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"Tale as Old as Time" may make you fall in love with Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" all over again

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"Tale as Old as Time" may make you fall in love with Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" all over again

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It is arguably the best-loved film of that trio of fairy tales that Walt Disney Animation Studios produced during its Second Golden Age. The first hand-drawn animated feature ever to be nominated for Best Picture, "Beauty and the Beast" has been discussed, dissected and written about so often over the past 19 years ... Well, one has to wonder if there are any stories that have yet to be told about this "Tale as old as Time."

Well, noted animation historian & critic Charles Solomon rose to that challenge. He interviewed dozens of artists, executives and animators who were personally involved with this much-beloved motion picture. And given the nearly two decades that have passed at this point, a number of these folks were now willing to share stories that reveal how truly troubled / charmed this production was. Which is why Solomon's newest book, "Tale as Old as Time: The Art and Making of Beauty and the Beast" (Disney Editions, August 2010) now has be consider the definitive account of how this much-beloved animated film actually came to be.

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And Charles, he goes all the way back. Back to the 1950s when Disney first toyed with the idea of producing an animated version of this classic French fairy tale. As Frank Thomas, one of the Studio's "Nine Old Men," once told Solomon:

"When Walt became all wrapped up in the theme parks and live-action films, we tried to get him interested in animation again ... (Disney) said, "If I ever do go back, there are only two subjects I would want to do. One of them is 'Beauty and the Beast.' For the life of me, I can't remember what the other one was."

Charles then tried to determine whether any real development was done on this project during Walt's day. But ...

... neither the Walt Disney Archives nor the Animation Research Library contain any artwork or story notes. Artists only began to submit treatments for "Beauty and the Beast" years after Walt's death.

The earliest treatment was from Studio veterans Pete Young, Vance Gerry, and Steve Hulett in 1983. In this version, the handsome prince of a small but wealthy kingdom enjoys racing his carriage through the forest, which scares the animals. The forest witch turns the prince into a "large, furry, catlike creature" to teach him humility. Animals attend Belle in a ruined castle, instead of enchanted objects.

Solomon then takes his readers through Disney's earliest attempt at producing an animated version of "Beauty and the Beast." Back when Richard and Jill Purdum, the husband-and-wife team, were in charge of this project. Back when Maurice wasn't an inventor. But - rather - a kindly merchant who had fallen on hard times ...

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... and Belle had a younger sister, Clarice, as well as a cat named Charley.

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But with the success of "The Little Mermaid," Jeffrey Katzenberg (the then-head of Walt Disney Studios) decided that the Purdums' far-too-dark, non-musical version wasn't going to work. As "Beauty and the Beast" producer Don Hahn told Solomon:

(Katzenberg) said, "I want to get Howard (Ashman) and Alan (Menken) involved and musicalize this. It has to be pushed, it has to be much more entertaining, it has to be much more commercial. This is too dark. We've got to start over."

And to make sure that this reboot of "Beauty and the Beast" really did have a fresh new take on this material, Jeffrey handed this production to two guys who had never ever directed a feature-length animated film before, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale.

Which - as you might expect - led to a few clashes among members of this newly-thrown-together creative team.  Especially as they tried to get a handle on how to properly tell this story. As Kirk Wise recalled one of his more memorable encounters with Howard Ashman:

Finding a way to show how the Beast fell under the curse provoked a memorable disagreement. Howard envisioned the prologue as a fully animated sequence in which the audience would see a seven-year-old prince rudely refuse to give shelter to an old woman during a storm. Revealing herself to be a beautiful enchantress, the woman would chase the boy through the castle hurling bolts of magic that would turn the servants into objects. Eventually her spell would change the prince into the Beast boy, who would press his face against one of the castle windows screaming "Come back! Come back!"

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Gary and I hated the idea. The only thing that I could see in my head was this Eddie Munster kid in a Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit," Kirk recalls wincing. "I got elected to break the news that we had a different idea for the prologue. Howard came in that morning all smiles, with a bag of cinnamon-sugar donuts from his favorite shop. I can't remember what exactly I said, but one of the words I used was cheap, meaning doing something terrible to a child was a cheap way to pull an audience's heartstrings. I couldn't have picked a worse word, because Howard just lit into me. We left for California either that evening or the following morning, and because of the company's austerity program, we were flying coach, with a layover in St. Louis. While we were sitting on the runway, I thought, I could get off the plane, change my name, and vanish into Missouri.

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But Wise didn't get off that plane and then sneak away into the streets of St. Louis. He and Gary hung in there. Gradually growing in confidence, thanks - in large part - to the talented vocal cast that they'd assembled for "Beauty and the Beast."

You want to hear the textbook definition of "show business professional" ? Check out this story that Solomon got Don Hahn to tell about Angela Lansbury and the recording of the ballad for "Beauty and the Beast" :

(The) recording (of that) ballad was challenging ... The sessions were done at a studio in New York with a full orchestra and chorus; Howard and Alan preferred to record a live performance rather than recording the singer and the instrumental music separately.

"We booked Angela and her husband on MGM Grand Air out of Los Angeles, but there was a bomb scare after they took off, and the plane had to land in Las Vegas," said Don. "We finished recording 'Belle' and 'Be Our Guest.' No Angela. Do we let the orchestra go and try and pick it up the next day, or do we wait for Angela to call? Being the pro that she is, she called from the airport: "I just landed, I'm on my way, I'll be there in a half hour."

Kirk Wise directs Angela Lansbury during a dialogue recording session for "Beauty
and the Beast."
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When she arrived at the studio after a long and harrowing day, Don told her, "You really don't have to do this. You can go home." He says, "Angela said, 'Don't be ridiculous. I'm rehearsed. I'm ready to go." She went into the booth and sang 'Beauty and the Beast' from beginning to end and just nailed it. We picked up a couple of lines here and there, but essentially that one take is what we used for the movie."

Of course, not everyone that Wise & Trousdale hired were show business veterans like Lansbury. As Solomon reveals, the hunt for just the right voice for the Beast led Kirk & Gary to make a very unlikely casting choice:

The directors spent several worrisome weeks not knowing who their leading man would be. One day, Albert (Tavares, "Beauty and the Beast" 's casting director), brought in a tape that he reluctantly told Kirk and Gary was from Robby Benson, an actor who was known at the time for playing earnest, sensitive heroes.

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"We looked at him kind of cross-eyed and said 'Robby Benson? Ice Castles Robby Benson?" Kirk recalls. "But his tape just blew us away. His voice was an amazing combination of vulnerability and anger. The first time we heard it, we said, 'I can hear the human being inside of the animal.' He managed to play the animal side against the human side, and there was this melancholic quality to his performance. He was finding layers that went well beyond the actual dialogue. So we cut it against some visuals and played it for Jeffery. He liked it, but when we told him who it was, he said the exact same thing: "Ice Castles Robby Benson?"

And it's not just the casting of this film that Solomon takes you behind-the-scenes with. Charles also reveals the role that Disney's finances in the early 1990s played in the production of "Beauty and the Beast" :

When The Rescuers Down Under was released in 1990 and earned only $28 million domestically - only one third of the $84.3 million The Little Mermaid made the year before - the filmmakers were required to pay more attention to the bottom line.

"Rescuers kind of failed to live up to expectations, and the watchword of the day became 'austerity.' It was a word we heard a lot," says Kirk. "We had meetings to discuss every possible way to reduce the number of man-hours it took to create each drawing. The biggest offender in that category was Beast: Glen (Keane) had added six tiger stripes to the side of the Beast's head. They looked great in the drawing, but they were absolute hell to clean up."

"We all came in one weekend to discuss ways to simplify the movie so we could bring it in at a price that was palatable to the Studio but wouldn't completely gut the production value. It wasn't easy and it wasn't pleasant," he continues grimly. "At one point, Brian (McEntree) and Peter Schneider were yelling at each other so loudly and turning so purple that Security knocked at the door - they were worried that there was going to be some sort of incident."

Reading through this 176-page hardcover, you also learn about the parts of "Beauty and the Beast" that didn't make it up on the big screen. Not for budgetary reasons, mind you. But due to technological challenges.

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Take - for example - the Beast's battle in the woods with the wolves. As Solomon reveals in "Tale as Old as Time," this sequence in "Beauty and the Beast" was originally supposed to be this CG tour-de-force:

When Chris Sanders storyboarded the chase through the forest and the fight where the Beast defends Belle against the wolves, he wanted to incorporate a moving camera that would follow Belle, Philippe, and the wolf pack as they ran through the trees and across the snow. Kirk and Gary agreed and asked the CG department if they could create a computer-generated forest that would enable them to use the innovative photography they envisioned.

"They turned the idea over to our talented colleagues in CGI, and we waited. Finally, after what seemed like months of research and development, they called us in to see the progress they had made on the forest. We got this pointy, wire-frame object that looked like a chicken's foot, which they could rotate in space. I remember Don saying something to the effect of , 'That's it?' Not long after that, we decided to pull the plug on the chicken-foot forest. We concentrated the CG resources on creating the ballroom.

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Which isn't to say that that sequence was a hit straight out of the box. When the original version of "Beauty and the Beast" 's CGI fly-thru of the ballroom was shown to Katzenberg.

The camera moves were so fast and complicated it felt as if the viewer were flying a jet fighter around the ballroom. (CG artist Greg Griffith said): Jeffery was just apoplectic: 'This is not about Beauty and the Beast.' This is not about these characters. This is not about anything except you, showing off all the neat-o things you can do. Go back and do it again!' "

That's what's really great about "Tales as Old of Time." This Charles Solomon book lets you see "Beauty and the Beast" as it really is. Which Don Hahn likens to Dumbo:

Dumbo's my favorite Disney movie - along with many others - but it's full of mistakes and bad drawings and such because they did it for a price. We did this one for a price. There was a recession in 1991, and we were scrambling: the whole movie got done in about eleven months."

"The odd thing is, it's not the best drawn movie. Aladdin is probably the best in terms of draftsmanship and design," he concludes thoughtfully. "It's not the best-painted movie. It's probably not the best musical score, although it does have the best songs in the world. But there's a lot of youthful energy in the movie: this generation (of Disney artists and animators) was in the sweet spot of their career when it was made. There's a raw puppy love in Beauty and the Beast; you can only fall in love for the first time once, and Beauty and the Beast was it."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Well, I don't know about that. As you read through Charles Solomon's "Tale as Old as Time: The Art and Making of Beauty and the Beast," you'll definitely come away with a renewed appreciation for this acclaimed animated feature. Which is why - as you read through this new Disney Editions book - you may find yourself falling in love with "Beauty and the Beast" all over again.

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  • Beauty and the Beast is a classic. Now I just wish they would build a ride around the movie. Imagine rolling into a ballroom on the traceless ride technology (used in Poohs Honey Hunt. TDL) and going into a well choreographed dance routine with the other ride cars as you spin and dance with Bell and the Beast.

  • I don't know about Aladdin being a better film than Beast when it comes to draftsmanship. When watching it, I've noticed that, all too often, when characters turn their heads, the features swim all over their faces. And it's also painfully clear that the new young animators...didn't really know how to draw "funny". Facial reactions in "takes" are crude and even ugly when they should be wild and expressive. Frankly, after watching Pinocchio and Fantasia, I can barely watch Aladdin anymore. It's just so badly done in comparison. I can handle Beast okay - there's enough magic and darkness to make it a winning film - but the most watchable latter-day Disney 2D film for me is The Lion King. Maybe the lack of humans in the film helped. In any case, it's a gorgeous movie, with such emotional strength...not even the Pixars can match it in terms of emotional resonance.

  • Gigglesock- There is a lot of validity in what you are saying.  People tend to be much more difficult to draw and animate than animals, or other types of characters, because people inherently know what humans are supposed to look like and how they are supposed to move - and are therefore more critical when something is just not right. Like you I also feel that, artistically, The Lion KIng is a tighter movie than Aladdin, and certainly tighter than B&B.  Many of the artists that had worked on The Lion King also worked on The Little Mermaid, B&B and Aladdin, and much of the improvement can easily be attributed to gained experience over the years, but it also could simply be because Lion King is an 'animal picture'. I was an animator on the Beast, and people often mentioned how tight and consistent the Beast was drawn and animated from scene to scene - but those of us cast to draw him saw all sorts of problems.  The reason often was, being an animal (and a somewhat fanciful character with an 'invented' anatomy) the imperfections didn't stick out like they would on, say, Belle (who was done at least as well, or more so, than the Beast), but gets more 'guff'.

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