Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Dir. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise. Starring Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Angela Lansbury

Since I reached adulthood, which is best defined here as that time in a person’s life when s/he begins to pine for childhood, I’ve spent more time than I ought to debating Disney movies. It’s been almost ten years that I’ve been doing this, and while I have held many potentially divisive opinions on Disney – The Fox and the Hound is deeply underappreciated, WALL-E is better than Up, The Lion King is maybe no better than the third or fourth Disney/Pixar movie of the ’90s – I have held one opinion the whole time. Beauty and the Beast is the best animated Disney movie ever. To honor it, I’m going to do my first screenshot-heavy post with a “color and light (and also perspective)” lens. (Please, Disney, don’t hurt ‘im!)

Beauty and the Beast is a joy to look at, as pastel and chalk as any of Bert’s street drawings in Mary Poppins. In fact, the Disney movie that Beauty and the Beast reminded me most of this time around was The Rescuers. Both movies, like a lot of Disney movies, create static but lovely backgrounds which no one is supposed to stare at, but which it’s hard to take one’s eyes off of. They’re good for establishing shots, or for transitions.

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Although long stretches of the film take place at night, or in dark, shadowy places, the colors tend to remain fairly non-threatening. Remember, the movie starts like this:

 

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Look at that! They make fun of this kind of stuff in Shrek! But it’s the way that this movie begins, with browns that are more clay than anything else and happy greens and blues with sunlight literally streaking across the screen. It’s so splashy and bright and clean and also unsustainable; no movie can work on this schmaltzy level for more than about five minutes, and Beauty and the Beast doesn’t try to. It’s so cute it’s almost ironic.

Of course, the movie doesn’t hold on to that for very long. The film, from the beginning, uses a curious third-person perspective more often than not, and it begins with the narrator who exists for maybe a minute and a half before disappearing forever. The stained glass windows are nearly as colorful and bright, but they distance the audience. A whole movie in that style would be like an avant-garde dinner, but in small doses it provides perspective.

 

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What it does is provide the color clues for magic in this text: green for threat and trouble, pink for romance. Long stretches of the movie, especially towards the end, once Gaston has breached the castle, are shaded in that green. The mirror is the foremost example, as it spews something like green lightning when Gaston wields it, but it transfers to the sky while Gaston chases the Beast over the rooftops.

 

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Maurice (look under “crazy old Maurice” in your Disney encyclopedia for quick reference) gazes around in shades of green while he goes from the forest to the castle…

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…walks into the castle, which appears to have invested in some nifty green lighting (and take note of the Beast’s shadow here – the black, space-eating shadow in the foreground is a frequently repeated image itself)…

 

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…and then is literally wrapped up in green while the Beast hunts down the stranger in his castle…

 

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…before the Beast, lit up in green, shows up dramatically and dangerously.

 

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Belle steps into the green when she looks for her father.

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Even the part in “Be Our Guest” where Lumiere tones it down and laments how sad it is to be an object and not a person, speaks to their trouble in a greenish tint – albeit not in the sharp electric green of the mirror or the muted ill green of the castle and surrounding forest.

 

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As for pink, it’s the rose for romance first.

 

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At 25, I like the rose more than I did before. No one has ever said that an old symbol can’t have any further resonance. The glow that it exudes is very old-fashioned itself, and that glow is hinted at in dandelion blooms and shadows.

 

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And that pink glow sits around in some unusual places. Maybe the moments when Belle sings about wanting “adventure in the great wide somewhere” and seeing that pink in the clouds is pretty straightforward; there’s obvious romance hanging around, the dream about escaping her dull life and discovering that escape is in fact a marriage to a wealthy man.

 

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So what do you make of the Beast threatening Belle about coming to the West Wing?

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Or the Beast fighting off wolves in a snowstorm?

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Or, heck, the Super Saiyan-ish glow that sits on the Beast’s head when he’s screaming.

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Lumiere isn’t crazy when he reacts to Belle’s appearance by saying that she’s the one who will break the spell; the pink of that rose seems to be around her and the Beast all the time, even at the moment of his resurrection…

 

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…and while they share their first dance at their wedding.

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For my money, the most interesting shot for color comes when the mirror and the rose are placed next to each other, highlighting green by pink for the first time since the Enchantress’ cloak backgrounded the rose in stained glass. Belle, appropriately, holds the threat, for men’s violent deeds are attributed (if not inspired, precisely) by her. The Beast stays close to the romance, which is likewise appropriate. He’s the one concerned with the outcome of a romantic relationship with Belle, not the other way around. Most interestingly of all, I don’t know that the two colors really go together all that well. There’s a hint here.

 

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Any movie (since color films became a thing, leave me alone) has used color thematically; perspective shots also matter in film, and what I really like about Beauty and the Beast and its perspective is that it does so frequently, especially towards the end. For an animated movie, this is especially impressive; technically speaking, that’s one of the reasons I favor this movie in the Disney animated features canon.

Remember this?

 

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That’s Cogsworth holding a pair of scissors, sliding down a banister, wearing a comically large hat.

The camera also moves from Gaston’s view of the Beast to Belle’s as he climbs up to her towards the end of the film, which is a fairly advanced move.

 

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What I like about these, beyond the fact that they provide the viewer with a remarkable sense of omniscience, is that they both play into what is maybe the film’s most repeated visual motif: height. Beauty and the Beast uses more (animated) crane shots than you can shake a stick at, and cants them often as not.

 

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Similarly, the film is wary of what it feels like to be significantly smaller than one’s surroundings.

 

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Finally, Beauty and the Beast is mindful of its narration through various shots, and nowhere is that more true than in the ballroom “Beauty and the Beast” segment. The cherubs on the ceiling are one thing, a moving portrait of watching…

 

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…but I love this shot, where the viewer stands behind Mrs. Potts and Chip as she sings a distant precis for the whole film. It’s as elegant a summary for what the camera does in a movie as any other shot I can think of offhand.

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