Imagine that, after establishing yourself as a creative genius early in life and spending much of your middle years in a slump, you release a new masterpiece that suddenly rockets you back into universal good graces. While you were derided as a hopeless has-been, you’ve managed to prove otherwise; however, while you bask in the accolades, you know that your comeback will only be secured if you manage to prove that it wasn’t all just a fluke. So the big question is: what do you do next? If you’re Disney, you make the first animated film to ever be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award: Beauty and the Beast.
Like many Disney films, the French fable had already been considered for adaptation several times, but never greenlit. But after the roaring success of The Little Mermaid in 1989, Disney executives looked to resurrect the idea. In a break with usual procedures at Disney, they hired someone to create the script and then commenced with the storyboarding. The story in this case was a musical from day one; Alan Menken and Howard Ashman were brought on to create the score, and the writing team spent several months transforming the original fairy tale into the story we know today.
The schedule for Beauty and the Beast was much more compressed than The Little Mermaid had been, forcing animators to complete the film in two years rather than four. The Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) was used by Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale to make the visuals beyond excellent. With CAPS, animators could simulate camera-work, and create frame rotations in ways not seen before in animation, while coloring, shading, and line effects were also aided. One scene made particularly good use of this technology, the ballroom scene where Belle and Beast dance in a 3D environment with the simulated camera swirling around them. This sequence helped convince the Disney executives to further invest in technology, as it showed how powerful it could be when applied to animation.
The Little Mermaid, and its music, were in the bag as a hit; Angela Lansbury, Jerry Orbach, and Paige O’Hara (established Broadway stars) were part of the voice acting cast. Sadly, the lyricist Howard Ashman died of AIDS as the songwriting process was finalized, putting a dark cloud over the work. Beauty and the Beast was dedicated to his memory, as he died a mere eight months before the release date.
Famously, Beauty and the Beast was shown at the 1991 New York Film Festival, despite only being 70% complete; rough pencil tests and storyboards were inserted to fill in the gaps. Nonetheless, the screening was met with a standing ovation from the audience–a sign of things to come. The wide release in November 1991 garnered near-universal praise and heaps of awards–including, famously, a nod for the Best Picture Oscar, the first time in history that an animated film had been nominated. It was a home run, destined to be the benchmark by which the rest of the Renaissance films were measured, and is still considered one of the best animated features ever made.