The original fairytales that Beauty and the Beast is based on were static in terms of story. Jason Surrell says that one of the problems with the original story is that the second act was mostly a dinner party where the Beasts asks Beauty to marry him night after night (20-21). This works well in a fairytale that is only a few pages but in terms of film it lacks a visual presence. Enter Linda Woolverton who was called in to write the screenplay for Beauty and the Beast. Her first attempt at the story was very melodramatic and dark. Too dark for children (Surrell, 20). Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were called in to help lighten the story with song (Surrell, 20).
When the story and song collided it created a beautiful but simplistic plot that could be enjoyed by children and adults alike. Woolverton notes that Ashman called himself the “simplicity police” and that the story in the film was simple and should stay that way (Surrell, 20). Each scene now has emotion that is simple and recognized by the audience and the songs add to the heightened feeling.
As important as the story and songs are the characters in Beauty and the Beast. In the original fairytale there was nothing to motivate Beauty and the character was one dimensional and flat. Woolverton worried that such a character would feel outdated in the 90’s. So she crafted Belle. Belle is well read, determined, and dreams of more than her poor provincial town. In fact she is smarter and more determined than any Disney heroine that came before her (Surrell, 21). In similar fashion to the fairytale she does stay with the Beast to save her father. However Belle does not quietly accept the Beast’s rules and often stands up for herself.
Even the Beast becomes multi-dimensional in this story. He is no longer a poor cursed prince but the Beast is a stubborn and spoiled young man who must overcome his temper and selfishness to free himself from the spell and get the girl of his dreams. One could say that the Beast keeps Belle against her will and she somehow tames him (Henry Giroux,100). However this ignores Belle and the Beast as agents in their story. Belle has opportunities to leave but decides to stay because of her good heart. The Beast is not so much tamed as he learns that he cannot remain spoiled or selfish. Modern audiences want more complex characters and this story delivers.
Finally the new technology that ties it all together. Computer animation has been used sparingly in past Disney projects. According to Waking Sleeping Beauty, The Rescuers Down Under uses a lot of computer animation to make sweeping flying movements and a sense of grandeur. Even though that film was very unsuccessful the technology used would help create one of the most memorable scenes from Beauty and the Beast.
The ballroom scene from Beauty and the Beast ties together all of the elements discussed and creates a true sense of character and story development. When Belle and the Beast dance together Mrs. Potts sings the story of their love, we see Belle take control and ask the Beast to dance and we see the grandeur of the ballroom in a sweeping camera shot that was created by computers.
So what did critics think of Beauty and the Beast as a film? The critics saw all of the elements come together and were able to appreciate what Disney was doing. More than once critics describe Beauty and the Beast as more than a children’s or an animated film. Many saw it as a return to classic Disney animation. Others saw it as the emergence of new Disney animation. In any case critics seemed to be fans of Beauty and the Beast. In a way Beauty and the Beast’s critical reception was better than any animated film that came before it.