take a fairy tale as one finds it, even in the Disney version, but it is, without a doubt, the most inherently fraught of all the Disney princess films, and unfortunately the one that basically defines their reputation as anti-feminist fables for impressionable girls.  None of the other ones have anything like the same fundamental problemsthey can be materialist and status-oriented, they can suggest helplessness, but they are never anywhere close to Beauty and the Beast's "with persistence, maybe you can convince your kidnapper, abuser, and crypto-rapist to be nice to you."  Ashman and Woolverton did have the great innovation of having Belle offer, sua sponte, to become Beast's prisoner, rather than have her delivered unto him by a guilt-tripping father; credit where it's due, this change helps a lot.  (It makes less sense, unfortunately: the Beast's reasons for holding the father here seem pragmatic rather than merely the formal punishment for rose theft, and letting him go does indeed cause trouble down the line.)  Likewise, the addition of Gastonthe chief but not the only way that Disney's Beauty and the Beast plainly takes its cues from Cocteau's film more than any other version of the storyprovides an external drama while contextualizing Belle's constrained choices, and that makes it all more palatable.  Yet one gets the nagging feeling, that may persist for decades, that the primary distinction between Beast and Gaston is just that Beast gets better dating advice from his friends.

As for Belle herself, I'm comfortable calling her the worst Disney princess that, anyway, gets any characterization at all.  (Snow White and Briar Rose, obviously, barely manage "archetype."  But even poor Cinderella beats Belle in terms of an illusion of inner life.  Or, hell, outer life.)  It's unfair, but let's compare her with the best, Ariel: Ariel is an archeologist, an explorer, a rebel, and a reckless gambler with her own soul.  Belle never gets anything as specific and fascinating as, say, Ariel's mad ecstasy over discovering how two-dimensional wheeled overland transport works in distinction to her usual three-dimensional movement through water, and this is a small, emotionally-unstressed sequence that's so overshadowed by Mermaid's endless majesty you may not even remember what I'm referencing.  No, here's what's so scintillating about Belle: Belle is literate.


Something about this combinationthe film's clunky feminist retrofit of an un-feminist tale, its bizarre insistence that even in this time period a woman reading children's books would be an act of defiance, the hazy, inchoate, insert-dreams-here yearningtruly feels like it's pandering decades ahead of its time.  It's a suggestion that you, too, are interesting, even if nobody likes you and all you do is sit around consuming media and complaining about your "provincial life."  (I mean, I know I'm boring.)  Her comical isolation (she's reading to sheep...) does make Belle something of a mirror to the Beast, but he's also rather empty.  Still, as someone with more urgent problems that have ground him down into learned helplessness and a cycle of rage and shame, he's the more psychologically interesting figure here by some margin.  I'm loath to agree that he's therefore the best Disney prince (Eric is outrageously underrated; Aladdin is functionally his movie's princess; and if Flynn Rider is a stereotype, he's a dynamic one).  But I'll at least allow that Beast is higher-tier than his paramour, albeit in a less-competitive field.

None of this is to denigrate O'Hara or Benson, who do a lot with a little, particularly O'Hara's sarcastic spikiness, even if Benson's shifting emotions and tendency towards fury and self-loathing make him a more compelling or at least louder focus for our attentions.  But it all only just manages to make their captor/captive romance work: the film's biggest genuine problem is with time, some of which we've already seen, and what's supposed to be a whole winter's worth of tentative romantic stirring is, given Gaston's plotting back in town, apparently the business of a couple of weeks at most; it doesn't feel like time is passing, either, with the whole shift in their relationship crammed into a single wintry montage, backed up by a single song, "Something There," and revolving principally around a snowball fight.  It feels like a weekend.

Nothing's helped, incidentally, by Belle being one of the least-stable major characters ever drawn in a Disney film.  Split between two lead animators, Mark Henn (who'd cut his teeth on Disney princesses with Ariel) and James Baxter (these days immortalized in one of the approximately four episodes of Adventure Time that are actually bad), I assume this wasn't the problem, as division of labor had not been a serious problem for Ariel; splitting her between two studios, at Burbank and a new expansion in Florida, in the days before instant Internet communications, now that might've been a problem; and the punishing deadline to get Beauty and the Beast finished was definitely a problem.  Her two leads isn't even the whole storyjust going by the credits, almost forty human persons worked on Belleand she has a marked tendency to get badly wonky in medium shots, whereas there appears to have been some disagreement amongst the crowd as to what shape her eyes were, semicircles or rhombuses.  (The rhombuses win the argument.)  It's frequent enough to be a real issue, though most of the time Belle is a terrifically sensitively-drawn creation, with some really superb moments of hesitant and conflicted expression that, in combination with O'Hara, give Belle a personality after all.  Design-wise, Belle's solid in the sort of "unassumingly hot" way the story calls for, though I'm discomfited by the three blonde triplets who continually leap out of the background of Belle's town to ovulate in Gaston's direction, since the story also calls for Belle to be umambiguously the most attractive person in her town, and every time they show up it requires you to wonder why Gaston doesn't cut bait on the nerd.  (If the idea is that her very resistance is what drives him to possess her, in his badman formlessness there's no firm sense that he's pursuing her as a self-imposed challenge, and he never quite behaves in accordance with that, rather than mere brutish entitlement.)

Oh well: the answer to that one is probably that in the absence of any instructions otherwise, what men will draw are women they want to fuck.  That's neither good nor bad, really, though, as here, it can have bad effects.  (But good effects too: cf. Lumiere's featherduster girlfriend in human form, who's some dangerously salacious cartooning for a kid's movie.)  Oddly, the laziest piece of animation here I still respect a great deal, because while they've acknowledged they lifted the finale from Sleeping Beauty for time crunch reasons, they never should have admitted it; it's a lovely homage at exactly the right moment.

The Beast, though, is on another level; but then, the Beast is Keane, and for the most part Keane manages a seamless approach to his cursed prince, taking him from "supernatural monster" to "actual feral animal that somebody put pants on" to "whiney Byronic furry" in the space of shots, sometimes inside shots.  (Sometimes the contact between characters is a little iffy, and there are those twelve frames where he looks like a giant fuzzy potato with eyes, though this is, in fairness, meant to be a wacky moment.)  No, it's pretty great: there's weight and gravity, pathos and even humor to the Beast.  This last viewing, the Beast's essentially-suicidal approach to being hounded to death by Gaston and Keane's utterly-defeated posture genuinely got me to mist up at this movie for maybe the first time since I was nine.  Beyond that, basically every single memorable image that uses CAPS's ability to create dramatic lighting effects is founded upon Keane's character animation.

There is also the matter of Disney comic relief, and as Beauty and the Beast may be the film most responsible for confirming the Renaissance's brand of comedy, this too must be counted against its legacy.  I've barely mentioned them because I don't enjoy them much, though they're mostly harmless: Cogsworth the clock (Stiers again, though there's much indication that our narrator is not Cogsworth); Lumiere the candelabra (Jerry Orbach, tasked with compensating for the lack of French accents in the entire rest of the cast within one single performance, and, by God, he succeeds); Mrs. Potts the teapot (Angela Lansbury); and so on.  Repositioning the Cocteau film's idea of living furniture as something fun to animate, I assume they were.  They have all the stupid little jokes to prove it, for example the gears flying out of Cogsworth like somebody puking up their guts and barely noticing it.  Though if Cogsworth were our narrator, maybe that explains why this story can't keep days, weeks, and years straight.

There's something disquieting about what a joke they are: maybe because I watched the Cocteau film alongside it, I finally noticed this film's pointed absence of body horror, or even any particularly salient sadnessfor surely they have been cursed worst of all (and for nothin'!).  It's insidious, and I don't know, maybe it's what's been bothering me all these years.  And the cross-cutting between Gaston and Beast's deadly confrontation in the climax and the unfunny comedy of the servants taking on Gaston's mob saps the mythic grandeur and is basically complete horseshit.  (Ashman and Menken had an unused song, eventually restored for the extended-cut cash-grab, "Human Again," that still only skims the superficial surface of the servants' wretched existence, and it was obviously cut for other reasons, such as sucking.)

What got in is good, though, and, by and large, Ashman integrates his songs terrifically well.  Maybe it's not a good thing that the best comes first, though this time through I've started to wonder if it's actually a tie: the two character songs, "Belle" and "Gaston," come from much the same desire to establish the heroine and the villain as fully-wrought entities, with a lot of cheeky rhyming and jam-packed description, with the townsfolk singing of what they think of their respective subjects, and they're just great bouncy joy, not to mention hellaciously catchy.  Even when the lyrics are kind of dubious ("I'm the best at expectorating") they're dubious on purpose to be funny; and both benefit from freewheeling animation, especially "Belle," and both pull double-duty to establish the town as a credible (and oppressive) setting.  Nevertheless, "Gaston" could get the edge because White's singing is my favorite, and he's giving an underrated performance of his own; he also has a ringer lead animator in Andreas Deja, who I think was having the most fun out of any of the character leads.  Gaston's not much that "Sleepy Hollow" didn't do better half a century earlier, but he is a good villain, and White's a good Gaston; between him and Deja, the film manages to bring out Gaston's secret malign intelligence surprisingly naturally.  Ashman's realignment of Gaston from boor to sociopath, right in the middle of Gaston's own song without changing anything about its anthemic cheerfulness, is downright superb, so that "no one plots like Gaston/takes cheap shots like Gaston/persecutes harmless crackpots like Gaston!" winds up my personal favorite bit of lyrical playfulness in the whole film.  So maybe I like "Gaston" better simply because "Gaston" actually defines its title character in affirmative ways.  Well, on the minus side, I don't much like looking at Gaston's sidekick Le Fou (Jessi Corti), whose "Disney grotesque" throwback design prompts all manner of disagreeable cartoon frippery.

As for hellacious catchiness: its hooks didn't go as deep this spin, thank God, but "Be Our Guest" must've been my "Let It Go" back in 1991, with Orbach's cloying vocals and its belligerent titular refrain; at least the Berkeleyesque production number that accompanies it is mostly marvelous, showing off the ways that WDFA's increasingly-digital production methods could make large companies of objects dance, for good (the quick-dolly through a gauntlet of genuflecting candlesticks) and ill (freakish CGI forks with little demon faces).  At bottom, though, "Be Our Guest" doesn't do much: it's the big energetic number that Ashman liked to put at the beginning of his second acts, yet while "Under the Sea" deepens Ariel's character by showing us how tired she is of such indoctrination, and "Friend Like Me" demonstrates the Genie's omnipotence, and "Prince Ali" prefigures Aladdin buying into his own pretense, "Be Our Guest" isn't about Belle, or Beast, or the plot.  It really is about singing tableware, at best signifying that the servants root for Belle, which... yeah, obviously.  (And it occurs to me that O'Hara herself doesn't sing much in this moviepossibly less than Jodi Benson did in Mermaid, and that was a plot requirement in Mermaid.)

That leaves, aside from some odds-and-ends best not to deal with, "Tale As Old As Time": the film's least-ambitious song but intentional about it, it's just a pure and direct tug on the heartstrings, delivered by Lansbury over Belle and Beast's first dance.  Her aging voice was perfect for the fragile romance the song's going for (even tinging it with a curious, productive nostalgia), which is why one's awfully glad Ashman made her sing it even though she had her doubts she was up to it.  It's backed up, anyway, by the most ambitious visual of the whole film, the 3-D ballroom that permitted the camera to circle around the animated figures.  Oh yes, that CG backdrop is very obviously CG.  But it holds up better than it quite has a right to, for an unpainted effect in 1991.

If it's not the film's most beautiful sequence, then that belongs to its climax, bringing back both Menken's twinkling and our slain, beloved Beastbut either one of those sequences would make it worth pinning some measure of greatness onto Beauty and the Beast, after all.

Score: 7/10

*Hey, not to get political, but you know who else calls Beauty and the Beast their favorite Disney cartoon?  Jordan Peterson, and if you want to really feel weird, consider how obviously it would be.

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