Sunday, August 14, 2016

"The Magic of Disney Animation" Retrospective - #30-31: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin.

Starting in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, Disney Animation Studios entered a glorious Renaissance era recalling the success of their golden age, taking the experience of both their hits and their failures to heart, and returning to their fairy tale musical roots. It was arguably the best years that the studio ever had, influencing and inspiring audiences and industry insiders so much that these films have become iconic childhood fixtures, and numerous competitors from Dreamworks to Warner Brothers recreated their formula to gain the same level of success, sometimes quite successfully. The days of being second to Don Bluth were over.

And it's no surprise that I decided to dedicate isolated posts specifically to their output from 1991 to 1994, as I consider the next three films I'm going to cover my absolute favorite animated Disney films (Pixar notwithstanding). Enjoy reading, everybody, because I certainly enjoy these films the more and more they age.

Beauty and the Beast:
Undoubtedly the pinnacle of universal success for the studio, while The Little Mermaid was essential in setting the template for Disney's musical output, it was in their 1991 adaptation of Beauty and the Beast where the studio perfected that formula. To say that audiences loved the movie would be a great understatement. So hyped was the film that the studio agreed to showcase it unfinished at the New York Film Festival, to overwhelming praise, and once critics and general audiences finally got a look at the finished product, they too followed suit, making the film a box office smash, and in a very inspired turn of events, became the very first animated film in the history of the Academy Awards ever to receive a nomination for Best Picture.

I suppose I can hardly say anything about the movie that writers and analysts far smarter and more experienced than myself have already said countless times before, but I'll do my best. For one thing, it features some of the most subversive and clever writing in animation history, treating its simplistic fairy tale roots with a greater level of depth and character interaction, and also manages to rectify and toy around with some of the questionable morals and paper thin archetypes that Disney themselves popularized.

Belle, one of the greatest characters in their library, is particularly impressive in showing off a great range of personality, a candid, passionate misfit more at home reading her newly loaned out books than rallying around with the gossipy townsfolk, desiring more than the confines of an overbearing housewife status and pairing with an undesirable suitor, instead wanting something far greater than she or anyone can even know. Belle may not know what that is, but like any young woman coming into the world, she's still learning more about herself, who she even is, and these issues are all very tenderly and realistically treated by screenwriter Linda Woolverton. It's also to the credit of her, as well as the animation team, that while the character certainly looks every bit as amazing as she sounds, she never feels like she's drawing any undue attention to her own beauty.

On the opposite spectrum is that of the Beast, who the film has the unenviable task of being able to humanize such an initially despicable and gruff character, and allow the viewer to easily be able to empathize with him. Largely thanks to the movie's perfect pacing and character development, the character shows a tremendous growth in growing from spoiled and aggressive monster, to showing much more humility and care to anyone other than himself, and by the time the character has to make a heartbreaking decision for the woman he's falling in love with, the film has done well to make us love the character and project so much humanity into a monster. It's this particular butting of heads between the two leads that makes their romance so engaging, particularly because of the clever concealment of how long Belle actually spends living in the castle. All in all, I think the film is terrific at showing what can come from letting a romance blossom naturally and on individual terms as opposed to trying to force romance into the equation, with the villain Gaston - a character who would normally be the hero, but who's arrogance and narcissism push him to obsessive and unhinged lengths - showing a particularly sinister attempt at the latter. The romance between Belle and the Beast is firmly based around excellently judged and natural moments, thoroughly captivating us by the end of the film, and allowing it to earn that spectacularly happy end.

Disney once again also shows great mastering of their craft, with the animation making further fantastic use out of Disney's newly acquired CAPS technology, particularly the ballroom sequence that still looks impressive to this day. But since this is a Disney movie, of course one can't neglect to mention the music of the film, which sees longtime Disney muse Alan Menken at the height of his abilities. Treating the film very much like they would a gigantic Broadway musical, Menken and collaborator Howard Ashman (who sadly passed away months before the movie's release) left us with some of the most iconic and definitive songs in Disney's already gargantuan library of classic hits, perfectly pacing out and naturally integrating the sequences with such complementary unity with the storytelling, and generated a great deal of the movie's emotional response in the meantime. The film was re-released in IMAX in 2002, featuring a once deleted song of theirs that would later become popular in the Broadway adaptation, that being the song Human Again, which once again featured the duo's always reliable and catchy ability with songwriting, even if general reception to the addition was mixed. While I personally prefer the movie with the sequence added in, I am at least glad that Disney doesn't make the sequence mandatory for every viewer, and gives individuals the option to choose which version they prefer (*cough* George Lucas *cough*).

At this point, you're probably wondering what my thoughts on the upcoming live-action adaptation are. While I will admit that I am very much excited for it, I'll still be going in with reservations. Despite my recent love for Disney's live-action offerings, I do think it's one thing to try and tell a new version of a familiar story, or to improve on the faults of the original source material, but when there was nothing wrong with the original film to begin with, that makes me skeptical about it. Still, it won't be enough to hurt its animated counterpart. As time goes on, the film continues to find new fans every day, continually charming and captivating viewers with its timeless quality, and essentially defines what the perfect Disney movie should strive to be. A tale as old as time that will forever live on...

***** / *****

Coming three years after starting off the Renaissance era with their smash hit The Little Mermaid, slowly rising prolific directors John Musker and Ron Clements were quick to work on their follow-up. With Beauty and the Beast having set the stage and the bar for future Disney productions, their next feature was a loose take on one of the stories of the 1,001 Arabian Nights. In a different turn from Beauty and the Beast, this follow-up was veered more towards comedy, and to this day remains the funniest film the studio has made thus far.

What sets Aladdin apart from many period based Disney films and fairy tales is its deliberately anachronistic setting. While the actual time may take the appearance of an old Arabian kingdom in the past, much of the character dialogue and jokes of the film have a very modernized stylization (due in no small part to the involvement of one particular cast member we'll get to). It's a very oddball series of decisions with various elements that seem to be incompatible separately, but together they meld into a spectacular whole that retains its sincerity even through the most hyperactive and satirical comedy. Characters are all rich and absolutely lovable, with Aladdin and Jasmine (despite their three-day romance) possessing genuinely strong chemistry and a pleasant kindred spirit despite their societal divides. On the more sinister side, however, is Jafar, a joyously wicked master of manipulation, slipping effortlessly between charming and malicious, and who ratchets up the intensity of the film as his obsessive desire pushes him to progressively violent means.

But let's get to the real draw of the movie: Robin Williams as the Genie. Not only is this the funniest character in the Disney legacy, not only does it lend spectacularly to the animation of the film, but as far as I'm concerned, Wiliiams gives what is arguably the greatest voice over performance in any film ever released. We all know Williams to be capable of gut-busting mile a minute laughs, as well as being a remarkably heartfelt fit for dramatic acting, but few of his film choices ever allowed him to embrace both as equally as Disney did. Animation turns out to be the best possible fit for Williams' manic stream-of-consciousness comedy, using the Genie in spontaneous and hyperactive fashion to keep pace with Williams' improvisation, leading to all of the film's best and most stitch-inducing fits, and may have even been an influential precursor to the Shrek series from Dreamworks. But hilarious as the Genie is, the film is also wise to give the character a tremendous level of heart and warmth to act as a voice of reason and fatherly love to Aladdin, as well as a heartbreaking center built out of his isolation and personal disappointment. Williams went on to voice in several other animated movies such as Fern Gully and Robots, but none of them even came close to replicating the success of Aladdin. At the time I post this, it has been two years since his tragic death, and the sting of the loss is still sorely felt.

In regards to the craft of the film, it too was also of the same high quality and polish expected of a Disney production. The animation was some of the most gorgeous and stylized in the company's history, with the art-direction in particular featuring plentiful and gargantuan environment design, and impressive lighting effects that managed to give the film a harder edge in more tense moments. Alan Menken once again returned to pen several suitably fantastic new songs, about half of which were the last ever written by his collaborator Howard Ashman. If the sting of Ashman's loss left a void in the film, at least it was pacified by the equally impressive creative voice of Tim Rice to round out the movie's musical narrative. But surprisingly enough, the sound design became an unlikely star of the movie, supervised with imposing and magical effect by Mark Mangini (who would later go on to win an Oscar for Mad Max: Fury Road), and aiding in the film's epic and imaginative scope.

Musker/Clements would later go on to duplicate their success five years later (more on that soon), but barring that Moana will become an undeniable masterpiece, Aladdin will forever remain the finest film to come from the duo.

***** / *****

And that concludes my thoughts for today. I had originally planned to include The Lion King in this group as well, but my write-up became so long that I felt like devoting an entire post solely to it. So join me back on August 21st when we'll discuss The Lion King...

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