Part One – Part Two – Part Three – Chip Interlude – Part Four – Part Five
The prologue left us with the question “Who could ever learn to love a beast?”. Who is the very next character we see? Belle. What is the title of the next song we hear, which is both the first song in the movie and the first song written for the movie? “Belle.” So if you don’t have some idea of who could learn to love a beast, you aren’t paying attention.
A Most Peculiar Madamoiselle
So who is Belle? Belle is the intelligent young woman stuck in a small town that doesn’t understand her. Though the story of the wealthy merchant who loses everything and relocates his family to the country is gone, echoes of it remain. Belle sings of “the morning that we came to this poor provincial town.” She does remember a time before she and her father lived where they do now, even if we never hear anything more about it. All we need to know is that Belle longs for more than what small town life has to offer.
Showing Belle as someone who wants out of her picturesque little village is a risk. Pushed too far, the movie’s heroine could easily come off as a snob who fancies herself above the “little people” around her. So it’s important that we see Belle trying to connect with the townspeople. She is happy to converse with the baker about her plans for the day and the book she’s just finished. (She describes the story as the tale of “a beanstalk and an ogre,” likely “Jack and the Beanstalk.”) It’s the baker who quickly loses interest. Belle merely shrugs as the baker brushes her off. She is probably used to her passion for books being met with disinterest or bewilderment by now, but it doesn’t keep her from trying to share it.
Belle’s outfit helps to emphasize her outsider status. All of the other townspeople are dressed in various earth tones: browns, greens, reds, and a couple of pale pinks and purples. Belle is the only person in town wearing blue. In fact, she is almost the only character in the entire movie who wears blue.
Like the early story development, much of the casting on Beauty and the Beast was done in New York to accommodate Howard Ashman. This gave Disney the opportunity to cast experienced Broadway performers in the main roles, people who could both act and sing. The voice cast is refreshingly low on big name celebrities, one of the last Disney films to pull this off. Paige O’Hara, whose voice gives a wonderful mix of strength, intelligence, and warmth to Belle, made her big screen debut in this film.
It’s a Quiet Village
Ideally, songs in a musical should introduce a character, setting, or important concept or amplify an emotionally important scene. “Belle” more than pulls its weight. The song introduces Belle, her hometown, the villain and his sidekick, and the roles that all three characters play in their community, all in the space of five minutes and without feeling like a mass of exposition. The genius of Menken and Ashman was not just their ability to create great original songs that are crucial to the movies they appear in, but in making those songs feel as if they’ve always been around. It’s almost hard to remember a time when “Under the Sea” and “Be Our Guest” didn’t exist.
So how does a sequence that has so much information to get across manage to stay fun? One key element is the “business” going on around Belle as she makes her way through the town. The various gags never overshadow the main action or feel out of place; they help to add life to the setting and punctuate the ideas being expressed. For example, the barber who accuses Belle of having her head “up on some cloud” is absentminded enough to lop off half of his customer’s mustache. In fact. Belle is not oblivious to her surroundings. She easily avoids the various hazards around town without ever taking here eyes off of her book. Life in the little provincial village is so predictable that Belle doesn’t need to give her full attention to dodging obstacles. It’s the other townsfolk who get tripped up.
The scene at the fountain drives home Belle’s love of reading and her lack of anyone to share it with. Belle just has to tell someone about the best part of her favorite book, but only the sheep will show any interest.
Belle’s description of her favorite story at the bookshop, her mention of a heroine who meets Prince Charming but doesn’t learn his identity until later on, and a shirt I saw years ago at the Disney Store all combine to suggest that Belle’s favorite book is “Sleeping Beauty.” “A prince in disguise” and a prince who isn’t initially recognized as a prince are also both good descriptions of the Beast.
The Greatest Hunter in the Whole Word
Lefou is tasked with delivering large chunks of information. From him, we learn about Gaston’s hunting prowess, his success with the ladies, and even that Belle’s father is an inventor. His role as Gaston’s flunky helps this exposition to feel more natural. Lefou spends much of his time stroking Gaston’s already inflated ego, so it make sense for him to prattle on about what a great hunter and ladykiller Gaston is. Of course, we have the goose Gaston shoots out of the sky and the pile of animal skins Lefou is carrying to attest to Gaston’s hunting skill and the trio of blondes known as the Bimbettes to show how most women fawn over him. So the real point of this scene is to show that Gaston completely believes everything Lefou says about him and that he considers hunting animals and seeking a bride to be almost the same thing. Both the language he uses – “I’ve got my sights set on that one” – and the way he points Belle out to Lefou with his musket indicate that he sees her as a target for his advances rather than a person. To Gaston, Belle is just as much a trophy as the animals he kills.
Lefou specifically brags that “no beast alive” stands a chance against Gaston, hinting that Gaston could become as much of a problem for Beast as he is for Belle.
The camera rotates around Belle as she sings of her longing for more than this provincial life. The technique used here is nothing new: a hand-drawn character on a hand-painted background panned to create the illusion of camera movement. But it acts as a preview of the camera moves we’ll see later on in the groundbreaking ballroom scene.
The danger in creating a story with a moral message is that the villain can easily become a mouthpiece for the evil being denounced rather than a real character: the pollution villain, the racism villain, the sexism villain. Though Gaston sports all manner of undesirable traits, I still buy that he’s a person who actually believes what he’s saying. Richard White, another musical theater alum, makes Gaston’s ridiculous chauvinism sound like real conversation. It’s not easy to make such an over-the-top sexist egotist sound like a real person, but White pulls it off beautifully. The animation on Gaston, headed up by Andreas Deja, gives the character additional credibility. Just the idea of a woman thinking leaves him with a wonderfully pained expression that stays at just the right level to read as funny without becoming too exaggerated. Gaston begins as a comic character, which helps to keep the message of the film from becoming too heavy handed. Like his comedy, Gaston’s villainy is born from who he is, so he makes sense as both a buffoon to be laughed at and a legitimate threat to Belle and Beast.
Gaston complains that Belle’s book doesn’t have any pictures, despite the fact that we clearly saw an illustration when Belle was reading by the fountain. I’ve seen it suggested that Gaston holds the book sideways because the only pictures he is used to seeing are centerfolds. Or maybe he really is too thick to notice the illustrations.
Belle handles Gaston’s unwelcome attentions with only mild annoyance. Gaston is a pain, but one that Belle can get around. It’s only when Gaston and Lefou share a laugh at her father’s expense that Belle gets angry and defensive. She can tolerate Gaston tossing her book in the mud and singing his own praises, but she will not stand by and allow him to insult her father. Gaston quickly switches sides and berated Lefou for deriding Maurice. Belle remains unimpressed.
A World Famous Inventor
Maurice enters the movie with a smoky explosion that probably bolsters the townspeople’s notion that he’s crazy. His short, pudgy build and shock of white hair fit perfectly with the popular image of a mad genius, though Maurice is no Frankenstein. Like his daughter, he just operates on a level that the people around him can’t understand. He also causes more explosions than they’re accustomed to.
There’s a reversal of roles in Belle’s relationship with her father. When we first meets him, Maurice is frustrated over a setback with his latest invention. Belle soothes him, assuring him that he can fix it and that he will soon be world renowned as a great inventor. Throughout the movie, it’s Belle who takes care of Maurice rather than the other way around.
Though Belle is not about to listen to Gaston’s ideas about what’s proper for a woman or stop reading in public, she does have a little uncertainty about herself, enough to ask Maurice if he thinks she is odd. The assurances of her father wearing goggles and a homemade helmet covered in gadgets don’t mean much, but the conversation does begin to hint at what Belle wants. Up to this point, we’ve only learned that Belle doesn’t want to spend her life in a small time. What she does want is someone to talk to, someone who isn’t family like Maurice or decades her senior like the bookseller. She needs a friend.
Even if Maurice can’t provide the kind of companionship that Belle needs, she does love him. She as just as surprised and delighted as he is when the automatic wood chopper actually works and wishes him good luck as he leaves to show off his creation at the fair, one he recovers from being hit by a log.
All images in this article are copyright Disney.