BEAUTY AND THE BEAST: Building a masterpiece that’s a ‘Tale As Old As Time’
As Disney fans, we have all heard the sweet melodies of those iconic songs, those lyrics that move us every time we hear them combined with the visuals that stunningly match what’s being sung perfectly. I’m of course talking about the title track to the animated masterpiece that is Disney’s original BEAUTY AND THE BEAST released all the way back in 1991.
It’s a story that relates to all of us in some way or another whether it be the story of unlikely love or finding your own way. It’s a story of adventure, romance, drama, comedy, tragedy and above all, redemption. It’s easy to see why Disney would be tempted to take a second bite on the proverbial apple (or is it take another petal from the proverbial rose in this case?) with this upcoming live-action retelling of this famous musical fairy tale to be released on March 17.
After all, since it’s original unveiling, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has been unanimously hailed as one of Disney’s absolute best and was universally dubbed an instant classic upon release. It not only cemented the company’s own early renaissance in animation but raised the bar industry-wide all before being nominated for Best Picture at the 64th Academy Awards, something Walt Disney himself was never able to achieve with the animated medium during his lifetime.
It’s hard to believe now, over 25 years later, that there wasn’t always a “tale as old as time”, a place in history where the iconic characters of Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts didn’t always exist and where those unforgettable songs weren’t yet etched in the pantheon of our lifetime’s worth of entertainment absorption. But this was exactly the sort of story I wanted to tell about this animated classic before the debut of this new live-action take made its way into theaters.
The Producer of Childhoods
So when we were invited to speak directly with Don Hahn, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’s original producer and now executive producer of this soon-to-be-released film, we of course lept from our worn down keyboards and website management tools with excitement! Let’s face it, this is the man responsible for helping in assembling and overseeing the teams responsible for most of our childhoods, or if you’re reading this with a birthday before 1975, your children’s childhoods no doubt.
With credits on all sorts of Disney classics such as The Fox and the Hound, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Lion King, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and now with 2014’s Maleficent and 2017’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. Here’s a guy that has seen the Disney company, much less Disney Animation, re-invent itself multiple times through 3 different management regimes, at least two renaissances, and through countless film projects released by a variety of different production arms of the studio.
Not only did he live it, he created and directed an entire documentary about it with his film Waking Sleeping Beauty telling the story of the original Disney animation renaissance told by none other than the talented people responsible by weaving a beautiful tapestry of archival footage, old pressers, home movies and newly recorded audio interviews.
I can assure you there’s not a person more qualified to speak on the subject of the history of not only these films but on the company as a whole in the last 30 years and we were immeasurably honored and humbled to have been selected as a website to speak with him. But before we get ahead of ourselves however, let’s let Don take us back to the beginning and wind Cogsworth’s clock back before even the 1990’s. In-fact to a time when Walt himself attempted to crack the code on this classic fairy tale almost a half a century before the original BEAUTY AND THE BEAST’s 1991 debut.
Problem Solving Stories
As Don himself explains “He (Walt) did try to make the film, and it showed up on a list of possible storytelling options and I think the problem he had with it was the problem we had which is if you look at the old fairy tale, there’s no progress in the second act.”
And, unfortunately for original author of 1740’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (or La Belle et la Bête as it was known at that time), French writer Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, Don is humbly understating, but 100% correct, in calling out the problems of this classic European story.
As Don puts it “In the original fairy tale, Maurice, Belle’s father, says ‘don’t take me, take my daughter’ so it’s Maurice that says ‘I’ll bring you my daughter instead!’ And so, it’s a woman who’s kind of a victim of this whole thing.” Not the greatest setup for this ‘love story as old as time’ is it? But wait, it get’s better as Don explains the real difficult storytelling part of this French fable “And then in the second act, the Beast comes downstairs every night at dinner and says ‘will you marry me?’ and Belle says ‘no’ and the Beast goes back upstairs again says ‘okay’ and he comes down the next night and says ‘will you marry me?’ and it’s really repetitive and doesn’t go anywhere and so I think that was always the problem in Walt Disney’s era that he struggled with.”
And that struggle was exactly the thing that kept Walt and his Burbank boys from ever attempting an animated production of this classic fairy tale, and for a while, the same thing keeping the new kids in Glendale’s dreary halls from attempting the same. That was, until the VCR was invented and offered to consumers for the very first time.
You see, the millennial readers among you are probably scratching your heads right now but this was a time before consumers had the ability to play back a film they previously enjoyed on their phones or in this case on cassette. Before the VCR, Disney would only release their films once for their theatrical debut, and store them for 7 years before breaking them out of the famous “Disney Vault” and slapping them on the silver screen again to introduce the film (now a classic) to a new audience.
From Escapism to Home Video
Now, I bet you fellow youngsters are REALLY confused right about now but remember, this was a time long before smart phones and services like Netflix were available from where entertainment is literally at your fingertips. Funny enough, Disney actually stumbled into this method of re-releasing their library of films when the studio desperately needed money during the moratorium period of the US Military’s takeover of the studio during WWII. With almost all of the company’s productions halted, Walt simply needed money to survive this production drought and in a last-ditch effort, put Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs back into theaters (a film that made it’s debut, you guessed it, 7 years earlier) where it made big bucks from people looking to temporarily escape a world literally torn apart.
Anyways, the Walt Disney Company had continued this process with almost every animated film for the next 40 years until the VCR was brought to market. Disney immediately realized the potential of this device and sought to capitalize on this new release method by testing it with releasing Pinocchio, marking the first of any Disney’s animated classics to make it’s home video debut. Finally people could watch a beloved Disney film as many times as their hearts desired and they jumped at the opportunity.
The home video release of Pinocchio made millions for the company and soon Disney raced to put everything they could out for the new VHS format. That meant classics along with any film currently in production, now and in the future, which is why Disney ramped up their output in the early 90’s committing to a release schedule of one animated film a year. Now, films that at first might not have made the cut were once again up for consideration out of the sheer necessity to tell a story. This is where the Disney Animation team was finally forced to do something about that dreaded second act in that notoriously barren French fable and tackle the tale for good.
Animated Masterpiece Theater
But as Don explains, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST certainly didn’t start out in the best of enchanted castles, nor was it even up for consideration of being a musical at first “Some people called it kind of ‘animated masterpiece theater’ it was a little bit (too) serious, it wasn’t as playful and at the same time Little Mermaid was getting made and Roger Rabbit had come out, there was a sense that Beauty needed to have that same playful quality to it”
Needing playful quality was right, the film was downright dreadful with pretentious dialogue and a meandering story that fell far short of the Disney quality required to turn this French fairy tale into a box-office blockbuster worthy of Oscar nomination. This was then-director Richard Purdum’s take on the story, and while his aspirations of an old-school theater play turned animated film were ambitious and epic, they didn’t quite stack up against Disney’s animated classics in the same line as the previously mentioned Little Mermaid or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But was the company, specifically the man in charge of Disney’s animation studio, Jeffrey Katzenberg, really going to scrap 10 weeks of hard work in London to better appease audiences? Well as Jeffrey stated in an early 90’s interview “It didn’t work at all for us so we literally scrapped the first 20 minutes of the movie and started all over again.”
Watch the 20 minute intro rough-cut of Richard Purdum’s version of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST here:
Cranium Command and Songs as Old as Rhyme
Yeah, that might not feel great, especially for first time Producer Don Hahn, but he would be the first to admit this was the right move and one that was in the end, necessary. Richard soon left the production and the project was then entrusted with the unlikeliest of Directors, Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale. I say unlikeliest because these guys were literally hired off of their work. Not from a previous film mind you, nor a top-notch character supervising job or from even a short (in fact their last short, one starring Roger Rabbit, had just been nixed by Disney’s executives just before) but, and I sh*t you not, from their work on Epcot’s Wonders of Life Pavilion. Specifically Cranium Command pre-show, yes you read that right, not even the ride, the pre-show!
You see, legend has it that Katzenberg and then-CEO Michael Eisner were so impressed by Kirk and Gary’s work on that cheap little animated pre-show (a project kicked from one animation desk to another until finally landing on theirs and only because there it had no other place to go) that they considered them perfect for directing the company’s next big-budget animated classic. Yeah, it’s amazing to think about how spontaneous the thought process behind such a bold decision it really was when looking back on it over 25 years later. But that’s the best part about this era of the Disney company, all of the fly-by-night and that seat-of-your-pants type atmosphere generated some of the best projects in the entertainment powerhouse’s history.
Anyways, direction is only part of the process in creating an animated film with one of the most important aspects, something that was still conspicuously absent up until this point, was still lingering with Katzenberg. So at a party Jeffrey was hosting at his Southern California beach house for all of his Hollywood friends, both Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, both hot off their Academy Award winning success with their work on 1989’s Little Mermaid, received the offer to work as the songwriters for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. At that moment, animated history was made as the film was converted from a generic fairy tale to a Disney animated musical.
From left to right: Alan Menken, Jerry Orbach, Kirk Wise, Unknown, Don Hahn, and Gary Trousdale
The Legend of a Poet
As Don recalls “Most importantly, we were able to attract Howard Ashman to the project. Howard was much more than a lyricist, he was of course on Broadway and his career was a director and a book writer and brought so much to those movies of that era. And so the combination of being able to pull Howard and Alan into the project. Richard Purdum eventually left as you know and Kirk and Gary took over but that was kind of the day that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST became what it is today even 25 years later.”
Don is right to speak of Howard with such reverence, Howard was one of the biggest parts of why films like Little Mermaid and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST work so well today. His impact was legendary. How much so? Well take this for example, Belle is well-known for being a reader and always “having her nose stuck in a book.” It’s tied to her character so much, and something we all associate it with her, that it’s even made a pivotal plot point in the film, as it’s one of the major reasons Belle finally falls in love with the Beast when he turns his entire library over to her in a very emotional and touching moment in the film. Well that would have never happened at all if Howard didn’t come up with the idea to make her a reader in the first place.
Ron Clements and John Musker, the famous Directing-duo of Little Mermaid, recall a moment where the wise crusty old crustacean that was the early Sebastian character they had envisioned was turned completely on it’s head when Howard offered the suggestion “why not make him Jamaican?” Or that beautiful “I want” song that Ariel has early on in that film’s running time with “Part Of Your World” that immediately creates “the emotional bubble with our heroine” singing about what she wants in life that causes “the audience to instantly fall in love with her and root for her to get it for the rest of the movie?” That was all Howard, and a bit of songwriting by Alan Menken to make it unforgettable of course. Or how about Gaston in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST being a huntsman? Or how about the Beast’s story as told in the very beginning of the film where he is cursed through no fault but his own and is looking for personal redemption for the rest of his life until finally attaining it through his love for Belle? Again, all Howard.
[Image of Howard Ashman]
The incredible, Howard Ashman
Finding Inspiration in Fishkill
Howard’s influence was powerful and was a leading contributing factor in why those early films of the original animated renaissance are still regarded as some of the greatest of all time. But even with Howard, it still took many more creative storytellers to flesh out this mostly empty fable. Which is just what the team behind the original BEAUTY AND THE BEAST did when Howard invited them all to a tiny little town, a provincial village as it were, some 70 miles north of Manhattan.
As Don explains “We were able to break that (problems of the story) a little bit by imbuing the objects and having these kind of match-makers around the castle and giving them a vested interest in the story so that if the spell was broken their spell would be broken and just introducing certainly the music and Howard and Alan’s great work contributes to that as well but that was the original kind of problem with this story, it’s very limited and the girl is kind of victimized and that’s just not a good story to tell.” You see, those lovable characters of the castle, which help so much in adding to the story and widening the emotional scope of the curse, simply didn’t exist until Don’s team of writers, storytellers, animators, and songwriters were brought together in Fishkill, NY to finally iron out the problems of this French fable and collaborate on a way of addressing that dreaded second act.
But why upstate New York of all places, you ask? Well before Jeffery had even inquired to Howard about working on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Howard was diagnosed with HIV and being that this was the very late 1980’s, I’m sure you know what this meant and it’s obvious severity. Simply put, Ashman literally didn’t know how long he had left, but knew his remaining time was short. Short enough that he might not even have enough time for a full production cycle but desperately wanted to see BEAUTY AND THE BEAST through to fruition. So he gave himself the best chance possible. On doctor’s orders, he left the hustle and bustle of Hollywood in hopes of slowing the disease with less stress and more rest by staying near his childhood home of, Fishkill NY. With this came bringing the animation and production team with him and it was here where they all found an inner peace and solace in this quaint little town north of Manhattan and drew the most inspiration from.
Ironically enough, after all of the research trips touring European castles and English countrysides, it’s a town called Fishkill, in the most unlikeliest of places, nestled in the north eastern tip of the United States where they were inspired from the most. So influenced by this charming little town that they even modeled Belle’s provincial French village on, you guessed it, Fishkill.
A Poet Lost to Time While a Star is Born
Upon completion of the bulk of the ideas, the story concepts, the characters, and of course the songs, the entire team returned to Hollywood invigorated and focused on creating the best animated picture possible. All of course but one. Unfortunately, Howard never was able to see the completed film but did have faith in it’s remarkable reception as noted in Don’s Waking Sleeping Beauty: After putting on a press junket in New York City where Disney showed clips of the film and went through a few of the songs, the applause and joyous reception they received was spectacular even in this very very early state for the film. Peter Schneider, Don Hahn, and Jeffrey Katzenberg all jumped in a cab together afterwards where they wanted to share the experience with Howard who was being treated at St. Vincent’s Hospital just blocks away.
Even though he had lost his sight, most of his body weight, and was now bedridden he still loved the film, enough to even wear a BEAUTY AND THE BEAST sweatshirt under his hospital gown. In a touching moment, Don, Peter and Jeffrey described the event to him and recalled how well the reception went with Don concluding “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was going to be a great success, who’d have thought it?” To which Howard lit up and responded softly, “I would have.”
The rest of course is history and the film started generating massive buzz even before the film was even released when an unfinished work in progress rough-cut was submitted by the company to be screened at the New York Film Festival. It received a standing ovation, as if they had just seen a passionate Broadway play, the likes of which have never been duplicated since. Upon it’s official theatrical release, countless newspapers, tabloids, magazines, and television programs of the era were filled to the brim with reporters, journalists, and critics all printing the most glowing reviews since Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The unparalleled critical success of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and it’s lasting animated and cinematic legacy had an everlasting impact on the company as a whole, generating countless promotional tie-ins, merchandise, theme park attractions and restaurants, a Broadway production, and a plethora of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST inspired shows, spin-offs, and now even a live-action film. Which brings us to today where, even 25 years later, it’s inspiring a new generation of artists and storytellers in it’s new medium and with it, it’s new challenges.
Old Stories for a New Generation
As Don continues when speaking about bringing this story to live-action and the trials that come with it: “Well, different challenges, we were working in the late 80’s and 90’s when we were making the original film. We were working with a blank piece of paper and the original fairy tale and that had it’s challenges because we could invent things and do whatever we wanted to but it had to be (a) very emotional experience for the audience. That had tremendous challenges working with not (that) much to turn that into a movie. The film that’s coming out in a couple weeks had tremendous challenges as well because BEAUTY AND THE BEAST was really a beloved film and it’s so humbling to think about that but people loved that film and so the audience is going to come in wanting to relive some of those feelings and have a nostalgic experience.”
Believe me though that this retelling-of-a-story format and the foibles that go along with it aren’t lost on this storytelling veteran as he continues: “But (they) just (don’t want to) see the film again, they want to see something new. And so I think what Bill Condon did, in a brilliant way, was to quote and kind of reference and pay homage to the original movie but also not be afraid to expand on it and I think that’s what I really wanted to encourage. You know, we have to take risks and grow this story and not everything fit into 85 minutes in the original movie.” That interplay of referencing the original and growing the story was always something of a delicate balancing act between the studio and Director Bill Condon from the very outset.
According to an interview that Bill did with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month, Disney executives had initially wanted a radically different take on the source material, something that Bill wasn’t quite as interested in doing. Think something akin to a cross between 2014’s Maleficent and Universal’s Snow White and the Huntsman as I understand and without those iconic “tunes as old as song” from the original. Bill actually left the project for a short time during this period. Thankfully for lovers of this 1991 classic, Frozen made a huge icy blast at the box-office and Disney’s signature classic musical fairy tales were suddenly en vogue again. The executives immediately reconsidered their decision and wisely conceited to Bill’s take on the story which was far closer to the original and most importantly, returned all of Howard and Alan’s fantastic songs to the project.
More Flesh on the Bones of the Story
“And so with his writers, and with these actors, (Bill) has been able to go in and create just more flesh on the bones of the story, more backstory for Belle, and for the Beast, and more insight into these characters so that you feel more deeply for them and I think that’s something that he was just brilliant at” What the story team attached to this project had set out from the beginning to do was to try and tackle the big flying elephant in the room which of course was “Why do this over again?”
The answer was simply to offer more depth for the personal stories of the characters and elaborate on their motivations behind their actions as Don so eloquently puts it: “What Bill’s movie does is to really dig deep into that idea and find out well what did happen to (Belle’s) mother and why was that a crucial turning point in her life and her father’s life and what caused all of this to happen, what caused the Beast to be cursed. Who is this enchantress, let’s see more about her. The idea to be able to peel back layers of the onion and study and learn more about those characters, I think is really fascinating for the audience.”
Not only that but to fix some of the other problems that had plagued the original as Don explains: “Well there were a lot of blind alleys and red herrings we had in the original movie that we didn’t want to go back to” as he says while chuckling “You know we used to have a sequence (where) Maurice used to go to a convention of inventors and there were things that just didn’t work. But I think what Bill and his team brought to it was really focused on Belle and the Beast and we never explained what happened like what happened to Belle’s mother?”
A good question for any fan of this beloved character, and funny enough for a lot of Disney’s main characters, this also isn’t lost on Don has he hilariously puts it. “Famously, as Disney animators, we try to kill off the parents as soon as we can in these movies but I think what we were trying to do with this one is to say well yes but there’s a reason for that.” Simply put, it’s a storytelling cliche that works well in not only moving the story along but can help in the motivation of a character’s actions and allows them to dynamically change in a believable story arch or as it relates to Belle specifically: “The reason these characters often don’t have parents is that it forces you to grow up and Belle was at that time in her life where’s she’s forced to- well she has an aging father, she’s growing up, she wants adventure but she can’t have it because dad’s at home so she’s at this crossroad in her life.”
Tale As Old As Time
And if you’re wondering just how much will change for you BEAUTY AND THE BEAST die-hards out there and how much will stay the same for those looking for something new, Don had this to say: “And it stays true if you’re a fan of the original movie and if you’ve never seen the original movie it’s a fresh experience I think that people will enjoy.” I wanted to conclude our conversation with a broader question for not just the studio but for the company’s creative output as a whole. Waking Sleeping Beauty tells the story of how an entire company changed course dramatically though talented people releasing amazing films and I wanted to see if he felt that was happening again with Disney today. Specifically, with the studio under Alan Horn’s direction as Studio Chairman, with Ed Catmull in charge of Disney Animation, John Lasseter with Pixar, Kevin Feige with Marvel, and Kathleen Kennedy with Lucasfilm. I asked whether or not this era had the same feeling of that original Disney Animation Renaissance with which he played a role in, Don had this to say:
“Yes and no, you know I think that what we were trying to do in the 80’s and 90’s was, with complete respect to Walt Disney, kind of leave Walt Disney behind and start out in a new direction and I think that there’s a number of things happening at the studio that are pretty exciting. When you think of Bill Condon doing BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, when you think of Tim Burton doing Dumbo, when you think of Rob Marshall doing Mary Poppins, these are filmmakers operating at the top of their game and dealing with these classic stories and I think we’re going to see some really exciting films out of them. And the same renaissance really is happening now in Disney Animation, to be able to see Frozen, Moana, and Wreck-It-Ralph and some of these movies – but it’s another generation. You know we did BEAUTY AND THE BEAST 25 years ago and it’s a new generation of people coming in and saying ‘you know we can do that and we can do it different and we can do it better!’ And I think that’s what life’s all about, it’s about each succeeding generation coming up and saying ‘well, we loved growing up on your movie but we think we can re-tell it with a fresh spin and with something the audience hasn’t seen before and that’s what makes the world go round.”
Don had a pretty great send off to not only our interview about BEAUTY AND THE BEAST but to the article, I’ll let him take the final bow. “At it’s core, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is still a story about looking inside and not judging people and being able to look beyond the face, beyond the facade, and maybe in modern life beyond the skin color to what’s inside and that’s a really relevant story-it was 25 years ago and it is today.”
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST stars Emma Watson as Belle; Dan Stevens as the Beast; Luke Evans as Gaston, the handsome, but shallow villager who woos Belle; Oscar® winner Kevin Kline as Maurice, Belle’s eccentric, but lovable father; Josh Gad as Lefou, Gaston’s long-suffering aide-de-camp; Golden Globe® nominee Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, the candelabra; Oscar nominee Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza, the harpsichord; Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette, the feather duster; six-time Tony Award®winner Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, the wardrobe; Oscar nominee Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, the mantel clock; and two-time Academy Award® winner Emma Thompson as the teapot, Mrs. Potts.
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST enchants theaters on March 17, 2017.
All photos and images are © Disney. All rights reserved.