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‘Beauty and the Beast’ at 30: Stars Reflect on Disney Animated Film’s Legacy

The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter
 2021-11-28
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Disney’s 1991 animated take on Beauty and the Beast , celebrating its 30th anniversary this month, spawned a Broadway musical and a live-action remake and earned nearly $425 million at the global box office as well as a special place in the hearts of fans and the film’s voice cast.

Paige O’Hara, who voices Belle, recalled recording the Broadway soundtrack with fellow castmember Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Potts).

“We all had tears in our eyes,” O’Hara tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And that was, I think, one of the most amazing moments of my career, being able to be there with Angela.”

The award-winning soundtrack is one of the many things that’s made the beloved movie stand the test of time. The fact that it was the first animated film to land a best-picture Oscar nomination doesn’t hurt either. But what really makes Beauty and the Beast stand out, according to its cast, are that parts of the story continue to be relevant today and it paved the way for stronger, more independent princesses, who were allowed to be more than just women looking for Prince Charming.

“Paige, herself, as Belle, gave [women] permission to be intellectual, to read, to put reading above other things and [showed them] that that was okay,” says Richard White, who voices Gaston.

O’Hara echoes that sentiment, saying “If it weren’t for Belle and Ariel, there wouldn’t have been a Mulan. Princesses just keep getting stronger and better, and they don’t have to have a man to find happiness. The Beast happened, but she wasn’t looking for him, that’s for sure.”

For Bradley Pierce, who voices Chip, there are lessons young viewers can take away from the animated feature.

“Even though Gaston seemed perfect, and the Beast seemed completely horrible on the outside, look at who they were on the inside,” he tells THR . “They were the opposite of that. Gaston was a deeply damaged person, and so is the Beast in his own life, but the Beast was capable of love outside of himself, and Gaston was not.”

In honor of the 30th anniversary of Beauty and the Beast, O’Hara, White, Bradley Pierce (who voices Chip), Robby Benson (the Beast) and JoAnne Worley (the Wardrobe) open up about what the acclaimed film means to them, why it’s endured and its legacy.

When you think of Beauty and the Beast now, 30 years later, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

O’Hara: [I think about] just what an amazing ride it has been and how it changed my life. I’m a theater person, not a film person, but the fact that it’s still so known now and so popular, it just blows my mind when I think about it, when I do Comic-Con or whenever I meet people at conventions or I do a concert. We have four generations of fans now. In the beginning, it was usually just kids and their moms, now it’s kids, their kids, their grandkids, grandparents. It’s just overwhelming. I’m very humbled by it, actually.

Benson: I’ve been involved in so many wonderful projects, that Beauty and the Beas t is very much like one of those projects, you just think of [the people you worked with as] your family. Jeffrey Katzenberg is a genius. [Producer] Don Hahn is a genius. Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, our directors, are true geniuses. [Animator] Glen Keane, if you look at his artwork, it’s mind boggling. To be around these artists who were drawing and animating was thrilling to me. Working with [composer] Alan Menken, it’s just absurd how amazing these people were. Linda Woolverton, our writer, I don’t know if she gets the credit she deserves. [Lyricist] Howard Ashman should always get the credit he deserves. These people were just remarkable to work with. You can work a lifetime, and I would say there are a handful of projects that you hold so dear to your heart, and Beauty and the Beas t is in that handful.

White: Probably [I think about] my fellow participants, Robby and Paige, Don Hahn and the people that we worked with together, as much as anything else. There have been enough publicity things and so on and so forth that we’ve, over the years, spent some time together and gotten to know each other and it’s been delightful.

Pierce: The first thing that comes to mind is just how beautifully done the film was, how well that team came together and put together such a masterpiece of animation . It was kind of the transition between classic Disney and modern Disney, and it’s amazing to have been a part of that.

Worley: It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

What did the movie mean to you then, and what does it mean to you now?

White: Well, it was very exciting. We’ve all been raised on Disney animated films and to think that you were going to be part of one was thrilling and to know that since Disney had sort of turned a page and was creating something a little different, starting with The Little Mermaid , and with Alan and Howard. You had a sense that you were part of something very important, very special and that was going to last, and that has certainly borne out over the years.

Pierce: Initially, Chip was a very small part. It was just one line, but it kept growing and getting bigger, and I realized that I was going to be able to be a part, even if it was a very small part, of a Disney story, and Disney movies are different because they could live forever. They’re always classic. They’re so timeless and, as a child, to be connected to something that was going to be in the homes of children for generations to come was really, really amazing to think about how it was going to affect not only my life, but the lives of so many other people. It was really amazing, kind of almost something I didn’t understand as a kid, like I knew a little bit about how cool it’d be, but it didn’t make sense to me until now, when I see someone who is dressed up as Belle for Halloween or wearing a dress and carrying a Chip teacup, and she’s 6- or 7-years-old, and it’s like, the movie that I was a part of as a kid is still a part of their lives and that’s really, really cool.

At the time, did you have any idea that Beauty and the Beast would be as iconic and classic as it has become?

O’Hara: We had no idea. I had no idea. We just knew that it was a really great film and didn’t really think about the test of time, but I did know and all of us knew that it was really special because it was one of those instances where a project has everyone on the same page between the writer, the directors, the producers, the actors, the artists. In this particular instance, it was really the vision of Howard Ashman, this film. And he knew — we didn’t know this at the time — but he knew this was his last movie. He knew that he was dying. So, consequently, he wanted everything to be exactly as perfect as he could make it. And when he would explain what he wanted to everyone, not just me as an actress, but to the artists and to the directors, they all saw the same movie that he saw. So, it was one of those instances where you follow the magic of Howard Ashman and just go along for the ride. He’s such an emotional human being and such a colorful genius in so many ways, not just as a lyricist but as a visionary. So, I knew then that this was going to be really special.

Pierce: No, not really. I knew that it was going to be significant, because it was Disney, but I had no idea that it was going to be one of those top five classics of all time. There was no way to know that it was going to be nominated for Academy Awards. All Disney movies are great. There are certain ones that are just incredible and stand the test of time in a way that not all of them do, and I don’t think there was any way, especially for me as a child, to have known that this was going to be one of those movies.

White: You knew that this was something that was going to last a long time, and Disney treats these things with great respect and honors them, so you knew that it was going to continue to be respected and honored in that way. So, you knew that, but I don’t suppose we really knew just how iconic and successful it would be. We had interactions among one another, among ourselves that don’t always happen in that kind of a situation, so that, too, helped to make it unique.

Piggybacking off of that, what do you think has made this film as popular as it has become?

O’Hara: It’s relevant even now. It will be relevant 30 years from now, 50 years from now, because there’s always going to be the story of beauty that comes from within, and that will stand the test of time. The story of Beauty and the Beast is something that will be relevant forever, and I think it came at the right time. On a side note, Don Hahn, our producer, said [that when people] asked him what is his genius? He says, “My genius is hiring all the right people to do the work that they can do and putting the right people together.” In this instance, he really did put the right people together.

Pierce: I think the thing that makes Beauty and the Beast , along with certain other Disney films, just stand the test of time is the fact that everybody can relate to at least one of the characters. Everybody understands the story in a very personal way, and that makes it matter and resonate to more people. It’s not just a kid’s movie. It’s not just a romantic comedy. It’s not just any one thing, it is so many. It’s the same story, but everybody sees a different tale in that, and I think that that’s what makes it last or what makes it grow.

Worley: It’s just good. It’s really, really good … It’s fantasy, obviously, you know, household furniture were people at one point, but it is a good story and so well done and so well animated, beautifully drawn.

What do you think Beauty and the Beast ‘s legacy is?

Benson: I love the fact that Belle is really the hero of the movie to me. The fact that she reads, that she’s a woman, she’s a strong, young lady, I love that. I love the fact that there are honest laughs in the movie. I love the fact that you can sit with this beautiful tale as old as time, but also it can make you smile and sometimes even laugh. I think that’s very special.

White: As Don Hahn used to point out when we talked about this film, this is an ancient story. So, they intended to respect that and to respect those themes and to honor them as best they could, and I think they have done a beautiful job of that. It has a sincere point of view, a sincere reverence for its themes and central morality, and yet it is fun and funny and clever, and you get to really rejoice in a young girl taking command of a situation over a big strong, burly, self-proclaimed hero.

When we go around and do some of these publicity things, the number of people, little girls, who line up to speak to [Paige] and their mothers, by the way, also lining up just to say how the role of Belle, but also Paige herself as Belle, gave them permission to be intellectual, to read, to put reading above other things, and that that was okay. You could make choices that weren’t necessarily popular, but that you believed in. There are doctors and lawyers coming up to her saying, “You were the first person to give me permission to do that.”

Interviews edited for length and clarity.

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