It’s hard to believe that the Disney animated classic Beauty and the Beast was released 25 years ago, as many of us look forward to the live action version due out in 2017. The Virginia Film Festival (VFF) hosted a very special screening of the 1991 film. It was a singular experience for Disney fans young and old alike because the print on hand was the “work in progress” version.
This special cut comprised part of the 1991 lineup of the New York Film Festival, wherein only two-thirds of the film was completely animated. Because the remaining third contained original pencil drawings and storyboards, viewers received a rare look at the hard work of the Disney animators. Initially, I thought that seeing this shift between pencil drawings and polished animation would be distracting. However, even the storyboards carried the same buoyancy, movement, and charm as the finished scenes.
VFF attendees were also thrilled about the retrospective discussion afterward, as moderated by Carmenita Higginbotham, a professor of art history at the University of Virginia. The panelists were none other than producer Don Hahn and actress Paige O’Hara. Though Hahn had the privilege of working on both the 1991 and 2017 films, he didn’t offer much in the way of teasers.
“It was about time [Disney] created a princess that wasn’t looking for a man. [Belle] was independent, headstrong, and very liberated for that time for her to treat Gaston like she did,” O’Hara reflected about her character. She went on to entertain the audience that afternoon with some of Belle’s lines and admitted that seeing Mulan in the late 90s fueled her interest in kickboxing.
I asked the pair if anything was left out during the development process, which spanned four years. “There are characters that didn’t make it to the screen,” Hahn replied. “There was a little music box that would have made the fourth object. It was a little music box that never spoke but talked in little musical notes. Really sweet idea!”
In addition, the production team ended up cutting a musical number called “Human Again.” Since then, fans have been able to see the song either in the Broadway version or the 2002 DVD release. “You have to take things [out] conceived in beautiful moments that maybe don’t serve the story towards the end and let them go,” Hahn explained.
The biggest surprise, in my estimation, is about the memorable tune “Be Our Guest.” O’Hara laughed as she recounted that the artists “initially animated it to the father, Maurice.” As personable as Maurice was in the film, I agree that it was a wise choice for the artists to put Belle at the center of the scene.
Seeing an alternate cut of a film is something we might take as commonplace, living in a time with DVD and Blu-Ray bonus features readily available. The “work in progress” cut of Beauty and the Beast is truly something to marvel at on the big screen. It visually reminds us that before extensive computer animation and Toy Story, everything had to be painstakingly rendered in pencil. That amounts to 24 drawings for each second of film. Such an undertaking was treated seriously by the animators, as Hahn shared: “For the transformation at the end, Glenn [Keane] went to the Rodin museum and was drawing from Rodin sculptures to get the anatomy right. These [animators] are some of the greatest artists of our time.”