There is typically two ways in which a movie can earn a taestful A+. One, it can re-define the genre, or two, it can be the glowing standard of what the genre had to offer in the first place. Beauty and the Beast is the latter.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs started out with a book for its audience to read, and then establishes scale by zooming in on a beautifully-humongous castle. Cinderella returns to that book idea, except using a narrator to get the text across. The Little Mermaid would mark the first deviation to the book formula, opting to establish mysticism to the story by having sailors gossip about King Triton. Beauty and the Beast combines all of these elements into a flawless introduction. It pays homage to its predecessors by establishing scale with the prince’s shining castle, by having a narrator read out-loud text that could have been from the original fairytale itself, all without the need of ever showing a real page from an actual book. The music perfectly captures the mood, whether that is peace, anguish, or hope. The imagery is French, or at least Western European, in that it uses stained-glass windows to illustrate the narrator’s dialogue. Most importantly, however, is that it begins to establish the film’s two most prominent symbols: the rose and the mirror. If these objects were not introduced here, then surely these symbols would lose some of their mystical allure. The narration ends by posing a very prudent question: “for who could ever learn to love a beast?”
Disney answers the narrator’s question for us by immediately introducing Belle, which means beauty in French. In a subtle move, Disney has acknowledged there is no point in being cryptic about their two title characters who are obviously going to fall in love. Disney acknowledges that this is a Disney princess fairytale, and in light of The Little Mermaid’s Broadway musical styling, Beauty and the Beast appropriately undertakes more exposition through song. Alan Menken wanted to open The Little Mermaid in the same manner, but Katzenberg thought it would bore audiences. While Katzenberg did well in scrapping Richard Purdum’s storyboard reels, Menken with Little Town (Belle’s Song) proves Katzenberg completely wrong. Not only is this opening number great just from a Broadway musical standpoint, it serves to introduce the movie’s three of four main characters: Belle, Gaston, and the town. The town is little not because it is physically little, but because the people who live in it are little. They think Belle is strange because she reads books, she day-dreams, and she doesn’t participate in the town’s noisy culture. Moreover, we know these people are as little as the prince from the prologue because they idolize Gaston, the egotistical hot-shot of the town. The town-people’s inadequacies have been literalized, as both Belle and Gaston hover over the citizens occupying the town. At first glance, we may think we know why Belle is so tall: she is beautiful, which is a trait the town admires. Gaston is tall, because he is handsome, strong, and good at hunting, which are traits the town admires. But as the story develops, we will learn their height represents more than what appears on the surface.
What I think gets overlooked from this musical number are two things: one, color scheme, and two, Belle’s favorite book. The color blue is solely used throughout the entire duration of the movie. The town’s colors consist of mostly browns, greens, and reds, as is the color palette used to paint the three Bimbettes’ dresses. Meanwhile, the beast’s castle will be either a radiant blend of gold and white or a darker blend of green on the outside/red on the inside and black. Belle’s main outfit, however, is blue-ridden. One may believe this signifies uniqueness or beauty, but then we have the peculiar color of Gaston’s eyes, which seem to be the same shade of blue as Belle’s dress. Once again, this shade of blue will gain significance as the story progresses.
One of the reasons why the prologue works is because it adds layers to the story. Although we know the prince is “spoiled, selfish, and unkind,” we don’t know how turning into a beast has changed him as a person. We also don’t know how the castle has been enchanted. This layer will be slowly unraveled for us, which captivates our attention once Maurice, Belle’s father, first enters the castle. In the same way, Belle’s book adds another dimension to the story. Her favorite book is blue, and it represents her dreams. She says it’s her favorite because it has “daring sword fights, magic spells, and a prince in disguise.” Wait a second, doesn’t that sound a lot like the story we think this movie is going to have? We seemed guaranteed a romance between a beauty and a beast, and we seemed guaranteed of a magical transformation at the end of a magic spell. Maybe we’ll have a fight scene between Gaston and the beast involving swords? The point is, it is obvious that Belle is probably reading the fairytale the movie itself is adapting: La Belle et la Bête, and they’ve marvelously made that fairytale Belle’s dreams. After reading it twice, Belle’s wants and desires have broken what the society she lives in tells her she should want and desire. The town, including her little father, tells Belle that she should want the handsome and beloved Gaston. But due to the book, she dreams of something more than this “provincial life.” Although this seems really vague to us right now as we don’t know what is precisely written in her book, Belle’s dreams will come into focus as this layer unfolds as well.
Never before has a Disney picture tried to pack the first ten minutes with this much exposition, and perhaps they did it so willingly because of the sheer entertainment value of it all. Although you are learning everything you will need to know to understand their characters, their motivations, and their actions, it never feels like you are learning. You are not witnessing a daily day in the town–you are part of it. The most pleasant surprise of all, however, remains to be the prologue, in which you are brought back to the times when your mother read you stories on your twin size bed before you fell asleep in your one-piece pajama. Isn’t that what a children’s film supposed to do? And although Beauty and the Beast reaches for the inner child in all of us, it never condescends by slouching on the narrative. No, if anything, the introduction of Beauty and the Beast indicates what is to follow: a movie with an emphasis on story.