Category Archives: Multi Age

Beauty and the Beast: Ashmann at his Best

Well, a long, long time ago I promised that I would take a closer look at the soundtrack of Beauty and the Beast. It took way longer than expected, partly because of other projects, partly because this turned into a monster of an article.

After all, I mentioned multiple times during my December reviews how well-done the music in it is. I consider it the best of all Disney movie soundtracks, and not just because every piece of music in it is a potential ear-worm. No, I mainly think that way because every single song adds to the story of the movie. So, let’s go through this movie step by step.

We start out with the prologue, which pretty much replaces the Introduction-Song.  The text is narrated over a score piece which from this moment onward stands for “the Beast’s Castle”. This is a very economic way to start the movie because now we know the basics – and we already know what the role of Belle will be in this story. The moment the narrator asks who would be able to love a Beast, the camera pans to Belle. Well, question answered. If it ever was a question in the first place. This movie doesn’t even pretend as if there is much of a doubt what the story will be about, but that is not really what makes the movie work, is it? It is more about the journey than the outcome.

But first we have to get to know the protagonist of the story. I already mentioned the song “Belle” when I talked about “I want”-Songs. Thus said, the “I want”-message is actually just one aspect of the song, which also accomplishes to introduce all the important villagers and the Setting along with Belle. But let’s examine the song step by step this time around.

Belle
Little town, it’s a quiet village

Every day like the one before
Little town, full of little people
Waking up to say

Townfolks
Bonjour! (5x)

“Little” is a word which is in itself a neutral observation. Depending on the perspective, it can be a good or a bad thing. But here the “little town” and “quiet village” is also described like a place, where nothing changes. And as soon as “little” is used in connection with “people”, there is no doubt any longer. “Little people” suggests narrow-minded people, set in their own ways. Something which is underlined even further in the next lines:

Belle
There goes the baker with his tray, like always
The same old bread and rolls to sell
Every morning just the same
Since the morning that we came
To this poor provincial town

In the last two lines are two important information. For one, Belle’s family is not from this town. And two, despite smiling and making the best of the situation, she does not like living in it. The following exchange shows why:

(Speaking segment)
Baker: Good Morning, Belle!
Belle: Good morning, Monsieur.
Baker: And where are you off to?
Belle: The bookshop. I just finished the most wonderful story. About a beanstalk and an ogre and a –
Baker: That’s nice. Marie! The baguettes! Hurry up!
(End speaking segment)

So, what just happened here? Well, here is Belle trying to find a common level with the Baker. She wants to have a conversation with him, but the only reason he talked to her at all is out of politeness. The baker doesn’t really care what Belle does, and she takes it with a shrug which shows that she is used to it.

Townsfolk
Look there she goes, that girl is strange, no question
Dazed and distracted, can’t you tell?
Woman: Never part of any crowd
Man: Cause her head’s up on some cloud
Townsfolk: No denying she’s a funny girl that Belle

We now get the counterpoint to Belle’s point of view. While she sees the townspeople as narrow-minded, they see her as strange because she just doesn’t behave the way they expect her to behave.

Man: Bonjour!
Woman: Good day!
Man: How is your fam’ly?
Woman 2: Bonjour!
Man 2 : Good day!
Woman 2 : How is your wife?
Woman 3 : I need six eggs!
Man 3: That’s too expensive!
Belle: There must be more than this provincial life!

There is it again, the little word which pretty much defines the early 1990s princesses, “more”. Ariel famously wanted more than just having a number of trinkets, Belle wants more than spending her life in this boring little town where she can’t talk to anyone. Well, with one exception.

(Speaking segment)
Bookstore owner: Ah! Belle!
Belle: Good morning, I’ve come to return the book I borrowed.
Bookstore owner: Finished already?
Belle: Oh, I couldn’t put it down! Have you got anything new?
Bookstore owner: Not since yesterday.
Belle: That’s alright. I’ll borrow… this one.
Bookstore owner: That one? But you’ve read it twice!
Belle: It’s my favorite. Far-off places, daring swordfights, magic spells, a prince in disguise…
Bookstore owner: If you like it all that much, it’s yours.
Belle: But sir…
Bookstore owner: I insist.
Belle: Well, thank you! Thank you very much!
(End speaking segment)

This dialogue is a stark contrast to her talk with the baker. Without it, Belle could easily come off as arrogant, but here it is shown that a lot of the rift between her and the townsfolk is simply caused by two different world views. Once Belle encounters someone who doesn’t treat her thirst for reading with disregard, the result is a friendly conversation (and notably, the book shop owner doesn’t turn up again, suggesting that he is just as much the odd one out as Belle is). It also tells us a lot about Belle’s preferences. She obviously reads everything she gets her hands on, but for repeated reading she likes fairy tales.

Townsfolk
Look there she goes, that girl is so peculiar
I wonder if she’s feeling well
With a dreamy, far-off look
And her nose stuck in a book
What a puzzle to the rest of us is Belle

This part more or less confirms Belle’s opinion of the town people. For them, everything which is different is not something new to experience, it is something they don’t understand and don’t want to understand either. Instead Belle’s behaviour is treated like an illness. Belle might have trouble to relate to the villagers, but she is content with letting them be. The villagers on the other hand want Belle to be “normal” – whatever that means.

Belle
Oh, isn’t this amazing?
It’s my favorite part because you’ll see
Here’s where she meets Prince Charming
But she won’t discover that it’s him ’til chapter three!

Romance isn’t a strong aspect in Belle’s desires. In fact, she barely talks about it at all. But here she reveals that for all her talk about seeing the world, she also dreams of finding love on a certain level. This becomes important later on when she encounters Gaston, because the audience knows that Belle is not against the notion of romance in itself, but simply not interested in Gaston in particular.

Woman
Now it’s no wonder that her name means “Beauty”
Her looks have got no parallel

Shopkeeper
But behind that fair façade
I’m afraid she’s rather odd
Very diff’rent from the rest of us

Townsfolk
She’s nothing like the rest of us
Yes, diff’rent from the rest of us is Belle!

And there it is, the whole point of everything the townspeople said beforehand. Belle is different than they are, so she is effectively not someone who fits into their circle. With this notion, the song taps into a feeling nearly each of us has experienced at one point, the feeling of not fitting in, being shunned by a group of people on the grounds of being (supposedly) different. This is the reason why Belle is so relatable from the get go. Even if we are not book fanatics, the feeling to be an outsider is familiar to most of us. And for most woman, the experience of being judged based on our looks instead of our brains is just as common.

(Speaking segment)
LeFou: Wow! You didn’t miss a shot, Gaston!
You’re the greatest hunter in the whole world!
Gaston: I know.
LeFou: No beast alive stands a chance against you – And no girl, for that matter
Gaston: It’s true, LeFou. And I’ve got my sight set on that one.
LeFou: The inventor’s daughter?
Gaston: She’s the one, the lucky girl
I’m going to marry.
LeFou: But she –
Gaston: The most beautiful girl in town.
LeFou: I know, but –
Gaston: That makes her the best. And don’t I deserve the best?
LeFou: But of course! I mean, you do! But I –
(End speaking segment)

And here is the villain of the movie. And there is no doubt that he will be that from the get go. The first thing we learn about Gaston is that he is a passionate hunter of the sort who hunts more out of sport than out of need, the second that he is a womanizer. But he has already decided who he wants to marry: Belle. Not because he likes her, but because she is considered the most beautiful girl in town.

Gaston
Right from the moment when I met her, saw her
I said she’s gorgeous and I fell
Here in town there’s only she
Who is beautiful as me
So I’m making plans to woo and marry Belle

It is kind of interesting how this movie undermines the concept of love on first sight. Neither the Beast nor Belle fall in love with each other immediately. But Gaston claims that he did. And yet it is immediately clear that the only person he is really in love with is himself – underlined by the way he looks into every reflecting surface he encounters, even while singing about Belle.

Bimbettes :
Look there he goes
Isn’t he dreamy?
Monsieur Gaston
Oh he’s so cute!
Be still my heart
I’m hardly breathing
He’s such a tall, dark, strong and handsome brute!

Here is a question: Why is Belle considered the most beautiful girl in town? The Bimbettes are everything we usually would consider desirable, blond, curvy and ready to do everything for Gaston. But they are also portrayed from the get go as interchangeable. Unlike Belle, they don’t have character. At the same time it shows how meaningless the concept of beauty actually is. Belle is apparently considered beautiful but while the villagers think that she is a beauty despite her being different, the movie suggests that it is exactly her being different which is the source of her perceived beauty.

Woman 1: Bonjour!
Gaston: Pardon
Belle: Good day
Woman 2: Mais oui!
Woman 3: You call this bacon?
Woman 4: What lovely grapes!
Man 1: Some cheese
Woman 5: Ten yards!
Man 1: ‘one pound
Gaston: Excuse me! Please let me through!
Cheese merchant: I’ll get the knife
Woman 6: This bread –
Woman 7: Those fish –
Woman 6: it’s stale!
Woman 7: they smell!
Men: Madame’s mistaken.
Women: Well, maybe so
Townsfolk: Good morning! Oh, good morning!

Belle: There must be more than this provincial life!

Gaston: Just watch, I’m going to make Belle my wife!

Notice how the desires of the characters run across each others? There are the townspeople, who are focussed on their everyday tasks and don’t want any change from the status quo, then there is Belle, who wants to leave the village and finally Gaston who wants to marry Belle. Everything is laid out for the future conflict, before the townspeople summon up one last time Belle as a character – or should I say, as an outsider:

 

Townsfolk
Look there she goes
The girl is strange, but special
A most peculiar mad’moiselle!

Women: It’s a pity and a sin
Men: She doesn’t quite fit in

Townsfolk
Cause she really is a funny girl
A beauty but a funny girl
She really is a funny girl
That Belle!

Bonjour! (5x)

Man
Bonjour

Remember, after the prologue, this is the first song in the movie, played during the first sequences. Which makes the Bonjour an implicit invitation to the audience. As I mentioned before, this song is more than just an “I want-song”, way more. It introduces the heroine, the villains (yes, plural, I will explain that one later), the central conflict and it welcomes the audience into the story. One really can’t overstate how important the song is for the narrative of the movie. It is a little bit less powerful during the reprise:

Belle: Is he gone? Can you imagine? He asked me to marry him! Me, the wife of that boorish, brainless …

Madame Gaston,
Can’t you just see it?
Madame Gaston,
His little wife.

No, sir!
Not me!
I guarantee it,
I want much more than this provincial life!

I want adventure in the great wide somewhere,
I want it more than I can tell!
And for once it might be grand,
To have someone understand.
I want so much more than they’ve got planned…

It’s not a problem, but as far as reprises go, this one is mostly a repeat of what the audience already knows, except for one line in which Belle adds that she wants someone who understands her. It is this one line which justifies the reprise, because it reveals a disconnect between what Belle thinks she wants and what actually hides behind her wants. For all her talk about going somewhere else and experiencing adventures, what Belle is really looking for is a place to fit in. Similar Gaston’s song explores his motivations even further, but also reveals a lot about the villagers.

Le Fou: Gosh it disturbs me to see you, Gaston
Looking so down in the dumps
Every guy here’d love to be you, Gaston
Even when taking your lumps
There’s no man in town as admired as you
You’re everyone’s favorite guy
Everyone’s awed and inspired by you
And it’s not very hard to see why!

As much as Belle’s song explores her relationship to the villagers, Gaston’s song explores his relationship with them. It is mostly a continuation of what the audience has already seen until that point, but the song emphasis now that Gaston isn’t just popular, he is pretty much the unofficial leader of the town, admired mostly for his masculinity.

No one’s slick as Gaston
No one’s quick as Gaston
No one’s neck’s as incredibly thick as Gaston’s
For there’s no man in town half as manly!
Perfect, a pure paragon!
You can ask any Tom, Dick or Stanley
And they’ll tell you whose team they prefer to be on!

As much as Belle is seen as an outsider for not following gender roles by reading and having an opinion, Gaston is cheered on for following the gender roles. He is big, he is brutish, he is what every male wants to be.

LeFou and Chorus: No one’s been like Gaston
A king pin like Gaston
LeFou: No one’s got a swell cleft in his chin like Gaston
Gaston: As a specimen, yes, I’m intimidating!
LeFou and Chorus: My what a guy, that Gaston!
Give five “hurrahs!” Give twelve “hip-hips!”
LeFou: Gaston is the best and the rest is all drips!

Chorus: No one fights like Gaston
Douses lights like Gaston
In a wrestling match nobody bites like Gaston!
Bimbettes: For there’s no one as burly and brawny
Gaston: As you see, I’ve got biceps to spare
LeFou: Not a bit of him’s scraggly or scrawny.
Gaston: That’s right!
And every last inch of me’s covered with hair!

Notable none of the “virtues” the villagers list have anything to do with Gaston’s character, they are all about his strength, his good looks, his supposedly manly behaviour. In a way the villagers treat him exactly like Belle, by judging him by his looks alone, except that Gaston bask in it and in his own perceived importance while Belle doesn’t care.

Chorus: No one hits like Gaston
Matches wits like Gaston
LeFou: In a spitting match nobody spits like Gaston
Gaston: I’m especially good at expectorating! Ptoooie!
Chorus: Ten points for Gaston!

The line about Gaston being witty is in this case not meant to be taken seriously. This is the only time during the song that Gaston is not able to demonstrate to be able to do what the villagers are singing about. But when he is supposed to match his wits, he is loosing in checkers and reacting like a little child by throwing the game pieces through the room, demonstrating that the villagers don’t care if something doesn’t fit in the picture they have of him.

Gaston: When I was a lad I ate four dozen eggs
Ev’ry morning to help me get large
And now that I’m grown I eat five dozen eggs
So I’m roughly the size of a barge!

Chorus: No one shoots like Gaston
Makes those beauts like Gaston
LeFou: Then goes tromping around
Wearing boots like Gaston!
Gaston: I use antlers in all of my decorating!
Chorus: My what a guy!
GASTON!

The soundtrack version is a few lines longer, but in the movie the song ends on a last reminder of Gaston’s willingness to kill and the admiration he gets for this from the villagers.

Gaston: LeFou, I’m afraid I’ve been thinking
LeFou: A dangerous pastime
Gaston: I know,
But that wacky old cod is Belle’s father
And his sanity’s only so-so
Now the wheels in my head have been turning
Since I looked at that loony old man
See, I promised myself I’d be married to Belle
And right now I’m evolving a plan!
(speaking) If I… *whispering*
LeFou: Yes?
Gaston: Then we… *whispering*
LeFou: No, would she?
Gaston: *whispering* Guess!
LeFou: Now I get it!
Gaston and LeFou: Let’s go!
No one plots like Gaston
Gaston: Takes cheap shots like Gaston
LeFou: Plans to persecute harmless crackpots like Gaston!
Chorus: So his marriage we soon will be celebrating
My what a guy
Gaston!

What is really notable is how anti-intellectual those lines are. Gaston is a braggart but the notion that he might not be a big thinker doesn’t bother him at all. In fact, he seems to be proud of it.

But naturally the function of the song is also to create suspense. Up to this point Gaston has been annoying and intrusive, but he hasn’t done anything visible harmful either. This is the point in which he slips from being a brute to becoming a criminal. The audience doesn’t know yet what he has planned exactly, but just the knowledge that he intends to pressure Belle into marrying him pushes him firmly over the line on which he danced up to this point.

Up to this point, all of the songs in Beauty and the Beast have been quite dense with information. The characters, the environment, important plot points, they all have more than one function. “Be our Guest” is a little bit different, struggling the line between a side-kick song and pure filler. I won’t analyse every single line for this one, because most of the text just serves as a backdrop for a Disney Acid sentences. The visuals, and not the words are supposed to be in the foreground. But there is one sequence in which visuals take a small pause, so to speak, giving Lumière the centre stage: 

Lumière:
Life is so unnerving
For a servant who’s not serving
He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon
Ah, those good old days when we were useful
Suddenly those good old days are gone

Ten years we’ve been rusting
Needing so much more than dusting
Needing exercise, a chance to use our skills!
Most days we just lay around the castle
Flabby, fat and lazy
You walked in, and oops-a-daisy!

 

There isn’t really that much focus in the movie on what the curse means for the servant. If “Human Again” had made it into the original cut they would have had their own song about their plight, but honestly, I don’t think that it is needed. It is not really their story after all, and there are just enough moments of them looking sad about their fate or excited about the prospect of Belle lifting the curse for the audience to be aware that this isn’t just about the Beast. It is still good that Ashmann uses a moment in “Be our Guest” to shine a light on how trapped the servants are in the castle.

Not so good is the line “Ten years we’ve been rusting”, because if you do the maths, the Beast was eleven when he got cursed. Not only is that a horrifying thought, the picture the Beast destroys shows a young adult, not a child. This could have been easily be solved with a more vague “for years we’ve been rusting”.

Speaking of the timeline, this is one of the weaknesses of Beauty and the Beast. The movie starts with sunny days and reasonable green trees and then, within a few scenes, it is suddenly winter. Watching the movie it feels as if Belle and the Beast spend a lot of time with each other when, if you really think about it, it can’t be more than roughly three days. But the reason why it feels this way is “Something there”, a song, which is half a love song and plays half like a montage song, even if there isn’t much of a time jump happening during it:

Belle:
There’s something sweet
And almost kind
But he was mean and he was coarse and unrefined
But now he’s dear, and so unsure
I wonder why I didn’t see it there before

Beast:
She glanced this way
I thought I saw
And when we touched she didn’t shudder at my paw
No it can’t be, I’ll just ignore
But then she’s never looked at me that way before

 

Listening to this song it suggests a slow change in the relationship between Belle and the Beast, when in reality, he just rescued her from the wolves one day before. What we actually see is a major development, with Belle suddenly seeing a more likable side to the Beast, while the Beast is starting to hope that she might, just might, be able to look past his monstrous looks.

Belle:
New and a bit alarming
Who’d have ever thought that this could be?
True that he’s no Prince Charming
But there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see

I have to compliment this song for being pretty short overall. There isn’t much more which needs to be said about the change in the relationship between Belle and the Beast. Most of it is instead shown, in Belle and the Beast finding a middle ground during breakfast, in the Beast acting gentle and polite and Belle reacting positive to the change in him. Again, this is an important point in this movie: Belle does not go and try to change the Beast, but once the Beast changes on its own, Belle reacts positively to the change. And the song finds a perfect balance between bringing across the point while avoiding overexplaining it. Instead it relies on the images in a perfect example of show, don’t tell.

Lumière:
Well, who’d have thought?
Mrs. Potts:
Well, bless my soul
Cogsworth:
Well, who’d have known?
Mrs. Potts:
Well, who indeed?
Lumière:
And who’d have guessed they’d come together on their own?
Mrs. Potts:
It’s so peculiar.
Lumière, Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth:
We’ll wait and see, a few days more
There may be something there that wasn’t there before
Cogsworth:
Perhaps there’s something there
That wasn’t there before
Mrs. Potts:
There may be something there that wasn’t there before

This is another of those moments in which the audience is subtly reminded what is at stake here, not just the Beast but the fate of everyone living in the castle. This is put across again when the Beast prepares himself for the evening with Belle and everyone does his best to prepare him. The ballroom scene is easily the most remembered moment of the movie. Partly because of the way it was animated, taking full advantage of CAPS. But the song is also basically a summary of what the whole movie is about.

Tale as old as time
True as it can be
Barely even friends
Then somebody bends
Unexpectedly

Well, Ashman is fibbing a little bit here, because Belle and the Beast hardly started out as friends. But the song is not necessarily just about this particular romance, it is about romance in general, describing the moment when two people realize that they actually might have feelings for each other.

Just a little change
Small to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared
Beauty and the Beast

Again, Ashman conjures a whole scenario with just a few words. Two people, overly nervous, but subtly shifting towards each other. It doesn’t have to be what the audience sees on screen, those lines might tap into a personal memory exactly because they are focussing on feelings and not on a specific scenario.

Ever just the same
Ever a surprise
Ever as before
Ever just as sure
As the sun will rise

The constant repeat of “ever” is quite brilliant. It underlines subtly that it is a “tale of old as time” which will play out again and again in different variations.

Tale as old as time
Tune as old as song
Bittersweet and strange
Finding you can change
Learning you were wrong

The use of the words “tune” and “song” and later on “rhyme” is quite brilliant. It doesn’t just suggests that the story is as old as time, the song itself is expressing feelings which have been uttered by singers and poets in countless variations. But it also points to the one truths most of those songs would just skip: Relationships change you and in order for them to work, well, you sometimes have to take a good look at yourself.

Certain as the sun
Rising in the East
Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

Tale as old as time
Song as old as rhyme
Beauty and the Beast

This is the part of the song which is song again, this time by a chorus, at the end of the movie. That is pretty much a stable of Menken, he likes to go back to either the “I want”-song or the love song at the end of the movie as a kind of bookend – but then, this is a long-standing Disney tradition, too.  It is a good way to remind the audience that the dreams of the protagonists are now fulfilled one way or another.

But there is one song in-between I kind of skipped. The second Villain song of the movie, or the “Mob Song”.

Gaston: The Beast will make off with your children! He’ll come after them in the night!
Belle: No!
Gaston: We’re not safe ’til his head is mounted on my wall! I say we kill the Beast!
Mob: Kill him!

A reminder: Up to this point neither Gaston nor the villagers have even believed that the Beast existed. Meaning the villagers know perfectly well that Gaston knows as much about the Beast as they do, and that is nothing. And yet instead of listening to Belle, who describes the Beast as friendly, they jump immediately on Gaston’s claim that the Beast might kill their children. Never mind that none of their children have been attacked at all at this point and that there is no sign of an actual danger.

Man 1: We’re not safe until he’s dead
Man 2: He’ll come stalking us at night
Woman: Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite!
Man 3: He’ll wreak havoc on our village if we let him wander free
Gaston: So it’s time to take some action, boys
It’s time to follow me!

Not only do they readily believe Gaston’s words, they are adding their own fears to them. Again, fears which are completely overblown. And it begs the question: Who is actually the villain here.
Yes, I know, Gaston is the obvious answer. But remember, originally he was just some brute who was happy to be adored. Now he is ready to use his influence over the villagers to get rid of what he perceives as a rival (and a good trophy). But, and it bears repeating here, he doesn’t really trick the villagers in the common sense of the word. The villagers want to be tricked, and they want to be tricked by a person whose personality they helped to shape. They were the one who gave Gaston their adoration, and they were the one who encouraged him when he tried to spring a wedding on Belle (honestly, in what universe is that not an incredible intrusive idea?) and now they are egging him to go after the beast. That is why this movie has two villain songs: One for Gaston and one for the Mob.

Through the mist, through the woods
Through the darkness and the shadows
It’s a nightmare, but it’s one exciting ride
Say a prayer, then we’re there
At the drawbridge of a castle
And there’s something truly terrible inside
It’s a beast!
He’s got fangs, razor sharp ones!
Massive paws, killer claws for the feast
Hear him roar! See him foam!
But we’re not coming home ’til he’s dead
Good and dead! Kill the Beast!

Two lines are pretty notable here: For one that the whole mission they are now on is “one exciting ride”. That is not the point of view of someone who goes into war, afraid of maybe dying. That’s what you might say after watching a horror movie or on a roller coaster. It clarifies that for all the colourful descriptions the villagers have for the Beast, they are actually not afraid of dying. They see this as a save little adventure – even if they do say a prayer beforehand. This is the second notable line, the subtly reminder that those are supposedly good god-fearing people. And yet they are now ready to murder someone basically because they don’t like the way he looks.

[Speech]
Belle: No! I won’t let you do this!
Gaston: If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Bring the old man!
Maurice: Get your hands off me!
Gaston: We can’t have them running off to warn the creature!
Belle: Let us out!
Gaston: We’ll rid the village of this Beast! Who’s with me?
Male Mob Member #1: I am!
Male Mob Member #2: I am!
Male Mob Member #3: I am!

“If you are not with us, you’re against us.” is maybe the most polarizing statement in politics. Mussolini pretty much said exactly that phrase, but he is hardly the only one who used it. From Cicero over Bush up to Erdogan, variations of it are pretty common, though the phrase is particularly popular with dictators and during war time. It’s a phrase designed to shut down every possible opposition. The use here is pretty callous, but exactly that makes it so chilling.

Mob: Light your torch!
Mount your horse!
Gaston: Screw your courage to the sticking place!
Mob: We’re counting on Gaston to lead the way!
Through a mist, through a wood
Where within a haunted castle
Something’s lurking that you don’t see ev’ry day!
It’s a beast!
One as tall as a mountain
We won’t rest ’til he’s good and deceased
Sally forth!
Tally ho!
Grab your sword!
Grab your bow!
Praise the Lord and here we go!
Gaston: We’ll lay siege to the castle and bring back his head!

“Screw your courage to the sticking place” is actually a quote from McBeth. And no, I have no idea what the sticking place actually is, even Shakespeare scholars are not sure about it. The point is that there is no room for fear or hesitation in this battle. And the villagers are completely satisfied with the notion, though naturally Gaston has to lead the way because, let’s be blunt here, they are cowards and want him to do the dirty work while they can later on bask in the glory of his actions. Oh, and there is a second reference to religion, just in case the first one was too subtle.

[Speech]
Belle: I have to warn the Beast. Oh, this is all my fault. Oh, Papa, what are we going to do?
Maurice: Now, now, we’ll think of something.

Mob: We don’t like
What we don’t understand
In fact it scares us
And this monster is mysterious at least
Bring your guns!
Bring your knives!
Save your children and your wives
We’ll save our village and our lives
We’ll kill the Beast!

Notice something? In “Belle” or “Gaston” everyone was singing to the same tune, so to speak, even if they were presenting opposite points of view. But here the lines are clearly drawn: Only the villagers and Gaston sing. Belle and her father, they only have speaking parts in the song. Because they are distinctively not in tune with people who would kill out of wilful ignorance. The villagers don’t understand the Beast but just like they didn’t want to connect with Belle, they don’t want to solve the mystery of the Beast either. They just want to get rid of it.

[Speech]
(Cut to Beast’s castle)
Cogsworth: I knew it. I knew it was foolish to get our hopes up.
Lumiere: Maybe it would have been better if she had never come at all.
(Sultan barking)
Lumiere: Could it be?
Mrs. Potts: Is it she?
Lumiere: Sacre Bleu! Invaders!
Cogsworth: Encroachers!
Mrs. Potts: And they have the mirror!
Cogsworth: Warn the master. If it’s a fight they want, we’ll be ready for them. Who’s with me? (Door slams) Hey!
(Outside)
Gaston: Take whatever booty you can find. But remember, the Beast is mine!

And another hint that the outrage of the villagers has nothing to do with heroics and only a little with genuine fear. I mean, why even be there, if Gaston wants to kill the Beast on his own anyway? Oh, yeah, to witness it and fill your own pockets while you are at it. After all hating someone doesn’t mean that you can’t profiteer of him, right?

Castleware: Hearts ablaze
Banners high
We go marching into battle
Unafraid although the danger just increased
Mob: Raise your flag!
Sing the song!
Here we come, we’re fifty strong
And fifty Frenchmen can’t be wrong
Let’s kill the Beast!

Now the inhabitants of the castle are starting to match the tone of the villagers, which indicates the upcoming escalation of the conflict. Their perspective is very different, though. While the villagers sing about them being strong in numbers, they sing about danger they have to face.

[Speech]
Mrs. Potts: Pardon me, master.
Beast: Leave me in peace.
Mrs. Potts: But sir, the castle is under attack!

Mob: Kill the Beast!
Kill the Beast!

[Speech]
Lumiere: This isn’t working!
Fifi: Oh, Lumiere. We must do something.
Lumiere: Wait, I Know!

Mob: Kill the Beast!
Kill the Beast!

[Speech]
Mrs. Potts: What shall we do, master?
Beast: It doesn’t matter now. Just let them come.

Mob: Kill the Beast!
Kill the Beast!
Kill the Beast!

Note how the song ends in a screaming of a slogan. It ramps the emotions up for the big finale fight. But, even more important, during the song everything has been set up for it. It establishes where every relevant person in the movie is and what he or she will most do during the climax. Just in terms of function and meaning, the “Mob song” might actually be the best one in the movie, only rivalled by “Belle” in how much it pushes the plot forward while also carrying a message which goes past the love story.

So far I have only alluded to it, but what the movie actually portrays is the sources and the effect hateful propaganda. Replace the Beast with “Mexican Rapist” and you have exactly the same dynamic portrayed in the movie. It is the same kind of fear mongering and the same kind of hatred people indulge in without having to actually confront the so called danger themselves. And is there really much of a difference between “Kill the Beast” and “Lock her up”? Simple phrases to create an “us vs them” feeling.

And it shows how much the environment impacts the individual. The prince was uncaring because he got spoiled by servants unable to stand up to him and so he finally became on the outside the Beast he was at the inside. Meanwhile Gaston got more and more beastly because he grew up in a society in which his toxic behaviour was encouraged. Towards the end of the movie the Beast no longer looks threatening since he found his humanity in his feelings for Belle. But Gaston looks more and more beastly since he lost his humanity in his obsession for Belle.

There are a lot of things which make Beauty and the Beast special. The ground-breaking animation, the catchy soundtrack, the artistic elements, all this plays into it. But what really makes it stand out are the different layers it has, most of which are baked right in the song texts. You can watch it as a simple fairy tale, but once you really consider the juxtaposition between Gaston and the Beast and the role the villagers play in the movie, there is something topical about it which sadly is always relevant. It’s a tale as old as time in more than one sense.

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By the Book: Treasure Planet

People who already know me from Fanpop might have read this article series already, but I wanted it over here at wordpress, too, so I’ll move the articles over here, with some adjustments. I’ll take a look at book-based Disney movies, I will discuss how the movie relates to the original source text (or not), what the merits and the weaknesses of the movie are, and (that’s the new part) I’ll take a look at the soundtrack. I will not do this in chronological order, but simply pick what strikes me fancy (I’m open for requests, though). Don’t expect me to do the Lion King, though. For one, the connection to Hamlet is feeble at best, it’s more a case of being inspired by it than a true adaptation, and two, technically Hamlet is a play, not a book. I also will not do the Disney Princess movies, because I plan to do them in another format. Otherwise, I guess I’ll start (again) with the classics. And what better classic to start with than Treasure Island?


1. The World of Spaceport_Treasure_Planet
Treasure Planet

Treasure Island was my favourite book growing up.  So I was really looking forward to the Disney take on it, though also a little bit worried. And not because they decided to set it in space. To get this one out of the way first: Unlike a lot of other reviewers I think the changed setting was the best decision they made for the movie. For three reasons:

1. Treasure Island is one of the most adapted books of all time. I have seen around 30 different movies and TV Shows based on it, including one movie made by Disney in the 1950s. Did we really need another one in a traditional setting? If you want to tackle this, you better find a new angle (though there already was an Italian/German production which also put the story into space called “Der Schatz im All” – one of the better adaptions, too).

2. It allowed Disney to cut down the number of characters they put on the ship – though I personally think they didn’t go far enough with this. I would have preferred even less but in exchange more fleshed out side characters.

3. Above all, it allowed for some really creative imaginary. It would have been great if they had gone even crazier than just reusing the flying whales from Fantasia 2000, but props for the final climax. The action scene is really a sight to see, especially on the big screen. A lot of people are bothered by the mix of traditional clothes with strange devices, other argue that this is simply steampunk. Neither are completely correct in my opinion. For one, it is not really steampunk. The idea behind steampunk is to imagine future technology or styles how someone from the Victorian age might have seen it (thus the use of steam instead of more modern technology). What Treasure Planet does is more the other way around, taking a very modern idea of technology, but instead of going for the more sterile style seen in other space shows and movies, like Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5 and so on, it tries to insert a romantic element by seeking inspiration from the time the original book was published.

In some aspects, it works brilliantly. I love the holographic books, the uniforms with a slight futuristic edge to it, the glider. In other aspects it’s confusing. Jim for example is a perfect blend between a Victorian and a more futuristic boy, his mother on the other hand misses the more modern edge in her design. I love the design of the ship (and the DVD proofs that the animators actually thought about how it works, with way more details than necessary for the movie), but if lack of air is not an issue, what’s the point of the space uniform Dr. Doppler originally wears? The design is very creative, but a little bit uneven in places. Though my solution wouldn’t have been not to do it, but to do it right, to make sure that every piece fits properly together. Thus said, I don’t think that the pieces which don’t fit are really that much of a distraction, unless you have a problem with the idea of setting it in some strange space future from the get go.


2. The CharactersTreasure_Planet_Characters

My biggest worry concerning Treasure Planet was that they would get Long John Silver wrong. The main reason I love the original book so much is this one character. Unapologetic evil, egoistical, but nevertheless so suave that you somehow want him to win, even though you know that he deserves to rot in hell. So would Disney be able to tackle this character without giving him redeeming qualities?

Naturally not. Thus said, the result is not as bad as I feared it would be and at least the design of Long John Silver is really creative. But where Disney really did a good job was with everyone else. As much as I like the original book: Jim Hawkins is one of the most boring protagonists ever, more a stand-in for the reader than a character in its own right. And all the other characters are more stereotypes than layered personalities. The strict captain, the foolish squire, the gentleman doctor and the trust-worthy servants on the one side, the irresponsible, drunken pirates on the other side.

Disney took those templates and turned most of them (the pirates are the exception) in layered characters. Jim is no longer the good boy, he is now the rebellious teenager. Disney is walking a very fine line with this character. It is easy to make the rebel too bratty and ungrateful to be still sympathetic. But Disney manages to portray him as someone who doesn’t really want to be bad or hurt his mother, he is just confused, unsure of himself, and unable to deal with the hurt and anger her feels because his father left him. And this is something unusual in itself: Jim’s father didn’t die, he just didn’t care enough to stick around. How often do we see something like that in a Disney movie? How often do we see a mother trying to reach out to her child and not being able to help, even though she doesn’t really do anything wrong? Tackling this issue is the biggest strength of the movie and the main reason I’m able to excuse the disneyfied version of Long John Silver. It might not be the Long John Silver I adore and expected, but it is the one which fits into the story they are trying to tell.

Captain Amelia is a terrifying take on Captain Smollett. A little bit of a bragger, but competent enough to back it up, overall a really strong female character. Even with a shoulder wound she never comes off as damsel in distress. Dr. Doppler is naturally a mix of Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey. For a somewhat cowardly character he is surprisingly likable, mostly because he acts when he really has to, and he actually has picked up some useful knowledge along the way, but not so much that he becomes some sort of walking solution for every problem the group encounters. The pirates are still disappointingly bland, so bland, that I can’t even remember the name of the Scorpion guy who takes over the role of Israel Hands. And then there is B.E.N.

To say it upfront: Never enjoyed the character of Ben Gun in ANY adaptation (nor in the book), and only a few manage to make him not annoying. Therefore it’s hard to blame Disney for this one. I like the idea of a robot without a memory chip, but they really should have toned it down a little bit. The screaming just ruins the suspense in some of the best scenes.


3. The Plottreasure-planet-disneyscreencaps_com-4193

If you read a book again and again, there comes a point at which keep skipping to your favourite parts of the story. Treasure Island basically consists of three acts: Billy Bones last days are the first one, the travel to the island is the second one and the fight on the island is the third one. I always liked the last one the best, the suppressive atmosphere of two groups trapped in an unfriendly place and the strategy involved in them outmanoeuvring each other, all this makes for a suspenseful read.

Treasure Planet is a very unusual take on the story because unlike most adaptations focusses mostly on the second and not on the third act. It manages though, to make the travel much more interesting than it was in the original story. Arrow’s death is even changed in a way that it result in real consequences instead of just being a side-note.

If someone asked me what the best scene of this movie is, my answer would be the “I’m still here” scene. For one, the song is beautiful and has really deep lyrics. But above all, it’s a really well done delve into Jim’s psychology. Seeing little Jim running after his father….that’s right up with some of the most heart-wrenching Disney scenes for me. As impressive as some of the action scenes are, those more quiet moments are the true strength of the movie. All in all I would have wanted more of them and more of Jim and Silver facing off, and a little bit less of the chase scenes through the ship.


4. The Soundtrack

Speaking of “I’m still here”, I already did a very detailed analysis of the song when I discussed the “Montage Song”, and since it is the only song in the movie, there is really not much more to say about it. Concerning the score, it is a perfect fit. I especially like the triumphant undertones in it, which transport a constant feeling of excitement.


5. The Conclusion

Treasure Planet is not the adaption I expected, but it is a really good and above all fresh take on an overdone story. If you allow yourself to get sucked into the world the animators created instead of second guessing everything you see, the imagination put into this is really enjoyable. It’s a little bit a movie for the big screen though, to appreciate the animation and the scale the put into the action scenes. It has its weaknesses, some clunky elements which throw the mood a little bit off-kilter, but none of them are distracting enough to ruin the movie. In the Disney canon, it’s one of the hidden gems, and definitely worth at least one watch.


The History of Western Animation in Film

I have decided to broaden the subject of this blog a little bit. Yes, I know, I have barely started with my lyrics analysis, but I already realized that I feel a little bit limited when it comes to talking about animation. So instead of starting yet another blog (I am barely able to do regular updates for the ones I already have), I have decided to use this one for some serious basic discussions about animated movies – and start with the basics.

When people talk about the History of Animation, most of the time they really talk about the History of American Animation. And if the topic is theatrical movies and not animation in general, that is for once fairly legitimate. Like it or not, but when it comes to animated movies, the US is dominating not only the home but also the European market.

I guess this is the moment I should talk about animes. They naturally have their own history and influences. Let’s concentrate on one side of the earth for now. I intend to illustrate something by doing a small overview over the most important development in animation.

The first theatrical animated movie in the world was – no, not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – an Argentinean movie with the title “El Apóstol”. Released in 1917 it utilized cutout animation (basically a special form of stop-motion). The movie is lost, but based on what I read about it, it was a satire which was certainly not geared towards a young audience.

The oldest still surviving animated movie is – no, still not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – Lotte Reiniger’s “The Adventure of Prince Achmet”. Released in 1926 in Germany, it is the third animated movie ever made and the first which used the little bit more sophisticated silhouette animation. In fact, Lotte Reiniger was the one who invented this technic. It works similar to shadow puppets, but they are not moved and filmed live, but painstakingly arranged. And let me tell you, the level of detail Lotte Reiniger archived this way in breathtaking. A photo can’t really convey it, but the result looks like this:

31994

The feathers and leaves are already impressive, but it is even more impressive if you see it in motion. As you can see, the movie is tinted. It also has its own “soundtrack”, composed specifically for it. The movie has been restored in 1999. It is now available on DVD and has even shown with life-orchestra from time to time. If you get the chance to see it life – do! It’s a once in a lifetime experience, for multiple reasons.

The first stop-motion movie using puppets is either of Ladislas Starevich’s “The Tale of the Fox” or the Russian movie “The New Gulliver”, depending on if you base it on the end of the production or release date. “The Tale of the Fox” was finished in 1930 in France but released in April 1937. “The New Gulliver” was finished and released in 1935.

The first animated sound film was – nope! Still not “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” – but another lost Argentinian movie, “Peludópolis”, released in 1931. The claim which “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” has to fame is that was it was the first full-length cell-animated feature filmed in three-strip Technicolor, and begin of the rise what we call nowadays traditional animation. Released in 1937, it was the seventh animated movie ever made.

From that point onwards, you can just as well call it the history of Disney. First stereophonic sound? Fantasia (1940). First widescreen format? Lady and the Tramp (1955). First movie using the xerography process? 101 Dalmatians (1961). From 1937 onwards Disney was dominating the market – and then became complacent. Between Walt Disney losing interest in the Animation Studios and the general lack of a proper rival, Disney stopped being the pioneer in animation.

I think Disney left gladly the crown for the first “adult animation” to Ralph Bakshi’s “Fritz the Cat” (1972), but the studio also got beat concerning the first animated feature in Dolby Sound by “Watership Down” in 1978, the honour of being the first animated feature using computer images went to “Rock and Rule” in 1983, and the first feature length clay animation movie was “The Adventures of Mark Twain” in 1985.

Then Disney woke up again, setting a new milestone with “Who framed Roger Rabbit” (1988) and then proceeded to perfect the CAP system. “Rescuers Down Under” (1990) was the first movie produced without a camera and with only digital ink and paint. In 1995 Pixar happened. Toy Story was the first fully computer animated feature film and Toy Story 3 (2010) was the first feature film released theatrically in 7.1 surround sound. Meanwhile there was development in stop-motion, too. Coraline (2009) was the first stop-motion movie which used rapid prototyping.

There are two point I want to illustrate with this: Disney didn’t invent animation (not by far), but it was over long periods the forerunner in traditional animation. Also, the world of movie animation is all in all pretty small.

The most notable Animation companies (read: companies which produced more than two or three animated movies and left their mark on the industry) and figures are:

  1. The Disney Animation Studios – naturally. Forerunner in traditional animation and currently on the top of their game in CGI, too. Also the first animation studio which started making animated movies on this list active since 1937.
  2. Pixar – Forerunner in CGI animation, now naturally part of the Disney Company, but still an independent subsidiary. Active since 1995.
  3. DreamWorks – mostly notable in being currently the biggest rival of the two studios above.
  4. Don Bluth – His movies are a little bit hard to pin down to one studio, because he went bankrupt multiple times. At one point he was working with Steven Spielberg, later Fox Animation (which is nowadays Blue Skies). So, technically not a studio, but a notable body of work, and a player on the field from 1982 to 2000.
  5. Jiří Trnka – A pioneer in stop motion animation. Between 1947 and 1959 he made six critical highly acclaimed movies. The Czechoslovakian was considered by many the “Walt Disney of Eastern Europe” even though his style was very different.
  6. Aardman Animations – specialised on stop-motion and therefore in a niche market the US companies mostly ignored for a long time, this British Studio has been around since the 1970s. Its activity in movie making started in 2000.
  7. Blue Sky Studios – owned by 20th Century Fox this studio pushed into the market in 2002 with Ice Age.
  8. Robert L. Zemeckis – he worked on different projects on different companies, but is mostly notable for being the expert in motion capture, especially since the release of “The Polar Express” in 2004. If this is proper animation or not is disputable, but it certainly goes hand in hand with animation.
  9. Laika Entertainment – founded in 2005 this studio has still a fairly small line-up, but with releases like “Coraline” and “Paranormal”, as well contract work for “Corpse Bride” under its belt, it certainly left its mark already.
  10. Steven Spielberg – It is easy to overlook since he is not an animator, but he has been involved as executive producer to some of the most noteworthy animated movies made since the 1980s (and one or two really forgettable ones). This list includes “An American Tail”, “The Land before time” and “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, though he is currently mostly dabbling in motion capture.
  11. Warner Brothers Animation – despite the “big name” overall fairly unimportant in terms of movie making, since the company mostly concentrates on shorts and Television Series. But it is the only animation studio which has been around just as long as the Disney studios. Since 1993 the studio has been dabbling in movie making, too, and while the Lego Movie is the first one, which has been a true box office success, it does have a few other critical acclaimed pieces in its line-up, including “The Iron Giant”.
  12. Ralph Bakshi – His movies are a little bit out of the realm of the other studios, since he has a different target group at all. Since 1972 he is creating movies with the intent to address the adult audience – with varying success. To be honest, I think if any of the other studios had a true interest to outshine him, they would do so quite easily, there is just nobody else truly interested in doing animation which is exclusively geared towards adults if they can do a way bigger cash grab with movies made for all age groups.

 

 

Roughly, I would sort the phases of Movie Animation in the following eras:

1917 – 1930 : The Silent Age

The early beginning of movie animation. At this point the movie makers from all over the world experimented with different variants of stop-motion. But with only three animated theatrical features overall, animation didn’t really take off in movies – yet.

1931 – 1959: The Golden Age

Even before the rise of Disney, the concept of animated movies notably took off. Aside from the ones I already mentioned above, there were additional movie projects which never got finished and are considered lost. The Golden Age also saw not only the rise of Disney, but above all the rise of traditional animation. Stop motion still continued to thrive in Europe and especially Czechoslovakia, but in the US it was mostly used for shorts, TV shows and above all, special effects in live in live action movies.

1960 – 1981: The Dark Age

A dark time indeed. Disney is more or less the only company out there which is still regularly producing animated movies. There are some smaller projects, some of them certainly remarkable, but overall, the animation landscape has become empty, and Disney is doing just enough to not totally embarrass the studio. This only changes in the 1980s, when Don Bluth starts to challenge the status quo. But not only this. Computer technology changes animation forever.

1982 – current: The Multi Age

Multi, because this is the most diverse era for in animated movies so far. Traditional Animation raised to new heights, stop-motion managed to push its way back on the map, CGI movies stormed the market and motion capture became a thing. And if you look at the list above, most animation companies listed there are active in movie making since the 1990th or 2000th. For the first time ever there is proper competition for Disney.

At this point the Multi Age might have been over already, since CGI keeps pushing other methods, especially traditional animation, out of the picture. We’ll see in a couple of years.

And this concludes my first overview. The history of the most important animation studios is another theme though, which I will discuss separately.