4. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
This is the best Disney animated feature film and the first of them to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, which was a monumental feat for any animation studio (let alone Disney!). The movie has a sophistication not seen in many of Disney's other films. Its animation is crisp and more life-like (even the talking objects have a realistic quality to them!). Its musical score is inspired (and perfectly mimics) the classic Broadway musical archetype. Its story, one of the hardest fairy tales to retain on film, is fleshed out with more interesting plot points and well-developed characters. It also came at a time for the studio when the House of the Mouse needed their new musical formula (brilliantly explored in 1989's hit The Little Mermaid) to be cemented with both critics and box-office receipts. It even inspired the Disney studio to tackle Broadway when they adapted the film into a stage musical in 1994 that ran in New York for over 10 years and is still touring to packed houses.
Based on the Madame de Beaumont fairy tale written in the 18th century, its an iconic story about a beautiful young woman who forms a relationship with a hideous monster. The tale has been told and re-told in many ways ranging from nursery rhymes to gothic novels (like The Phantom of the Opera). The original story is made up over a passage of time with the two main characters sitting down to dinner each night. Therefore, it has become one of the most difficult tales to capture on film. Before 1991, the most successful movie version of the original tale was Jean Cocteau's 1946 French film (still today considered one of the greatest foreign films of all-time). Cocteau's version is filled with stylistic images that are definitive of French films of the time. To match those visuals, who better than the Disney animation studios? The animators, energized from the success of The Little Mermaid, worked tirelessly to get the two lead characters to have distinctive and stylistically different looks.
In the meantime, producer Don Hahn tapped writer Linda Woolverton to work with composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman (both of whom had worked on Mermaid) on the movie's script. Ashman's influence is heavily noticeable especially in the structure of the songs which, like many Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals, move the story and characters along rather than distract from the action. In voice casting, they picked from some of Broadway's (and TV's) brightest luminaries. Stage actress Paige O'Hara and former child star Robby Benson were chosen to voice the titular characters. O'Hara's beautiful voice and Benson's dramatic style work quite well for the characters as they grow closer over the course of the film. In the roles of the household objects, stage and TV veterans Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers and the brilliant Angela Lansbury voice the candelabra, the clock and the teapot, respectively. The songs, by Menken and Ashman (the latter passed away just as the film was released), are delightful and perfectly fit the Disney narrative (like the opener "Belle," the show-stopper "Be Our Guest" and the gorgeous title tune). The film is an amazing masterpiece that defines the Disney "Musical Renaissance" and became a well-deserved pioneer in the animation world by garnering critical praise and award recognition.
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