As we reach the 30th entry in Saturday Matinee (falling on July 30th, no less!), I've decided to not look at a short cartoon, but at an animated sequence within a feature film. Since I've already brought notice to the number 30 twice, it's only appropriate that I thrice it up by selecting the 30th Disney Animated Classic: Beauty and the Beast. The film has always been one of my absolute favorites, and ties with Aladdin as my favorite Disney Animated Classic. I was in first grade when the film came to theatres, and in anticipation of the film, I asked my parents if I could order a behind-the-scenes picture book via our school's Scholastic Book Club. I don't remember if I ordered any other books, although if I did, they took a backseat to Beauty and the Beast.
Sadly, the book is long gone - either lost or accidentally thrown away - but I remember it featured pictures from the movie and a variety of behind-the-scenes photos. Seeing the images of Belle, Beast, and the Enchanted Objects made me very excited for the movie, even though I didn't see it until the VHS release a year later. And while I had no idea who Don Hahn, Howard Ashman,
or Paige O'Hara were, I was excited that I could read their names below their pictures. It felt more personal knowing their names. My six-year-old self assumed that since I did, if I ever saw them in the street, they'd be a friend and not a stranger. But enough about my twenty-year-old memories. Let's take a look instead at the twenty-year-old film, and a specific sequence. The scene selected is one that's rather "simple" in its execution and animation, yet very vital to the entire story.
(Belle pours hot water from Mrs. Potts into a basin, then wrings a towel from it. She sees Beast licking his wound.)
Belle: Here now, don't do that!
(Beast growls. She attempts to press the towel against his wound, be he constantly moves his arm away.)
Belle: Just hold still...
(She presses the towel against his wound. Beast roars in her face.)
Beast: That hurts!
Belle: If you hold still, it wouldn't as much!
Beast: If you hadn't run away, this wouldn't have happened.
Belle: If you hadn't frightened me, I wouldn't have run away!
(Beast is briefly taken aback, then retorts with a look of satisfaction.)
Beast: Well, you shouldn't have been in the West Wing!
Belle: Well, you should learn to control your temper.
(Beast is now completely shocked. No one's ever talked back to him like that. He looks reluctantly defeated.)
Belle: Now hold still, this might sting a little.
(Once again, she presses the towel against the wound. Rather than roar, Beast turns away and makes a disapproving groan.)
Belle: By the way, thank you, for saving my life.
(Beast is surprised, he looks back at her.)
Beast: You're welcome.
The Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-Ray all refer to the above scene as the very literal "Belle Tends to the Beast's Wounds," but I've always called it "The Argument." This week, when I was writing my thoughts on the scene, I realized that while it is indeed an argument, it stands for much more in the whole film. As such, I've called it "The Moment," as it is this vital scene (around the 49-minute mark) that really gets the ball rolling for Belle and Beast's relationship. Before this moment, he was her jailer and she his prisoner. Their earlier argument ("I thought I told you to come down to dinner!" / "I'm not hungry!") showed how much they hated each other. It's not until this quiet moment - after all the drama of the West Wing, running away, and the wolves - that they finally show their vulnerabilities and become civil to each other. For Beast, his vulnerabilities come from his defeated reaction towards someone just as headstrong as he is. He's not used to this, and ultimately realizes that being the big burly Beast won't scare Belle anymore.
With Belle, her vulnerability is her compassion. This man imprisoned her father, then imprisoned her, and has already yelled at her on two previous occasions. When she is given a chance to escape and run back home, it comes at the risk of leaving Beast to die in the forest. Her compassion - and perhaps also her sense of obligation - leads her to taking Beast back to his castle and tending to his wounds. Granted, if Belle hadn't been poking around the West Wing in the first place, Beast might not have yelled at her, she might not have run away, he might not have run after her and fought wolves, and she might not have brought him back. But what's important is that even though she was given the chance to escape, she didn't. She put his well-being ahead of her own, as she did for her father earlier. She knows that such a chance to escape likely will never come again, and yet she still makes the selfless decision to save him.
From a technical standpoint, the scene is remarkably effective in its low-key approach. There is no "this is how you should feel" background music, save for a few bars towards the end, which serve more to transition to the next scene. It really helps bring to focus the dialogue. We don't have the Enchanted Objects making any unnecessary comments. Imagine Chip telling Mrs. Potts "I'm scared, Mama!" or Cogsworth muttering, "I knew this would happen" during this scene. It would suddenly turn The Moment into just another scene. It's better that they are silent witnesses to the action. The filmmakers wisely allow the scene to play out simply between Belle and the Beast. And their dialogue is very "normal," so to speak, as something you would overhear in a restaurant or on the street. This helps make the characters and their situation more relatable to an audience. They can identify with a bickering couple better than they can with a woman and a beast.
However, it's really the animation that sets the scene up as my favorite in the entire film. The supervising animators for Belle and Beast (James Baxter & Mark Henn, Glen Keane, respectively) really captured the intensity of their emotions, while also "holding back" and allowing the argument to play out as naturally as possible. We do get a few wild gesticulations from Beast initially, but they dwindle throughout the scene, showing that he can't get to her in such theatrical ways. Belle, on the other hand, rarely moves around. The animators let the tone of her voice define her actions, and so you see a calm woman simply trying to reason with the beast. Other sequences in the film may be more showy and exciting - the ballroom dance and transformation are easily the best - but it's always the minimalist approach that impresses me. We get to know these characters not because they're well-animated, but because we don't realize just how well-animated they are. They become real within the filmwatching experience, and not just a series of 24 drawings per second.
Laserdisc covers courtesy of DisneyInfo.nl
I have been, and always will be, an unabashedly big fan of Beauty and the Beast. I could write for hours about how the film has impacted me and my views on filmmaking in general. All the elements of filmmaking come together magically, and I can't imagine Disney ever producing an animated classic that resonates to me as much as this does. True, there are pieces of animation and plot holes that could use improvement and revising, but when we consider just how short a production time the film had (two years as opposed to four, since the non-musical first treatment by Richard Purdum had to be scrapped), what the cast and crew accomplished is really quite impressive and worthy of praise. It's no wonder the film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Cynics my attribute that to the intense publicity and marketing, but really, this film deserved it.
Disney has been well aware of the film's popularity, and Beauty and the Beast has always been one of the upper-tier titles in animation canon with high-quality home video releases to match. Its first foray into home video was on VHS, CAV Laserdisc, and CLV Laserdisc in 1992, with the acclaimed "Work in Progress" Edition released on CAV Laserdisc a year later. The film then released to DVD in 2002 with a groundbreaking two-disc set that offered three versions of the film (Special Edition, Theatrical, and Work in Progress) and an abundance of supplements. This was later surpassed last fall with a three-disc set (two Blu-Rays, one DVD) that boasted an all-new high-definition transfer supervised by producer Don Hahn, as well as over three hours of new and interactive supplements. And if that's not enough, we'll soon see the release of Beauty and the Beast 3-D. You can't find that in theatres - its February 2011 theatrical run was unfortunately canceled - as it will instead make its debut on Blu-Ray 3-D this fall.