Broadway came to Disney in spectacular fashion with “Beauty and the Beast” in 1991, led by the brilliant songwriting team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, marking the first best picture nom for an animated feature. Inspired by Ashman’s lyrical and storytelling brilliance, Disney came of age during its second renaissance with a more mature, adult fairy tale (ultimately winning two Oscars for score and best song).
Here’s what we learned Monday night at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater prior to screening a 70mm theatrical release print from the Academy Film Archive.
An Empowered Belle
Mark Henn, the supervising animator for Belle (Paige O’Hara), said the most unique aspect was making her the oldest leading lady in Disney’s esteemed line-up. She was more mature, she knew her mind, and “she wasn’t looking for a ‘whole new world.'” She was devoted to her eccentric father and she didn’t need a prince charming to make her life complete.
Plus, her love story with the Beast (Robby Benson) developed gradually and believably.
A Warm-Hearted Beast
Supervising animator Glen Keane roamed the London Zoo and kept a sketch book, taking inspiration from a melancholy gorilla named Caesar; and Benson instantly realized that this was not a cartoon and that he could convey an honesty in his vocal performance, making full use of the Walkman during his first recording session to compress and amplify the sound.
A Tracy and Hepburn Vibe
Brenda Chapman, the key story artist, tapped into the romantic onscreen chemistry between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn for Belle and the Beast. “He was like a big baby,” she said. But while Ashman immediately took to her idea, Chapman fumbled her pitch to Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg until Ashman assured him that it would work.
The Innovative Ballroom Dance Sequence
Roger Allers, the story supervisor, said they achieved a new kind of lingering environment at Disney with hybrid experimentation. This marked the second feature to use CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), the digital scanning, ink, paint and compositing system developed by Pixar, to simulate depth and swirling camera for splendor and intimacy.
Ashman and Menken cold-called the veteran actress in Los Angeles and pitched her on playing the maternal Mrs. Potts by playing their rock-laden theme song. Lansbury was enticed but had her own vision for performing the song. However, her flight from Los Angeles to New York to record it live with the New York Phil was delayed as a result of a bomb scare. But despite a layover in Vegas, Lansbury made it in time and insisted on recording as scheduled. She got it on the first try.
David Ogden Stiers recalled tapping his own personal experience when offering romantic advice on how to best woo Belle: “Flowers, chocolates, promises you never intend to keep.”
Trouble with Gaston
Andreas Deja, the supervising animator for Gaston (Richard White), admitted that he had trouble with Katzenberg’s insistence on making the villain supremely handsome. But once Katzenberg stressed the “never judge a book by its cover” theme, Deja had his eureka moment.
So here we are, 25 years later, with Disney enjoying its third renaissance, and coming full circle with next year’s live-action adaptation of the Broadway musical version of “Beauty and the Beast” starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens and directed by Bill Condon (“Chicago”).