The Enduring Legacy of ‘Beauty and the Beast’

By Don Hahn, Academy Award®-nominated Producer of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991), ‘The Lion King’ (1994) and Executive Producer of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (2017).

I am often asked what makes Beauty and the Beast so timeless. Why is the story so powerful that we wanted to return to the story and bring it to life again, this time in live action?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, but I think, first and foremost, it’s the power of the story. It speaks to the whole audience, whether you’re a kid or whether you’re a grownup with a kid inside. One of our biggest fears in life is being loved—but yet we want to be loved. So we relate to a character like the Beast, who’s made some mistakes in his life and has been cursed.

We tried to create a heroine who is more than just longing for her husband. Belle is a girl who wants adventure. And then she gets it in a really unexpected way. And that’s aspirational. There’s this sense of rooting interest. You see that Beast has made a mistake, but you’re rooting for him to break the spell. You’re rooting for the objects because they were cursed, even though they didn’t do anything wrong. You want them to break the spell. So, you have this investment in these characters. You’re sitting there in the theater and you’re saying Wow, I relate to these characters. This character is just like my sister. This character’s just like my boyfriend. And you understand them, and you see more than just a cartoon on the screen. You see yourself in those characters.

Helping us with our story for the 1991 film was some cutting-edge computer technology. It played a big role in the famous ballroom scene, but you have to remember the paradox of animation: You want to use all available technology to tell your story—and you don’t want the audience to see any of it.

For a while, we wondered if we could pull the scene off. We had set up a render farm of computers that included all the computers at Disney Animation on Flower Street and all the computers at Walt Disney Imagineering across the street. And every weekend, we would render frames that way. And we thought if it didn’t render, we would have to just have Belle and the Beast dancing in a dark room under a spotlight like the Ice Capades. The scene became this turning point in animation where people said Oh wow, you can really move the camera in animation and do some interesting new things.

In the new live-action movie, we used technology times 10 from the original. We used a lot of motion capture and performance capture. So, you’re not really seeing [actor] Dan Stevens. You’re seeing Dan Stevens’ performance captured in a data cloud and turned into a Beast. It’s pretty miraculous. Sets were built and extended using computer graphics. There’s a real joy to all of this. If you look at films like Beauty and the Beast or even last year’s The Jungle Book or the upcoming The Lion King—which we’re just starting to work on now—they are all marvels of modern animation.

And you can’t overstate the important role music plays in both films. What lyricist Howard Ashman did and knew better than anybody I’ve ever known was how to tell story in song. He was the master of narrative songwriting. And he really believed, rightly, that you can’t just stop the movie and sing, which is what a lot of people have done. You have to reveal character and you have to take the moments in the movie when the characters are so passionate and so driven that they cannot help but sing.

There would be no Beauty and the Beast without Howard and [composer] Alan Menken’s score and songs. Howard contributed so much to Beauty and the Beast and so much of the storytelling behind it then and now. He died before the first movie came out. He never saw the finished film, but it wouldn’t be what it was then and what it is now without his brilliance and his knowledge of storytelling and his passion for characters. He’s really the hidden story behind both movies.

The tone and theme of both movies are the same. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Now, an 85-minute animated movie is going to have a little more generality to it. The joy of this new movie is how [director] Bill [Condon] has dug so deeply into these characters and understands them more. You get an additional half hour of screen time to live with them and to understand the mistakes they made and understand what they’re longing for in their life. If you’re a fan of the original movie, you can come and have a nostalgic sense of what the movie is and yet get all this new information that makes you invest in those characters that much more. But the heart of both movies is the same. And that theme of not judging a book by its cover is as relevant today as it ever was.