How ‘Beauty and the Beast’ Changed Oscar’s Best Picture Race Forever

It’s the moment that made believers out of those who thought animation automatically meant cloying kid’s stuff. As our earnest heroine, Belle, begins to fall for her capture, the domineering and horrific Beast, the fragile voice of an old china teapot sets the tone. As performed by Broadway and film veteran Angela Landsbury and illustrated by a new breed of Disney artists, the title song to the House of Mouse’s 1991 masterpiece Beauty and the Beast proved that the pen and ink designs that drove the company for nearly 80 years could transcend the genre and turn into something seminal…something special…something sensational. A few months later, when the supposedly unthinkable happened, that singular sequence was constantly referenced as one of the reasons why.

That’s because, like it or not, Beauty and the Beast was a trendsetter. It pushed industry envelopes and defied categorical limitations. Up until its release, part of the late ’80s rebirth of the company’s creative fortune, no animated film was deemed worthy of Best Picture consideration. While they had snuck into certain categories (score, song and some of the technicals) and even warranted their own class of recognition, “cartoons” just couldn’t cross over and compete for the Academy’s highest honor. Beauty and the Beast changed all that. While Aladdin would become a huge commercial hit and The Lion King would tap into a whole different demographic (read: boys) who typically avoided such “girly” goings-on, it was the classic fairytale reimagined that brought an aesthetic and critical shot in the arm to the genre.

It’s mindboggling when you think about it – Disney had never earned a Best Picture nod for any of its previous materworks before Beauty and the Beast. Not for Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (honorary Oscar only). Not for Pinocchio, Bambi, Fantasia, Cinderella, or Sleeping Beauty. Perhaps even more surprising, partner Pixar had to wait until 2009 to earn its first Best Picture nod, and Up is often seen as sneaking in under the new expanded 10 nominations conceit. Prior to Beauty and the Beast, the Best Animated Feature recognition was all anyone could hope for. In 2010, there is now talk that both Toy Story 3 and Dreamwork’s How to Train Your Dragon could be members of that still elite company.

Looking at the film again on the recently released (and absolutely superb) Blu-ray, it’s easy to understand the significance. From the gorgeous hand drawn elements to the near seamless incorporation of CGI, everything about Beauty and the Beast is flawless. The music, by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, is amazing, emotionally complex while actually forwarding the narrative and our understanding of the characters and the themes involving subjective attractiveness and social awkwardness continue to resonate. Of course, this being Disney, there are dozens of ancillary players scurrying around the fringes, their well meaning funny business livening up the proceedings, and the work by veterans like Landsbury, Robby Benson, and Jerry Orbach is expertly counterbalanced by the gorgeousness of newcomer Paige O’Hara’s voice.

For those unfamiliar with the House of Mouse take on the material, our leading lady Belle is an outsider in her community, more interested in books and learning than the lunkheaded Gaston who constantly courts here. When her inventor father is captured by the mythic creature known as The Beast, our heroine makes a deal to take his place. She soon learns of the curse that has turned a once handsome if overly arrogant prince into a monster, his servants into household items, and his fortunes into a life of isolation. More importantly, if the furry fiend doesn’t find someone to love him for who he is before his 21st birthday, he will stay a beast forever.

Even among all the amazing added content, the bonus features which flesh out our understanding of Beauty and the Beast‘s technical brilliance, the big questions are barely even broached – the questions of “Why?” and “How?” In light of what we’ve seen in the last decade, with the innovations in technology and approach making animated films more and more viable, how did Beauty and the Beast become the benchmark, and more importantly, why? Of course, any critical analysis of the actual film begets its own answers. It’s a fantastic bit of filmmaking, a poignant journey which finds you vested early and often, outwardly weeping when a tired teapot sings about a “tale as old as time.” It’s a genuinely funny, genuinely entertaining experience where our attention and patience is rewarded with enough signature satisfaction to last a lifetime.

But there is more to it than that. For decades, Disney was the go-to place for good clean wholesome family entertainment. Even during the darkest hours of its ’70s slip up, the world that Walt built could be relied on for its past catalog of classics. But as Me transformed into Greed, as less than stellar offerings like Oliver and Company and The Black Cauldron confused the issue, it looked like the once mighty genre giant would fall. Luckily, The Little Mermaid argued for a real revitalization. Beauty and the Beast was the result of such full faith and credit. Even with its tricky path from New York Film Festival workprint to later “expanded” IMAX releases, the novelty and innovation shown by the studio infused every frame with the old Disney magic.

Still, it was a bumpy ride, one that the Blu-ray highlights. We learn of how the original version of the film was scrapped, how company CEO Michael Eisner insisted that the film be scripted by an actual screenwriter (instead of storyboarded into existence like most animated efforts). We hear the fretting over the lack of a true villain (neither the Beast of the bumbling Gaston really fit the bill) and the argued over decision to “musicalize” the material. There is even a section which describes Walt’s own post-Snow White attempts to bring the story to the big screen (seeing Jean Cocteau’s majestic live action version in 1946 seemingly shelved the project). Add in three different versions, a fantastic audio commentary, and a bunch of breathtaking featurettes, and you have a home video release worthy of such a groundbreaking title.

Of course, Beauty and the Beast didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar. In a year that awarded Silence of the Lambs and saw JFK among the five nominees, it was definitely a dark horse. But by merely opening up the conversation for animated films, for arguing that a great movie was a great movie, no matter the medium, it stands alone. In the 19 years since it stormed the barriers of believed acceptability, it has been slightly marginalized by direct to DVD sequels, a theatrical production, TV spin-offs, and a long running attraction at the company’s theme parks. But the moment Mrs. Potts opens her spout to sing, none of that matters. Beauty and the Beast may have paved the way for its fellow animated entries, but unlike most influential works, the results here truly match the reality. It is a great film.

RATING 10 / 10