How Beauty and the Beast Influenced American Animation for 30 Years

It's hard to believe, but the original animated Beauty and the Beast turns 30 years old this month. Hailing from directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, the film was vital for Walt Disney Animation Studios in terms of proving 1989’s The Little Mermaid was no fluke, that Disney was back on its A-game when it came to animated features. Of course, history has shown that Beauty and the Beast rose to the challenge and then some. Becoming a box office smash and even a nominee for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Beauty and the Beast was a rousing hit both critically and financially. It’s easy to parse out the obvious ways Beauty and the Beast has remained influential in the years since its release. All the Disney theme parks are drenched in materials based on this feature while a live-action remake became the second highest-grossing movie of 2017. Heck, just start humming the opening bars to the titular tune and random strangers will start murmuring “tale as old as time…”

But there are other more specific ways that Beauty and the Beast has managed to leave an imprint on American animation, particularly when it came to altering the direction of Disney’s animated output.

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Disney, after seeing how lucrative Beast was, began to adjust its future projects in the darker dramatic mold of this 1991 feature. Such titles wouldn’t be devoid of levity, but they wouldn’t be afraid to embrace darker storytelling details and sweeping romances. The two most apparent results of this switch in focus came with Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the latter of which would even hail from the directors of Beauty and the Beast. Disney had long been associated with kid-friendly material, but they’d soon be taking swings at projects with songs like “Hellfire.”

Part of this adjustment was inspired by something Beauty and the Beast didn’t do. This Disney movie was the first animated title in history to score a Best Picture nod at the Oscars, but it lost the award to The Silence of the Lambs. Disney‘s future endeavors in serious-minded romantic fare were seen as potential candidates to secure the Oscar glory Beast never garnered. Reportedly, Jeffrey Katzenberg even said at one point that Pocahontas was a surefire candidate to take home Best Picture. Disney still wanted to make cartoons that sold toys and resonated with youngsters, but Beauty and the Beast’s Oscar glories had demonstrated that these films could do even more than that.

Also proving influential was the way Beauty and the Beast reshaped how Disney Animation approached villains. Baddies had always been a staple of this studio's output and so had visual motifs of these characters. The Hag version of the Evil Queen in Snow White, Ursula in The Little Mermaid, Madame Mim in The Sword and the Stone, all had designs that eschewed conventional standards of “beauty” to signify these characters couldn’t be trusted. Though this led to fun character designs (like Ursula’s Divine-inspired look), it did lead to an unfortunate connotation with physical disabilities, fatness, and other details as being synonymous with wickedness.

Enter Gaston, Beauty and the Beast’s foe who intentionally looked like somebody who could be the hero of a classic Disney movie. Covered in muscles and carrying a perfectly-arranged face, Gaston was someone whose appearance made people swoon, not run in terror. Explicitly portraying this guy as a villain was an ingenious way of reinforcing Beauty and the Beast’s central message of a person’s interior qualities being indicative of their true beauty. Not only did going this route prove successful for Beauty and the Beast, but it also inspired a new trend in how Disney codified their animated villains.

Five years after Beauty and the Beast, the concept of monsters taking many forms returned with The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Judge Frollo, an ordinary-looking man holding a position of considerable political power, is the actual antagonist of the piece, not the physically deformed Quasimodo. Meanwhile, the conventionally attractive Clayton would prey on Tarzan and friends in 1999, while an embodiment of colonialism in the form of a chiseled general would terrorize the heroes of Atlantis: The Lost Empire. By redefining what Disney villains could look like, Gaston eschewed troubling instances of coding and opened the doors for all kinds of new foes. Even the recurring “surprise villains” of computer-animated Disney Animation films (like King Candy in Wreck-It Ralph) serve as thematic extensions of how Gaston suggested villains could come from anywhere.

And then there is the way Beauty and the Beast blended computer animation and hand-drawn animation for its iconic ballroom dance sequence. Now, Disney Animation had blended the two artforms before, most notably with the Big Ben backdrop for the climax of The Great Mouse Detective. However, the fusing had never been as prominent and seamless in this emotionally tender sequence. To quote a later Disney musical, “a whole new world” of possibilities had suddenly opened for artists at the Mouse House.

In the years that followed Beauty and the Beast, CG and hand-drawn animation would be further brought together in various exciting ways. The entrance to the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin, for example, was made possible through digital wizardry, ditto a herd of stampeding wildebeests in The Lion King. This merging of disparate mediums would continue into the 2000s, particularly with Treasure Planet, which found especially creative ways to reflect this fusion, such as giving the hand-drawn cyborg Long John Silver computer-animated robotic appendages.

Even in modern-day computer animation titles from Disney, this particular lingering influence of Beauty and the Beast can be seen. Moana utilized hand-drawn animation from Eric Goldberg to realize the lively tattoos on Maui’s body, a spiritual successor to how Beauty and the Beast brought these two mediums together. In one romantic musical sequence, Beauty and the Beast managed to bring together the past, present, and future of American animation into one sequence. That monumental achievement makes it no wonder the scene proved so influential.

The lasting legacy of Beauty and the Beast on animation even extends to one of its most memorable cast members, David Odgen Stiers. Most famous for his work on TV shows like M*A*S*H*, Stiers had never done voice work before playing Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast. After this feature, though, Stiers found regular work providing voiceover in projects ranging from other Disney productions (namely Lilo & Stitch) to recurring roles on TV shows like Regular Show and Justice League. American animation would be a little less vibrant if Stiers hadn’t pursued further voiceover performances after his Beauty and the Beast work.

These are just a handful of the reasons why it’s impossible now to imagine an American animation landscape that isn’t influenced by Beauty and the Beast. A film once seen as a potential risk has turned into something that’s proven impactful on the entire medium of animation, let alone the titles Disney Animation has produced since 1991. This tale as old as time will keep leaving ripple effects on animated works for years to come.

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Douglas Laman (104 Articles Published)

Douglas Laman is a life-long movie fan, writer and Rotten Tomatoes approved critic whose writing has been published in outlets like The Mary Sue, Fangoria, The Spool, and ScarleTeen. Residing both on the Autism spectrum and in Texas, Doug adores pugs, showtunes, the Wes Anderson movie Fantastic Mr. Fox, and any music by Carly Rae Jepsen.

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