Tale as old as time/Song as old as rhyme…
So coos the heart-tugging theme song of Beauty and the Beast. But wait a minute: Isn’t it a bit unusual for a brand-new movie to make a big point about being old? Aren’t movies always supposed to be new and original?
Not at Disney — not this time.
The studio tried that last year, and look what happened. Disney’s heavily promoted holiday-season release was The Rescuers Down Under, an animated adventure sequel to 1977’s The Rescuers that quickly sank at the box office. The problem, as Disney studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg now sees it, was that ”Rescuers didn’t have the ingredients critically important to our other animated successes, the great themes of good and evil and the potential of humanity.”
This time, Disney was taking no chances: It crammed Beauty and the Beast full of good and evil, humor, great songs — and it launched an unprecedented campaign to guarantee the film’s instant acceptance as an oxymoron: a brand-new ”classic.” The strategy seems to be working: In its opening weekend, Nov. 22-24, Beast earned more than $9 million, the strongest start ever for a new animated film.
Under Katzenberg’s watchful command during four years of development and production, a battalion of nearly 600 artists, designers, writers, musicians, and other creative types gave Beast the stage-musical style that made Disney’s 1989 The Little Mermaid a major hit ($181 million in ticket sales worldwide) as well as the second-best-selling movie on video, behind E.T. (Disney’s own Fantasia is expected to top both by January). Equally important, they dressed the movie in the familiar look of the classic Disney cartoon features. With production still in full throttle last May, Disney released 6.4 million videocassettes of The Jungle Book with a behind-the-scenes teaser about Beast hosted by Katzenberg, who assured viewers that Beast would ”take us to a magical place like all Disney classics.”
In late summer, the studio submitted an unfinished cut to the New York Film Festival (which had never shown a cartoon feature) and then, before the completed film opened, ran newspaper and TV ads proclaiming it ”an instant classic.” Then there’s the merchandising: ”Collectible” toys and books appeared in stores in mid-November, all designed to reinforce the idea of Beast as something upscale and special. That cachet is increasingly important to Disney now that rival animation producers such as Don Bluth (The Land Before Time) and Steven Spielberg (An American Tail: Fievel Goes West) are competing to capture the hearts, minds, and dollars of the baby boomers’ babies.
Putting all this image building in motion has involved ”armies, absolute armies,” says Beast producer Don Hahn, who himself spent 3 1/2 years on the film. In the fall of 1989, before a single scene had been animated, Hahn began drumming up excitement among ”the ancillary departments in Disney that make these movies into events.”
Armed only with sketches and a demo recording of Beast songs by The Little Mermaid‘s Oscar-winning team, composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, Hahn hawked his project to the people in product development, hobnobbed with Disney Store managers, and chatted up park planners at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and even Euro Disneyland, which opens in France next April.
But doesn’t all this promotional energy threaten to make the movie itself a mere footnote? ”When Jeffrey Katzenberg green-lights a movie, it’s because it’s a good story, not because it’s going to be a good merchandising vehicle,” Hahn says. ”We don’t let the tail wag the dog.”
A dog was exactly what the studio feared it had on its hands at first. The British husband-and-wife team initially hired to develop and direct Beast, Richard and Jill Purdum, proposed a nonsinging, nondancing vision of the fairy tale in mid-1989. Says art director Brian McEntee, ”The Purdums were so concerned with getting the romance and the serious part of the story that there wasn’t any entertainment.” In September, Katzenberg hired Ashman and Menken to turn the script into a musical, and two months later the Purdums resigned; Katzenberg replaced them with two young American animators, Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise.
Braced by the acclaim then greeting The Little Mermaid in theaters, Ashman shaped a libretto with screenwriter Linda Woolverton, but the problems continued. On faxes of their drafts, Katzenberg scribbled note after note requesting more comic relief. The hectoring led Ashman to a far-reaching inspiration: Why not people the Beast’s home with enchanted objects that have distinct personalities imprisoned within them? That finally set the gags flowing from the entire story staff.
The task of steeping Beast in another basic Disney ingredient, sentiment, fell mainly to Ashman. Though increasingly debilitated by the AIDS infection that would kill him last March, Ashman pushed to make the Beast’s willingness to die for Beauty the movie’s dramatic core. Ashman ran the opening reels of Pinocchio for Woolverton, analyzing precisely how they conveyed specific moods.
For all Ashman’s devotion to vintage Disney, the movie also emphasizes a video-age touch: busy, fast-paced visuals. Editor John Carnochan says Beast was designed to zip along at an MTV clip, so it would stand up to repeat viewings. ”There’s nothing wrong with leaving an audience feeling like they didn’t quite see it all,” Carnochan says.
Some of Beast‘s speed may simply reflect its frantic production schedule, however. Concedes Katzenberg, ”(We) had an inordinate amount of time in story development, and the price for that was paid in animation.” Much of the crunch came in coordinating two separate staffs: roughly 500 Burbank-based artisans and another 70 people at the Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Orlando. Beast‘s directing duo says that in the mad rush of faxes and overnight deliveries, one mix-up caused the Florida animators to outfit a character in an already-rejected costume, causing costly revisions.
And why was such a difficult project split between coasts? Because the Florida facility, the brainchild of Disney Company chairman Michael Eisner, doubles as a tourist attraction for the tens of millions of visitors who stream through Disney World annually. Visit this studio-cum-observation room and you’ll see artifacts from Beast‘s creation everywhere. Production sketches fill the outside lobby. Inside, you can look down through immaculately clean windows at uniformly chipper draftspeople, their drawing tables stacked high with eye-catching memorabilia tied to Mermaid and Beast and works yet to come, including a final Ashman-Menken collaboration due next fall, Aladdin.
With that version of the venerable genie tale, Katzenberg plans to build on Beast‘s success by rolling out animated classics annually. Already in the works for release by the century’s end: King of the Jungle (”a Bambi-esque coming-of-age story,” says Katzenberg), Pocahontas, Swan Lake, and Fantasia Continued, among others. Most likely they’ll emerge according to The Little Mermaid‘s pattern: theatrical release, video the following summer, withdrawal from video stores around two years later, then theatrical release again.
Outside the animators’ workplace in the Disney-MGM park, Beast has already taken on a new, and different, kind of life. Since October, costumed Belles (named for Beauty) have been strolling the grounds, wearing cornflower blue dresses and chirping ”bonjour” to visitors. The park also has a Beast stage show, unveiled the afternoon the movie debuted on 977 screens. ”That’s how we institutionalize it,” Katzenberg says. ”We weave the movies into the fabric of the whole company as best we can, as quickly as we can.”
In this case, the weaving happened so quickly that the stage show’s writer-director, Judy Lawrence, had only six weeks to coordinate a 25-minute mini- reenactment of the movie. She managed to make it plenty lavish: Giant champagne bottles tilt their way through ”Be Our Guest,” and dancers don rose-shaped gowns for the finale as white doves and fireworks are unleashed above slack-jawed audiences.
”When Michael (Eisner) was here to see it the other night, he really loved it,” Lawrence says. ”I heard him say we could run this show for a year.” In the big Disney Company picture, myriad incarnations of Beauty and the Beast will be running far longer than that.