Walt Disney long wanted to make a cartoon Beauty and the Beast but didn't see it in his lifetime. Here's the story of how it came about, told by the people who brought it to life.
The following is an excerpt from the oral history of Disney’s 1991 Beauty and the Beast, which is part of Entertainment Weekly’s collector’s edition The Ultimate Guide to Beauty and the Beast. To read the full history of the animated classic, as well as interviews with the cast and creative team behind the upcoming live-action remake, pick up the special issue, on newsstands now.
It was summer 1989, and Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg thought he might finally realize a dream that had eluded Walt Disney himself: adapting the French fairy tale “La Belle et La Bête” as an animated film. The British husband-and-wife directing team Richard and Jill Purdum would oversee development of a nonmusical version in London, collaborating with a team from Disney’s animation facilities in California — producer Don Hahn (just off Who Framed Roger Rabbit), screenwriter Linda Woolverton (a TV-animation veteran) and a number of artists, including Glen Keane, who began developing the look of the Beast. Then the whole gang would come back to Los Angeles to begin production. Except it didn’t work out that way. In September Hahn and Dick Purdum flew to Orlando, where Jeffrey Katzenberg was visiting a new ancillary animation studio the company had just built inside Walt Disney World. Hahn and Purdum privately showed Katzenberg a 20-minute reel of rough sketches and temporary vocals. There were no songs. Belle had a little sister with a cat and a mean, greedy aunt who wanted to many her off to rich Gaston. With one exception, none of the enchanted-castle objects had faces or voices. Katzenberg was unimpressed.
GLEN KEANE, ANIMATOR: We were waiting back in London. Don [Hahn] pulled us together and said, “Well, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, we’re still going on a five-day research trip to the Loire Valley in France tomorrow to study the châteaus. The bad news is, everything you’ve worked on so far has been thrown out.
KIRK WISE, CODIRECTOR: [Disney execs] decided they wanted to pull Howard [Ashman] and Alan [Menken] into the mix and turn it into a musical, because the version the Purdums were working on was very straight, very dramatic. It lacked that Disney charm we all know and love. Howard suggested that the “object” characters, which were previously sort of silent pantomimes, be full-on speaking and singing characters. He proposed ideas for musical numbers. The Purdums decided this wasn’t the movie they signed on to make, so they graciously bowed out. That left an empty space in the directors’ chairs. But Gary and I weren’t feature directors. I think they were happy with “Cranium Command,” this crazy five-minute short we directed for Epcot Center. I guess they figured, Why not give these guys a shot?
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GARY TROUSDALE, CODIRECTOR: Kirk and I got called in by the head of the development department. Christmas was three weeks away. He said, “Can you be on a plane in two days to New York? You might get to direct Beauty and the Beast.” I didn’t really have that great a time directing “Cranium Command.” I like drawing. Directing was a lot of work — and not a lot of fun work. So I said, “Can I think about it?” And [development head] Charlie [Fink], God bless him, said, “No!” And that was that.
The new creative team now also included three gifted story artists who would go on to become directors themselves: Chris Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon), Brenda Chapman (Brave) and Roger Allers (The Lion King). They all spent the winter of 1989–90 banging out a brighter, funnier, song-filled plot while headquartered in dowdy conference rooms at a Residence Inn in the upstate New York town of Fishkill, near Ashman’s home in Beacon. Ashman, by then sick with AIDS but keeping his illness from the team, was worried he’d become too weak to travel to L.A. much during production.
GARY TROUSDALE: Howard was smart. I mean really, really smart. He could form an idea, articulate it and argue it on the fly, in a way that would just leave you standing in the dust. He clearly knew the Broadway musical-theater discipline. But he liked cartoons, he liked the Beatles, he liked popular music, he liked movies, he liked campy stuff, so he was easier to talk to than some other lyricists. He wasn’t a theater snob.
LINDA WOOLVERTON, SCREENWRITER: I hit it off right away with Howard, even though I didn’t come from musical theater. Howard and I wanted to make a sea change in the Disney heroine. Together we conjured up Belle, who loved to read. She was unconscious about her beauty. She had dreams of faraway places, and she wasn’t a victim; she’s not sitting around waiting for anybody to rescue her or [for] a prince to come. We of course came into a lot of pushback about it. There was a template of what a Disney heroine should be: taking all of this abuse, smiling and talking to little animals through it all. That’s not what I felt the world needed. I used to rail about it, honestly. I didn’t make myself very popular. Which I’m sure you’ll hear.
DON HAHN, PRODUCER: The storyboard artists weren’t used to having a screenwriter in the same room, and Linda, uh…Linda’s manner at times could be combative. And I would say that if she were in the room with me right now. It was an unusual [and] difficult, tense relationship with Linda. But…Howard liked her, and Jeffrey saw that Linda would be a good collaborator with Howard.
KIRK WISE: The visual possibilities were leaping off the page with every rhyme Howard turned in. He had a great imagination and a tremendous sense of humor. But like many artists, he was also extremely passionate. And he could be very stubborn.
DON HAHN: Howard was a very intense guy. He used to chew legal pads. Like he’d rip off a piece of paper and wad it up, stick it in his cheek like chewing gum. And he’d work over these amazing couplets and rejoinders of words. He didn’t suffer fools. But he wasn’t a jerk. He was incredibly big-hearted. He would come in with donuts from his favorite bakery every day. Our story crew would pitch ideas, and Howard would musicalize them. Alan Menken was kind of a short-order chef, serving up melodies in the appropriate style. When the songs started coming in, it was like winning the lottery. First came the two opening numbers, “Belle” and “Belle’s Reprise,” on the same tape with “Be Our Guest.” The title ballad came in on a separate tape a few weeks later.
ALAN MENKEN, COMPOSER: Howard was pretty apoplectic when we FedExed those cassette tapes. He was saying, “We can’t send a seven-minute opening number to Disney. Nobody asked for that.” But they went crazy. They loved it.
For the rest of the oral history — which includes memories from the voice cast of the animated classic — and for exclusive interviews and behind-the-scenes coverage of the new film, pick up Entertainment Weekly’s special issue The Ultimate Guide to Beauty and the Beast, on sale now.