The biggest achievement attained by Disney’s 1991 film Beauty and the Beast is being the first animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Sure, Disney movies from that era like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and The Lion King. remain classics decades later, but Beauty and the Beast stands alone. But years later and with a live-action remake days away, does it still deserve that spot at the top? Yes. Always.
The opening lyrics of the movie’s iconic title song put it best: “Tale as old as time.” Beauty and the Beast is so good it’s genuinely hard to remember that it’s only 26 years old. Sure, it helps that it’s about a fairy tale centuries old, but the Disney movie goes far beyond that—its timelessness is built into its DNA, its pitch-perfect storytelling, its memorable, iconic characters, and most of all, its music.
Case in point: The very first song, “Belle,” is not only a catchy tune, it’s a storytelling powerhouse. It establishes the setting and world of the film, explains the main character, foreshadows the rest of the movie, and sets up one of the film’s main conflicts, all in mere minutes. It’s not alone. “Gaston” serves a similar purpose, using a toe-tapping melody to set up the movie’s conflict. “Be Our Guest” introduces all the servant characters in the castle, while simultaneously being a showcase for the wonders of the animated art form. “Something There” marks the transition of the relationship between Belle and the Beast and “The Mob Song” acts as a marker of the movie’s tonal shift, from sweet second act to the action-packed finale.
Then there’s Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s title (and Oscar-winning) song, beautifully sung by Angela Lansbury’s Mrs. Potts. Watching Belle and the Beast dance in the ballroom to it—it almost seems as the song couldn’t have been written in the ‘90s for this film. Like it must have been around for centuries, always part of our culture. There’s not a song from another animated movie—not even Disney’s—that gives you this feeling.
Everything serves a purpose in Beauty and the Beast. Including credits, the movie comes in under 90 minutes but it doesn’t feel short. That’s because it’s packed with information and a true economy of storytelling. Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise don’t get the credit they deserve for the film’s marvelous structure, tone, and pacing. You rarely see a movie tell a story so well, so quickly.
The very first scene in the film features the Beast’s entire backstory, which set up via voiceover in a prologue that runs less than three minutes. Read this. Seriously.
Every word is carefully and deliberately selected, conveying everything that needs to be conveyed in stunning efficiency. And the entire film shows that same precision and attention to details. There’s never a dull moment in Beauty in the Beast, because the filmmakers worked so hard to keep them out.
While the storytelling may hold up like a swiss watch, more than 25 years later, the film has developed some issues. Gaston’s aggressive advances on Belle are more than a little uncomfortable; Belle willfully sacrificing her entire life for her father feels less like an act of selflessness than an act of stupidity. The Beast actually considering her a lifetime prisoner because her father sat by his fire is difficult to justify. Also, if you do the math, the Beast was transformed by the enchantress at the age of 10 or 11, which seems like a pretty weird thing to do to a child.
But while these things like those haven’t aged as gracefully as everything else, the “everything else” more than makes up for them. Plus, there are multiple, subtle character moments that do their best to correct those awkward setups. The Beast, in his chambers, immediately regretting his tone with Belle, for example.
Watching the film as an adult, you realize how so much of it was also geared toward us, while still remaining thoroughly enjoyable for kids. For instance, a lot of the film’s vocabulary is way over the head of most children; words like “provincial,” “expectorating,” and “baroque” are thrown around liberally. They’re proof that the filmmakers were really trying to make a film that entertained everybody—a true family film in every sense of the term.
I haven’t even mentioned the hand-drawn animation which is as colorful and vibrant today as any computer animated movie you’ll see in a theater. The life in every single frame is so vivid, it’s still hard not to be awed by the visuals, even in a post-Avatar world. And remember, this is a hand-drawn animated film.
And it remains one the best animated films of all time. Worthy of its place in history not just as a Best Picture nominee, but as the gold standard of what a Disney film should be. However good the live-action Beauty and the Beast movie may be when it opens this Friday, it will be a distant second to its predecessor forever—ever as before and ever just as sure as the sun will rise.