_ Fairy tale


As the first animated feature ever to achieve an Oscar nomination for Best Film, Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is a classic movie by anyone’s standards. Trevor Johnston meets the men who finally took cartoons out of the kindergarten.

‘We were drunk all day,’ admits Gary Trousedale, the gingery bearded half of Beauty and the Beast’s guiding creative partnership, recalling the announcement of the film’s Academy Award chances. ‘It was like we were up there with Silence of the Lambs and JFK, that suddenly these little line and ink creations were regarded as the equal of flesh and blood actors. At long last we’d finally escaped from the cartoon ghetto.’

As the 30th and most commercially successful of all Walt Disney’s animated features, Beauty and the Beast brings to mind the company’s finest hours, from the run of pioneer full-length offerings - Snow White, Bambi and Pinnochio to the high artistic standards reached in the 505 Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. With their wonderfully potent images, gleeful sense of fun and assured grasp of the storytelling process, movies like these have become a crucial part of our collective childhood, something that’s been both their doing and, latterly perhaps, Disney’s undoing. Maybe it is just that the likes of The Black Cauldron and The Rescuers Down Under haven’t matched up to their illustrious predecessors, but for many grown-up viewers these days the very notion of a new Disney cartoon conjures up the prospect of a dutiful trip to the cinema with misbehaving offspring or brattish little nephews in tow. For ‘family entertainment’ read an Odeon full of screaming five-year-olds. Nightmare city, in other words, yet a state of affairs of which Kirk Wise, Beauty and the Beast’s clean-shaven co-director, is himself well aware.

‘We set out to make a movie that teenagers wouldn’t be bored or embarrassed to watch, something that would appeal to adults and children. We were aiming for something that followed in the pattern set by The Little Mermaid, which was traditional enough to attract the so-called ‘family audience’ yet had enough of a contemporary feel to appeal way beyond it. Fun for kids, yet sophisticated enough for adults to enjoy.’

‘In a way, though, you never quite know what’s going to click with the viewers,’ continues Trousedale, ‘so our bottom line throughout was really to trust to our own instincts. All you can do

14 The List 9 22 October 1992

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is hope that the very things that make you laugh or cry or tap your feet will be the same elements to bring a similar response out of the audience. We were making a film that would entertain us, the people working on it.’

So far as I am concerned, these guys must certainly have the common touch, for much to my surprise, Beauty and the Beast had me chortling away, dabbing the corner of my eye in the pretence that I’d gotten a bit of dust in it, and remembering snatches of the Ashman and Mencken score for weeks afterwards. The story itself barely needs to be repeated, another spin on the girl-longs-for-romance, girl-meets-beast but girl-gets-romance-anyway routine familiar from infant storybooks and the legendary J ean Cocteau screen version of 1946, La Belle et la Béte.

‘A tale like Beauty And The Beast will endure because it speaks to generation alter generation, yet the challenge is to

combine familiarity with innovation.’

In the Disney version, the historical Gallic setting is broadly adhered to, with Belle a book-loving, vaguely feminist heroine rejecting the chauvinist advances of hunky-but-dull hero-type Gaston. She gradually comes round to falling for the outwardly horrible beast and his significantly well-stocked library. The various songs have a knack of popping up at just the right moment, while a host of comic palace furnishings, from the sturdy English teapot to the Maurice Chevalier-inspired French candlestick, cover for the in-built lull in the middle ofthe traditional tale.

‘If we knew exactly what the secret formula was, we’d be using it all the time, and the Disney execs


Beauty and the Beast: ‘had me chortling any, dabbing the mat of my eye

would be bottling it and selling it,’ reflects Trousedale. ‘Yeah, it’s very easy to play Monday morning quarterback,’ chips in his other half, ‘and try to trace exactly where you went right. But ifI was to boil it down to maybe three elements, I think the balance between the emotional content of the story and the character comedy that we managed to get in there works even better when you have terrific music to move it all along. One of the key points in the production history was, in the light of Howard Ashman’s work on The Little Mermaid, to bring him in and take Beauty and the Beast away from being a straight drama and towards making it more of a musical. The real classic Disney movies like Snow White always had that musical element, but I think in recent years the studio has been floundering a little whenever they’ve moved away from that tradition.

‘A tale like Beauty and the Beast will endure because it speaks to generation after generation, yet the challenge is to combine familiarity with innovation. Sure Disney likes to liberally translate these old fairy stories, but we were hoping to embellish it in a way that would appeal to a modern audience yet never lose sight of the emotional core of the material. The ballroom sequence, for instance, marks an incredible leap forward in creating a sense of three-dimensionality by placing the hand-drawn figures within a computer-generated background. It’s a mind-boggling effect as the camera sweeps through this vast imagined space, but it’s done for a purely emotional reason. The Beast sweeps Belle off her feet, so we needed as movie makers to find a way of sweeping the audience off their feet too. The icing on the cake was that we were able to bring in all the new technology.’

Beauty and the Beast opens across Scotland on Friday 9 October.