How 'Beauty and the Beast' Changed Disney Animation – and Animated Feature Films – Forever

(Revisiting the Renaissance is a bi-weekly series in which Josh Spiegel looks back at the history and making of the 13 films of the Disney Renaissance, released between 1986 and 1999. In today’s column, he discusses the 1991 Best Picture Oscar nominee Beauty and the Beast.)

As the Disney Renaissance hit its first peak in the late 1980s, executive Jeffrey Katzenberg had a mantra when it came to the films that Walt Disney Animation Studios would continue to produce throughout the 1990s: “Bigger, better, faster, cheaper.” The Little Mermaid had certainly achieved the first two goals of that aim, but making low-budget animated films on a tight schedule was a concern for animators. They were laser-focused on the second word of his mantra: “better”. 

After the relative failure of The Rescuers Down Under, Disney Animation wasn’t going to collectively lick its wounds and mope — they were already moving onto the next project. It was, like The Little Mermaid, an adaptation that had been through development at the studio as far back as the 1930s. It was, like The Little Mermaid, a film that would retell one of the most well-known fairy tales ever written. It wouldn’t be cheaper, but Beauty and the Beast was bigger, better, and made on a shockingly fast schedule, to the point where it nearly missed its release date.

A Tale as Old as Time

Walt Disney had his eyes set on an adaptation of the French fairy tale Beauty and the Beast after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but the timing never worked out. First, the studio suffered financial losses incurred by the initially muted reactions to films like Fantasia and Bambi, as well as by dedicating resources to making propaganda for the U.S. government in the midst of World War II. Then, in the 1950s, as the studio had a resurgence with films like Cinderella and Peter Pan, Disney’s focus on the Disneyland theme park as well as a possible fear that the studio would be copying the success of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 classic live-action version of the story left an animated version collecting dust. 

But the story of the fair maiden who falls in love with a beastly prince reared its head once more in the 1980s. Katzenberg and the Disney animators needed new stories if they wanted to keep releasing films on an annual basis. When the project was greenlit into production in 1987, it shared one very distinct characteristic with The Rescuers Down Under — there were no songs to be found. Katzenberg had initially asked British animation icon Richard Williams to helm the project, but he passed. (Williams was then working on the animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and hoped to follow it up with a long-in-the-works project called The Thief and the Cobbler.) Williams’ recommendation to take over was Richard Purdum, a fellow Brit who took on the project in a very different direction.

Beauty and the Beast would have gone in a different direction whether Purdum was there or not, if only because of a specific request Michael Eisner had. In his mind, this movie needed a screenwriter. That may seem like a basic necessity for…any film, but the world of Disney animation frequently utilized its story artists as opposed to screenwriters, in the same way that live-action films employ writers. Eisner, still unused to how stories came together in large, collaborative efforts in the animators’ offices, all but demanded a screenwriter. The project then added Linda Woolverton to the team, previously known for her work on children’s shows like Chip ‘n’ Dale Rescue Rangers and The Berenstain Bears

As noted in an oral history with Entertainment Weekly, Woolverton was aware of the fact that her style, and her commitment that the lead character of Beauty and the Beast shouldn’t be the typically passive princess of Disney lore, wasn’t making her friends: “I didn’t make myself very popular.” The film’s producer, Don Hahn, said in the same oral history, “The storyboard artists weren’t used to having a screenwriter in the room, and Linda, uh…Linda’s manner at times could be combative.” But even leaving Woolverton’s style aside, Beauty and the Beast was going to have to go through major upheavals before it could even truly get off the ground.

A Dangerous Pastime

In 1989, Katzenberg was shown roughly 20 minutes of the footage Purdum had worked on, for a version of Beauty and the Beast that now lives on in the special features on various home-media releases of the 1991 classic. Purdum’s take does have a winsome, beautiful lead named Belle, and there is an antagonistic man named Gaston who wants to marry her. And there’s a Beast with enchanted objects in its mansion. That much is true. 

But the Purdum version was statelier and more dramatic in its presentation. The character designs were much different, and allowed for less of the whimsy inherent in the final film. The heroine is, like Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty before her, beset upon by an imperious older woman; this time, it’s her aunt, who wants to marry her off to Gaston. The enchanted objects were, with just one exception, both voiceless and faceless. And again, there were no songs. 

Though The Little Mermaid was a few months away from being released when he saw the test footage, Katzenberg had grown increasingly (and, as history bore out, correctly) convinced that the film about a sweet-hearted mermaid was going to be a game-changer for Disney. Though the studio’s first sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, would eschew songs, Katzenberg saw an opportunity for music in Beauty and the Beast, courtesy of the same men who gave Ariel her voice, lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken.

A musical with talking objects was, for good or ill, not what Richard Purdum had signed up for, so he bowed out of the project. Thus, in essence, the studio had to start from scratch on Beauty and the Beast, all while still attempting to release a film by the end of 1991 to keep up its once-a-year pace. To replace Purdum, Katzenberg made the logical — in his mind — request; if Ashman and Menken would write the music and songs, why not have John Musker and Ron Clements take the reins just as they did with The Little Mermaid? It was that film, though, that led the duo to pass on the job — they needed time to relax before diving into their next project. Then, Katzenberg looked to two animators who hadn’t directed anything beyond a five-minute short for the EPCOT Center theme park in Orlando: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.

The Great Wide Somewhere

In fact, the project Musker and Clements were focusing on next, instead of Beauty, had been Ashman’s passion for a while: a feature adaptation of the Middle Eastern fairy tale of Aladdin and the magical lamp. Though Musker and Clements would be able to more smoothly shift onto that project without working on Beauty and the Beast, Ashman and Menken were encouraged to join the director-free take on the French fairy tale. 

As recounted in the incredible and vital Disney documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, the shift in directors and music was coupled by the pre-production moving from London to upstate New York at a local Residence Inn. This enabled Ashman and Menken to work directly with Wise, Trousdale, Hahn, and Woolverton. Though it was a fairly unheard-of production shift, the movie was necessitated by something simple and tragic. Howard Ashman was dying.

For a long time, very few people knew that Ashman had been diagnosed with AIDS. He’d decided to tell Katzenberg soon after The Little Mermaid opened; the executive’s immediate response was to offer any help the studio could provide, hence the pre-production shift in location. Until the after-party at the Oscars ceremony where they won for The Little Mermaid, even Alan Menken hadn’t known of Ashman’s health problems — just the writer’s family and his partner, Bill Lauch. 

It was March of 1990 when Menken found out. Not even a full year later, Ashman would be gone. But the intervening period was one of tireless work on the composing team’s part, to create songs where none had previously existed and add joy where there had been a staid story and dull, starchy characters.

For Ashman, the production of Beauty and the Beast may have served as a way to stave off the disease ravaging his body. He and the other filmmakers holed up in upstate New York did end up following in a few of the footsteps of the Cocteau masterpiece, such as giving Gaston more of a front-and-center antagonistic role. The most notable difference, and one that was a huge key to the film’s success, was giving personality to the household objects. 

The changes were drastic enough that Katzenberg approved a script in the early part of 1990. A number of Disney animators were tasked not just with storyboarding the script, but going back and forth between Burbank and New York, without fully grasping why. They just knew they had to get to work quickly – though the early 1990s were a far cry from how studios plant a metaphorical flag on certain dates years in advance for untitled films, the end of 1991 was coming up fast and they had to get a film ready for release.

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