As a six-year-old girl who routinely lived in her own fantasy world — complete with princes, princesses, and magical, far-off places — there was something about Disney's Beauty and the Beast that deeply resonated with me. In fact, it still does. Its protagonist was a bookish young woman — with brown hair and brown eyes, just like me! — who dreamed of something more than the provincial life she was living.
She also didn't need a man, even one who was especially good at expectorating, to complete her. Instead, she found her happiness in fictional tales. Oh, and her name was Belle.
Fresh off the success of The Little Mermaid, which had single-handedly revived the dwindling Walt Disney Animation Studios and the feature animation industry at large, Disney returned to its fairytale roots with Beauty and the Beast, a tale truly as old as time (or at least as old as 1740). Helmed by first-time feature directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, Beauty and the Beast evoked a sense of timeless whimsy while thoroughly embracing its time. The animation studio gave the French fable a contemporary, '90s twist; unlike the Disney Princesses™ of yore, Belle was a modern woman.
"She was a revolutionary heroine," Paige O'Hara, who voiced Belle, told MTV News while promoting the animated classic's recent release on DVD and Blu-ray. "She was so many firsts for Disney. She was a bookworm with brown eyes and brown hair, and she was smart. She was just a normal girl from a little town who wanted an adventure."
"She had two qualities that I think we'd not seen before: She liked to read, and she needed no man," Richard White, the voice of Gaston, told me. "She cared about her father, and she cared for her father, but she wasn't looking to get married. She was doing just fine on her own, thank you very much."
Not to mention, Belle was relatable: the country girl with a dreamy, far-off look and an unkempt ponytail. Unlike Cinderella and Aurora with their perfect blond tresses, or Snow White with her fair complexion, Belle was a little messy — and that's what made her so interesting. (That she always had hair in her eyes was a quirk inspired by O'Hara herself, who, she said, looked that way "all the time" during recording sessions.)
But early concept drawings for the future princess were initially very different. Assigned to animators Mark Henn (who would also supervise the designs of Jasmine and Mulan) and James Baxter, Belle went through several transformations, including what O'Hara described as an "Angelina Jolie phase."
"I saw the initial drawings that James Baxter did of Belle, and I was so glad they changed her up," O'Hara revealed. "She was stunningly gorgeous. Too gorgeous! Just perfect and very prissy, with the hair up. She looked like she was a princess already. I didn't want her to be fixed. That's why she had the ponytail and the messy hair. They made her more identifiable for young girls, and it certainly paid off."
Belle also scored major points for rebuking the charms of the town's most eligible bachelor — and Disney's smarmiest villain — Gaston. Bombastic and arrogant, Gaston was the cartoonish embodiment of toxic masculinity. Though he wasn't your average Disney villain either: He was handsome and beloved by everyone in town — everyone except for Belle.
"Most of the villains in Disney, you recognize them as villains early on," White explained. "Not Gaston. When you first meet him, he's full of himself, of course, but he's not recognizably villainous, not until later on. All you see are women fawning all over him. But then when he starts talking to Belle and tells her that she shouldn't be reading, you begin to get a hint that maybe he's not who he appears to be."
Like Belle, Gaston went through several changes over the two and a half years White was involved with the project. In fact, nailing Gaston's overall design was a challenge for animator Andreas Deja, who didn't quite understand why the film's villain should be so handsome. According to White, earlier versions of Gaston ranged from "fat and sloppy" to a suave Errol Flynn lookalike, complete with a French mustache, before they finally settled on "a good-looking guy who can go either way."
Belle's contempt for Gaston seemed palpable, and credit probably goes to O'Hara, who requested to record with both White and Robby Benson (the voice of Beast). That's rather unusual for an animated film, due to budgets and scheduling, but Disney made it work. "It just made the relationships so much more organic and real," she said.
It also led to moments of real spontaneity. The voice actors were encouraged to try things out and improvise in the booth when it felt necessary. After the prince's climactic reveal toward the end of the film, O'Hara ad-libbed the line, "Do you think you could grow a beard?" That didn't make the final cut, but O'Hara, who's now an artist in the Disney Fine Art department, still can't shake that scene between Belle and her prince.
"I do think he is the sexiest prince, of any of them," she said. "It's not just the hair. Now that I've painted him so many times and studied each and every detail — his hands, his eyes, his mouth, the way he kisses her — I think it's the best Disney kiss ever. [Beast animator Glen Keane] told me that he studied a lot of Humphrey Bogart for the prince, and I can tell."
A liberated heroine, a handsome villain, a prince in disguise. Beauty and the Beast found its story, but it still needed a lot of help. Enter Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, the Oscar-winning songwriting team responsible for bringing music back to Disney with The Little Mermaid. In fact, it was Ashman who called for Broadway performers in these roles. At the time, production on Beauty and the Beast was stalled creatively, so producer Jeffrey Katzenberg asked the duo to turn the film into a Broadway-style movie musical. Though Ashman wrote the lyrics and Menken the music, "they worked as one," O'Hara recalled.
Their first challenge was establishing the tone of the film in the ambitious seven-minute opening number, "Belle." "It's unique," White said. "No show of any kind starts with a seven-minute opening number that's all exposition." But once again, Beauty and the Beast redefined what an animated film could look and sound like.
"Ironically, Howard told Alan, 'We're not even going to propose this to Disney. They're going to fire us,'" O'Hara added. "A seven-minute opening number? That was unheard of. But Alan said, 'Trust me. It's going to be fantastic.' And they loved it."
O'Hara's other favorite was the Oscar-winning title song. Originally, "Beauty and the Beast" wasn't a ballad. Menken and Ashman had created something a bit more up-tempo with a pop-rock tinge. However, once Angela Lansbury signed on to the role of Mrs. Potts, she convinced them to rearrange the song into something she felt more comfortable singing.
"She kept saying to Alan, 'There's so [many lines] in there, and I don't know if I can still do that,' and of course, she comes into the studio that day and sings the song with the orchestra in one take," O'Hara said.
For O'Hara, the song became bittersweet when she had the opportunity to sing it in Lansbury's absence during the film's promotional tour. At the time, Ashman was in the hospital suffering complications from AIDS, but he never stopped working; he routinely listened in on O'Hara's recording sessions and gave her notes over the phone. One day, Menken decided to call Ashman's hospital room so that he could hear O'Hara's version of the title song.
"I sang it to him over the phone, and Howard said, 'I love it. I love the way you sound. I love the key,'" she recalled. "And that was ultimately the last time I talked to Howard."
"It was such a sweet and bittersweet time, working with Howard, and the whole project had that quality to it," she added. "He knew it was his last movie, and he was a stickler for perfection with this film." Ashman died at age 40 in 1991. "And look, 25 years later it's one of the most beloved movies of all time. A lot of thanks is to be given to him."
Ashman's music will live on in Disney's live-action remake of Beauty and the Beauty starring Emma Watson — "perfect casting," O'Hara says — and Dan Stevens as the titular beast. "From what I've heard from [producer] Don Hahn, he tells me that they stayed very close to what we did in the original, and I'm glad," O'Hara added.
The forthcoming project is a testament to the animated film's legacy. Equal parts progressive and classic, Beauty and the Beast was the first Disney film that transcended the genre, and the first animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But what made the film truly special, and what makes it ripe for adaptation, is how effortlessly it all worked as a whole: the music, the beautiful animation, the timeless story.
In Belle, Disney found a princess for a modern era — and in Beauty and the Beast, a studio found its voice again.