Audio Commentary Commentation: Beauty and the Beast (1991)
*With the rise of DVD’s in the late 1990’s, one feature many promised with the addition of Special Features, were audio commentaries. These would often contain dialogue from the film’s crew, or even film historians. In this category, I’ll discuss some of the audio commentary tracks that I feel are rather compelling, and end up being entertaining, in regards to the information provided, and what is being said.*
When the Walt Disney Studios began to put their films onto the DVD format starting in the late 1990’s, they realized that they had a big chance to show more, AND talk more, about the filmmaking process. The Digital Video Disc format, was a more compact, and less-expensive item for film aficionados, in place of the more costly laserdisc format.
Starting in 2001, the studio announced their Platinum Collection, which would take a number of the studio’s most popular titles, and give these releases the super-deluxe treatment.
Beauty and the Beast was the second Platinum release, and in October of 2002, I eagerly purchased it, and dove into the numerous features it had to offer.
Most notable to me, was the audio commentary track that was included. Sitting down to talk about the film, were co-directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, producer Don Hahn, and composer Alan Menken.
There’s plenty of material that is discussed, and I thought I’d share a few highlights, given the film came out 25 years ago this winter.
Uncertainty over a Song
Throughout the audio commentary, much praise is given to lyricist Howard Ashman, and composer Alan Menken, whose musical work feels like the connective tissue, binding this animated fairy tale together.
Alan was brought in as a ‘special guest’ on the audio commentary, and gives plenty of insight regarding the different songs.
To many of us, the opening to the film seems picture-perfect with the song titled Belle, in which we are introduced to our heroine, and the provincial town she and her father call home. However, there were some trepidations in the beginning:
Alan Menken: When Howard (Ashman) and I began working on Beauty and the Beast, the first song we wrote, Belle-was the first one. And he (Howard) said, “Oh my God, they’re gonna just laugh at it and throw it back at us. I don’t even want to send it out.” I said, “I think it’s great! Let’s send it out!” So we sent it out, and what we got back were “hurrahs” and “yays,” and this was exactly where they wanted to go.
The musical-style opening, had never really been done in this way with a Disney animated feature, and the film moreso played out like a stage musical brought to animated life.
Most interesting, is that for a song that had Ashman worried, it was remembered when awards season arrived in the Winter of 1991. The song Belle was one of three nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song. The songs Be Our Guest and Beauty and the Beast were also nominated, with the film’s title song taking home the statuette that evening.
Time is of the Essence
Audio commentaries, are often a great source of information, that is usually not as widely known to the public. Notable in the commentary for the film, is co-director Kirk Wise, discussing the time-frame for making the film:
Kirk Wise: This movie was made in a very short period of time, believe it or not. The actual production of the version of “Beauty and the Beast” that you see before you, was done in two years, as opposed to the typical three or four.
Until I first heard the film’s audio commentary, I had little idea of the first iteration of the film. Beauty was originally meant to be a non-musical feature, and would have been a bit more serious in tone. However, early reviews of that material found few executives willing to go along with it, and the film was then re-imagined into what we know it as today.
Of course, 2 years isn’t the craziest production time for an animated feature. Toy Story 2 was rewritten and animated, 9 months before its November 1999 release (all in a manic attempt to make a film worthy of the PIXAR name).
Finding a New Design for The Beast
When it comes to the story of Beauty and the Beast, the Beast himself has often been a character, who has been re-imagined many times over, in different story illustrations.
For his appearance within the Disney world of characters, his design took a little time to come up with, and becomes an interesting little round-table between the producer and directors of the film:
Don Hahn: The Beast was, a little bit of everything, wasn’t he?
Kirk Wise: Yeah, it was a challenging character design, and Gary (Trousdale) and I looked at some of the early design work that was done on the Beast, and we didn’t care for it, because they all just seemed to be variations of a man, with an animal head. You know, this enchantment didn’t seem to affect the rest of his body, at all. It was either a man with a baboon head, or a man with a monkey head, or whatever.
Don Hahn: It didn’t play into the strength of what animation can do-
Kirk Wise: Right.
Don Hahn: -which is, anything.
Gary Trousdale: We gave the project to Chris Sanders and said, “Could you mess around, you know, and come up with some designs?” And he came up with the weirdest things!
Kirk Wise: Yeah, the avian insectoid-
Gary Trousdale: We had like, stag-beetle and mantis Beasts. We had fish head Beasts, I mean there were everything. And finally, he hit upon one, that is pretty close to what you see on-screen right now. And we saw that and went, “Yes! That’s it!”
Kirk Wise: It was this kind-of, combination of a bull, and a gorilla-
Don Hahn: Bison kind of size.
Kirk Wise: A bison.
Gary Trousdale: And he’s got the hind legs of a wolf, and the forelegs of a bear.
Kirk Wise: It just suggested a lot more interesting animation possibilities.
To me, the Beast has always been a fascinating character, given how the designers and animators, could bring together all these different parts of different animals, and yet make the Beast seem like a real creature.
Notable in the commentary here, is the mention of Chris Sanders. Sanders made a name for himself at Disney, doing not just concept and character art, but also storyboarding a number of major sequences in numerous films in the 1990’s.
Though his biggest claim-to-fame at the studio, was being co-director and creator, of their 2002 animated feature, Lilo & Stitch (not to mention also providing the voice for Stitch).
In the film, Maurice created an automatic wood-chopping device, which had been conceived of by the writers, as a way to get him and Belle out of the basement later on in the film. But after creating this machine, it seemed there was noone around to work it when the proper time came!
One of the best things a really involving story can do, is keep us so invested, that we sometimes let holes in the film’s logic, just fly by. Co-director Gary Trousdale quickly pointed out one of these, that I hadn’t considered until hearing him discuss it:
Gary Trousdale: “Oh, we’ve got that thing, it’s sitting around in the yard, isn’t it? Well who can start it up?” They’re both in the basement. We thought, Well, maybe Chip can, but he doesn’t have any hands!
Don Hahn: He can stow away.
Gary Trousdale: It’s a cartoon! He can talk, can’t he?
Kirk Wise: We cut around the parts where Chip-
Gary Trousdale: Where he’s shoveling coal and lighting the tinder and flint and-
Kirk Wise: He’s a smart little cup.
Those little observations make the commentary quite eye-opening. The filmmakers also bring our attention to some strange goings-on with Gaston’s chair, and a bearskin rug during the reprise of the song, Gaston. I won’t go into detail, as it’s funnier listening to them tell it, than it is for me to recap it.
What’s in a name?
Another revealing thing that I never questioned, comes near the end of the film, when Belle reunites with the Beast.
Gary Trousdale: Yeah this scene here was a little bit of a, we didn’t realize until we actually got to it, but when Belle comes out and calls to the Beast, we said, “He doesn’t have a name. We just call him ‘Beast.'” It’s like, “I don’t know what his name is!”
Don Hahn: Tyrone, or-
Gary Trousdale: Bob!
Don Hahn: Steve!
It wasn’t until I found myself among some West Coast Disney fans almost 5 years ago, that I became aware of what I consider a Disney urban legend, regarding the Beast. When I joked about the commentary’s mentioning about how he didn’t have a name, several told me that the Beast actually DID, and that it was Adam.
This was due to a CD-ROM game licensed by Disney, called The D Show,which gave the Beast this name in a trivia category. However, a number of staff (including the Beast’s supervising animator, Glen Keane), have denied the Beast was ever given a name during production.
Maybe a sign that some legends never die, was seeing that someone had included the title of Prince Adam on the IMDB credit for the Beast in the upcoming live-action film from Disney, but it’s hard to tell if this is official naming, or some fan-submission that may get amended later on.
Even after 25 years, Beauty and the Beast is still one of the best films the studio made during the 1990’s. I can put it in all these years later, and still be entertained by the story, and remember many of the scenes that slowly made me think that animation might be a career path I’d like to pursue.
It also blazed a new trail for animation at the time, when it won for Best Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes, and was one of the Oscars’ 5 Best Picture nominees, a feat that had never before been achieved!
Next year will see the animated feature, adapted into the realms of live-action. While many are excited for this new adaptation (with Emma Watson as Belle), it stands to be seen if the filmmakers can make the live-action film as memorable, as the animated film that was released 25 years ago.